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Crespi, Painter of daily life

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - La cuoca, the kitchenmaid
La Cuoca, 1712

Giuseppe Maria Crespi also known as "lo spagnolo" (the spanish one) because his clothing apparently had a spanish style, is a unique painter both for his technique and subject matter. It's difficult to compare him to anyone from his period, (except for Alessandro Magnasco, who painted more dramatic landscapes) . His brushwork was quite loose, his figures in haunting chiaroscuro, and his relentless sense of experimentation are what make him fascinating to study. Several years back I remember looking at this painting of his at a local art exhibit:

Allegory of the Arts, 1730

and I remember being hypnotized by it's pseudo-mannerist elegance, deep blues and Crespi's characteristic indistinct facial features. I love how the fold of her robes flow toward the canvas, along her wrist and curls back toward herself. Note how she is painting a sculptor sculpting (Pygmalion and Galatea) to pay tribute to that great art form. And the harp behind her represents music also, but symbolically personifies spiritual harmony that comes from painting. Amen.

Searcher for Fleas, 1720?

Despite a decidedly monochromatic palette of browns in this painting, Crespi uses detail to make us feel like we are in the room with this woman. Again, his soft indistinct face of the woman is sweet and tells the story of poverty as a way of life in a way that is not shocking or melodramatic. The bold use of orange is a brilliant choice— eye-catching and intense but also gentle and unassuming. She has one shoe off on the floor while still wearing the other, impatiently trying to find the flea inside her shirt. Crespi takes an ordinary scene and with details and color tells a story in a way that pulls us into their lives, a rare thing for a Baroque painter in his time. I think of how many realistic painters today like to leave background elements fuzzy or completely darkened, when it is always the background which pulls the viewer in and creates the setting for the story unfolding.


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