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The Brush of Pellegrini

Pellegrini, Giovanni Antonio - selfportrait - circa 1717
Autoritratto, 1717

Born on this day in 1675, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini was a Rococo painter from Venice who helped to merge the perfect figures of Veronese with the drama of Pietro Da Cortona, with Luca Giordano as an important influence also. One of his greatest teachers was Sebastiano Ricci, another giant of the Venetian Baroque who was a master of composition and dramatic scenes. Pellegrini was also known for having married the sister of pastel artist Rosalba Carriera, herself another talented Venetian who was born in the same year as Pellegrini. What really makes Pellegrini particularly unique among his contemporaries was his loose brushwork and glowing colours, often experimenting with warm beside cool, dark beside light, and soft beside hard textures. While he often sacrificed accurate anatomy for expressive emotion, his knowledge of colour and chiaroscuro would have an influence on another Venetian who would master both anatomy and colour: Giambattista Tiepolo.

In the above self-portrait, he positions himself on a diagonal with blue beside red robes, making very obvious that he is right-handed. The way he is lit makes an intriguing portrait— broad lighting against a checkerboard lit background and in the far right his shadow against the wall. Note the warm glow of his hand and left cheek. The folds and colours of the robe have all the signs of Sargeant and other Impressionist portrait painters to come two hundred years later. Why is it that few modern painters give no credit to this Venetian Master is puzzling.

Rebecca at the Well, ca.1710

Click here for zoomable version

Painted during his five year stay in England, this piece contrasts warm and cool skin tones as well as physical comparisons of masculine strength with feminine grace. The brushwork in the male servant is extremely expressive and vigorous, seemingly painted in no time at all, as the incorrect placement of the ear reveals. But zoom in closer, and you see Pellegrini's sharp attention to skin tone and colour, especially on the head and brushstrokes of the hair. Note the cool hues of the servant's robe on his shoulder, and how Pellegrini frames this with the red cloth and warm skin tones on the arm, with greens in the shadows. The greens are more subtle in Rebecca's arm and notice the bright pink highlight rim on her bicep and forearm. Those pinks are repeated in the clouds above them. If we look at the camels in the top left we see complex placement of grays and yellows, with pink again in the headgear, while the yellows are brightened and cooled on Rebecca's garment. This time she is framed with a vivid blue around her left arm which changes to a light blue underneath her right. Pellegrini tells a story within a story using color alone. Look closely at the water spewing out of the statue of the lion's mouth and subtle blue-grays are streaked with very cool whites, crisp out of the mouth and blended before they fall into the well.

The Clemency of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) in front of the Family of Darius III d.330 BC

This is a beautiful painting. Here we see a much deeper chiaroscuro than his other work, and with more clearly defined faces and tighter brushwork. However, Pellegrini's palette is definitely present: warm and cool harmoniously balance each other in the foreground figures while the background hues of green vary in tint but always warm. What is interesting is how distinct he makes the background figures, all female on the right contrasting with the male soldiers on the left and right beside Alexander. The incredible details of his helmet show Pellegrini's bravura; it appears that he may have had an actual helmet as reference to paint from. Notice how the red folds of Alexander's robe is quite soft, perhaps to suggest his sensitive understanding to contrast with the sharply defined helmet. As the story goes, during the Battle of Issus Darius fled from the fight, leaving behind his mother, wife and two daughters all depicted here. Alexander not only spared their lives but treated them well, and also gave a large funeral for Darius. Which leads to the last example:

Alexander with the Body of Darius, 1708

Pellegrini was clever enough to keep the same likeness of Alexander in this painting, yet this time without the regal helmet. The palette here is warm on warm for Alexander save for the green laurel in his hair, while Darius is framed in a circle of blue and grey. There is something very Mannerist about this painting, especially in the way Darius is depicted in an almost contorted way, and the prominent muscular arm of Alexander. The skin tones of Darius look pretty good for a dead guy— in fact, one of Pellegrini's best rendering of flesh. The way Darius appears to be looking up at Alexander, with hand in hair, makes him look strangely alive still. Where Pellegrini really shines is in the shadows of Alexander's robe...that yellow ochre-like robe is gently darkened with enough detail to see all the shapes of the folds. It is unusual that Pellegrini choose this low angle, with no visible family in the background, only the heads of two soldiers...the story focuses on the main figures, which Pellegrini underlines with brilliant blue, yellow and red.

It is difficult to find good images of Pellegrini on the net for some reason, and unjustly so, as more people should be talking about this Rococo Master. There is much to learn from him still.


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