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Sebastiano Ricci

Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa by Sebastiano Ricci, c. 1705-10
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, ca.1710

One of my favourite Italian Baroque painters, Sebastiano Ricci was born on August 1, 1659 in Belluno, north of Venice. He represents everything that Venetian painters are known for, namely colour and great compositions yet he is also a storyteller, breathing life into mythology and religion with fervent sensuality. At times his figures seem Mannerist, and yet in others his figures are powerful, beautifully lit characters in an opera or play. His women seem to glow, and his men ranged from nobility to violent fighters, surrounding all of them in natural landscapes or architectural capriccios, and his colors seem to dance effortlessly with his compositions. Ricci is a painter's painter.

Above we see a famous scene from Greek mythology that Ricci depicts with captivating drama. Note how the figures surrounding Perseus in one-point perspective from his helmet. I love how Ricci contrasts the warm flesh tones of Perseus with the figures on the far right in grey, frozen in stone having looked at Medusa. The man standing on one leg, holding up his shield...half hidden in shadow...his spear in hand in a straight line towards Perseus. The furniture is knocked over, with table cloth and heavy ornaments sliding down to the floor...using gravity and unbalanced body language Ricci creates a convincing chaos here, while above them the statues of the gods look on calmly. Color is also a powerful element here, and Ricci's Venetian roots come into play very effectively...the figures all seem to contrast a bright color with greyish "skirts", save for the unconscious figure on the ground with purple and green-yellow hues. Note the figure to the far left covering his eyes with his hand with knife in hand. And the lick of purple again in the drapery wrapped around the column to the right...look carefully and you can see a man's arm turning into stone.

Sebastiano Ricci 057b
Victory of wisdom over ignorance (Triumph of Sciences),ca. 1718

Ricci's Mannerist roots are definitely apparent here again. Graceful, beautiful women that echo Parmigianino, Cortona and Correggio. I love the arrangement of the three baby cherubs on the left descending from the cloud...once again contrast of physical direction and use of chiaroscuro create a sense of action and movement. Note at the top we see an old man foreshortened, seated in the cloud with arm hanging over the edge. Ricci tells a story with body language instead of words. Note "ignorance" is lying face first on the ground, with wisdom resting her feet on his back. On the floor are paintbrushes and a palette, along with a bust and musical sheets. Ricci uses allegory like a musician plays music, effortlessly and with the right balance of drama and realism.

Sebastiano Ricci - Paul III Appointing His Son Pier Luigi to Duke of Piacenza and Parma - WGA19422
Paul III Appointing His Son Pier Luigi to Duke of Piacenza and Parma, ca.1687

Ricci is a master of value contrasts. Placing the main figures in shadow with the background people in light is something not commonly seen, and yet it works brilliantly. Here we see the influence of Veronese and Bordone. Ricci uses atmospheric perspective with vivid reds to bookend the main figures. The Venetian tradition of costume and colour is rich and vibrant here.

The fall of the rebel angels - Sebastiano Ricci
Archangel Michael fighting rebel angels, ca. 1720

Look at how easily Ricci assembles these jumbled pile of bodies in shrewdly foreshortened dynamic composition. Just when one thinks Ricci may not know how to paint anatomy well he creates something like this, with stunning drama and realism. This subject seems also rare, one I haven't seen before in Baroque painting.

Sebastiano Ricci - Nymph and Satyrs - WGA19421
Nymph and Satyrs,ca.1715

Beautiful skin tones in a remarkably tame subject, compared with the previous examples. Note how she glows in soft edged shadows. Using a dominant L-shaped composition and bright color accents with attention to details, Ricci creates a pastoral scene that is rustic and believable, somehow.

Sebastiano Ricci 059
Susanna and the Elders, 1713

Here one can make out influences from Tintoretto to Raphael. Susanna is both noble and beautiful, defending her virtue against her accusers and blackmailers. Ricci goes to extensive detail to portray the men as sleazy and hypocritical. The dramatic use of drapery and colour makes this painting, set against a Venetian background...

Sebastiano Ricci - Bathsheba - WGA19431
Bathsheba, ca.1725

Warm, golden glowing colours here on top of cool...Ricci shows his amazing skills at glazing on her skin. The scene is unabashedly Venetian, and the echoes of Veronese are at work once again. Note the water spewing from the faucet on the left for her bath. Ricci is commenting on the luxury of Venice in his day, using the Bible as mere metaphor. A great storyteller...


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