On the block: An intriguing work by Sicily’s most important 17th c. painter
UPDATE: This painting failed to sell.
ORIGINAL POST: The June 16, 2016, Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in Paris includes this substantial and intriguing work by Pietro Novelli, called Il Monrealese. Stylistically, the painting recalls the Neapolitan Caravaggism of Bastistello Caracciolo and Bernardo Cavallino, and the work of Giuseppi Ribera. But who is Novelli? The Getty has this short biography:
Sicily’s most important painter of the 1600s, Pietro Novelli trained with his father, a painter and mosaicist, then studied painting and perspective in Palermo. Anthony van Dyck’s visit to Sicily in 1624 influenced him for life. Van Dyck’s altarpiece,still in the oratory of a Palermo church, encouraged Novelli to lighten his palette, a decision that added a sweetness and elegance to his art.
Novelli’s travels also made a lasting impact on his work. Visiting Rome between 1622 and 1625, he studied paintings by the famous Italian Renaissance artists. His draftsmanship in particular, with its economical line, graceful curves, and abbreviated forms, shows his exposure to the art of Giovanni Lanfranco. During a trip to Naples in 1630, Novelli saw works by Jusepe de Ribera and Neapolitan naturalist painters, who encouraged him to develop a more realistic and popular art. In return, Novelli’s style brought to Ribera and Bernardo Cavallino an awareness of Van Dyck’s elegance and rich color.
Returning to Sicily in 1637, Novelli painted primarily religious subjects, including canvases and fresco cycles for ecclesiastical institutions and also served as the royal architect.
In the revolution in Palermo of 1647, he sustained mortal injuries.
The passage in this painting I find most captivating is the central section (below), with the Christ figure falling to the side, his wrists tied to the column. There is a languid singularity to the movement that contrasts with the concentrated activity/energy of the hands of Christ and his tormentor, the rope and the knife. Christ’s body is not resisting this confinement, it is surrendering in exhaustion. The line created by the tormentor’s right arm, through the rope and along Christ’s left arm adds a sense of momentum – we know when the rope is cut, Christ will collapse to the ground.
The painting, which has been in a southern French collection since the 19th century, has substantial condition issues that are visible in the online catalogue. There are cracks and tears in the canvas and paint surface, paint losses and it’s filthy. I suspect there are overpainted sections such as the Christ figure’s left leg, particularly the psoriatic looking lower half (below). There are additional details that are barely legible, especially in the lower righthand corner (below).
Sotheby’s provides the following condition report:
To the naked eye: The painting appears in a moderately satisfactory condition. It has not been touched since certainly about a century. It is under a very dirty varnish. We notice many losses (visible on the catalogue’s picture) among which a vertical line of losses all along the seam of the canvas. We also notice several little retouching areas in the sky and on the flesh. Besides, we notice a horizontal 30 cm. long tear of the canvas, on the Christ’s chest, on the centre. Under U.V. light: The painting appears under a green uniform varnish. We notice some scattered retouching on the sky, the angels’ arms and bodies as well as on the middle angel’s hair. We also notice several little spots of restoration on the Christ’s body, as well as a restoration on his cheek and hair. We also notice a restoration on the tear in the Christ’s chest (already mentioned). We notice a restoration on the Christ’s abdomen and leg. Finally, we notice several spots of retouching on the upper right corner.
Here are additional examples of his work held by the Prado, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Getty.