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One Italian Baroque Painting – Nine months later it’s three times the price

January 26, 2014

oil on canvas: 52 4/5 by 69 in.; 134 by 177 cm.

UPDATE: The painting was featured in Robilant & Voena’s booth at Maastricht as seen in this Judd Tully video.

The standout in Sotheby’s current selling exhibition Painting & Passion: The Baroque in Italy is the dramatic/operatic Alessandro Magnasco prison painting (above).  But when I saw it the other day I was struck with deja vu – hadn’t this recently been at auction.

In fact, the painting was sold at Dorotheum on April 17, 2013. The picture was estimated at EUR200,000-300,000 and sold for EUR253,330  (approximately $347,000) – the current asking price is slightly north of $1 million. This is one of the artist’s finest and most interesting works I’ve encountered and I don’t begrudge an owner who wants to make a profit, but a three fold increase?

The provenance provided by Sotheby’s lists the painting’s most recent appearance at auction as ” Sotheby’s, London 5th July 1995, lot 57″, and at least one Sotheby’s Old Masters representative queried professed to know nothing of the painting’s most recent auction history.

Setting aside all of that, enjoy the picture – if you’re in New York, be certain to visit Sotheby’s and see it.  Meanwhile, here’s the catalogue entry from Dorotheum:

Fausta Franchini Guelfi believes the present painting to have been painted entirely by Alessandro Magnasco without the assistance of artists such as Antonio Francesco Peruzzini or Clemente Spera, and as such it is an important example within the artist´s oeuvre.

The theatrical rendering of the interior of a prison apparent in the present painting helps to illustrate an episode from the biblical story of Joseph and the composition almost certainly relates as a ricordo of a backdrop, or scenery, designed for the performance of an oratorio.

The story of Joseph offered reflections on both devout meditation and considerations on royal recognition, and the story was the subject of at least three “sacred acts” or oratorios sung at Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, all with text and music by Italian authors . The most well-known – Giuseppe (Joseph) by Apostolo Zeno (1722) and Giuseppe riconosciuto (Joseph recognised) by Pietro Metastasio (1733), the first with music by Antonio Caldara, the second set to music by G. Porsile – both focus on the end of the biblical hero’s story when Joseph, as the Pharaoh’s chief minister, recognises his brothers. However the performance of interest here is Gioseffo che interpreta i sogni (Joseph interpreting dreams) with text by Giovanni Battista Neri and music by Antonio Caldara, also performed in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel for Emperor Charles VI in 1726. A copy of the opera libretto, printed in Vienna, is in the Theatrical Library collections of La Scala in Milan (TI.R.909/18); while the score by Caldara is kept in the Archives of Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. The Parte Prima (First Part) starts precisely with the scene portrayed here by Magnasco, and the obsessive burden of prison in his painting, with connotations of suffering and denial of freedom, with Joseph’s Aria: “Maybe you are unsettled by your foot being / restrained within these walls? Ah! Be consoled in the knowledge / that every man in this world/ is a prisoner, / and whether his prison / be large or small / there is nothing of more pain or less suffering/ than a chain fixed to a wall”.

The oratorio would have been performed at a later date in Milan, which was usual practice for many performances first held in Vienna and the oratorio would have been held with the presence of the scenery. This suggests that the religious opera was performed at a convent, monastery or the palace of an nobleman (perhaps the commissioner of the painting himself) who followed the latest musical events of the Viennese court. Particularly appreciated were the works of Antonio Caldara (Venice 1670/1671–Vienna 1736), imperial composer as of 1716; the maestro of Emperor Charles VI who took pleasure in music and appreciated its extraordinary creative versatility.

If the painting, as has been suggested by Fausta Franchini Gulefi, were a documentation of the Milanese scenery of Gioseffo (Joseph), Magnasco would have had the sketch directly from the scenic designer in order to depict the scene, according to the commissioner’s wishes. It is currently not possible to propose the name of a scenic designer; however Corpo di guardia reale (The guard) and Anteriore di un serraglio di fiere (Front of a menagerie of animals) designed by Pietro Righini for Medo, performed at the Teatro Ducale of Parma in 1728, and engraved by Jacopo Vezzani and Martin Engelbrecht (see G. Botti, Pietro Righini apparatore e scenografo a Parma, in La Parma in festa. Spettacolarita e teatro nel Ducato di Parma nel Settecento, Modena 1987, fìgs. 6-7), can be compared, hypothetically, with the scenic design of Magnasco’s painting, both for the presence of the pointed arches in the centre of the scene, and the type of prison in Serraglio. The author of the scenic design for Gioseffo che interpreta i sogni (Joseph who interprets dreams) would have been, most probably a pupil of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena, as shown by the “veduta per angolo”; the presence of a large group of Bibiena scenic designers in Milan has been documented for the first half of the eighteenth century (S. Zatti Scenografi in Lombardia dallíllusione al vero, in Settocento Lombardo (exhibition catalogue) edited by R. Bossaglia, V. Terraroli, 1991, p. 441).

Fausta Franchini Guelfi dates the present composition to between 1726 and 1730 and it can be stylistically be compared to the works executed by Magnesco for Seitenstetten Abbey, Austria, painted for Conte Gerolamo Colloredo, the Austrian Governor of Milan. These works, and others completed during the succeeding period, such as the Satire of the Nobleman in Poverty (Detroit, Institute of Art) and The Synagogue (Cleveland, Museum of Art), suggest the artist’s active participation in the intellectual debates of advanced aristocratic circles. In the first half of the 18th century in Milan, protests against corruption in the monastic orders, religious intolerance and social prejudice and ignorance began to be expressed in circles that were particularly sensitive to the new ideas of the Enlightenment emerging from France, Austria and the countries of northern Europe. In fact it has been argued that Magnasco influenced by these trends, used compositions such as the present painting and others of his prison scenes to depict the misery of those incarcerated, using such works to show the poor conditions and the cruel methods of torture to which prisoners were subjected. Magnasco´s paintings such as the Transportation of Prisoners (F. F. Guelfi, Magnasco, 1977, p. 123, fig. 118) or a Scene of the Inquisition (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) were also social comments according to some observers.

Whatever the underlying message in Magnasco´s oeuvre it is clear that he excelled in producing canvases of atmospheric interiors. These were often peopled with small, and elongated characters who were frequently dressed in tatters, such as here, and they are rendered in flickering, nervous brushstrokes. Magnasco’s style is strikingly original. In late-baroque and Rococo painting, the loose brush became a tool used by other artists and ultimately, his work may also have influenced other celebrated painters de tocco (by touch) such as Gianantonio and Francesco Guardi in Venice.

We are extremely grateful to Fausta Franchini Guelfi for her help in the cataloguing of this lot.

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