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Master of the Week:
Domenico Fetti

Domenico Fetti - Davide con la testa di Golia (Berkshire)
David with the Head of Goliath, ca.1620

Born in Rome in the year 1589, Domenico Fetti was a Baroque painter whose poetry and realism of the figure would leave a deep impression over the centuries. A contemporary of Strozzi and Liss, Fetti would help to influence Venetian art with the boldness of Baroque chiaroscuro and strong figures. His work has the rare quality of lingering in the mind long after viewing it; his portraiture has uncanny powers of unmasking the person behind the character, effortlessly.

In Fetti's David with the Head of Goliath we see a Venetian influence of color, contrasting warm against cool, with the sky as a prominent element of the composition. This theme of David conquering Goliath, a force larger than himself, has been painted and sculpted by countless artists throughout history and here Fetti portrays him as a boy who became a man by conquering his fear, ready to embrace his destiny as king. The body language of David sitting on a rock uses dynamic limb arrangement with an L-shape to the arms which is alternated in the legs, but it is the facial expression of David here that is captivating. Where previous artists focused on pride, innocence, or fearlessness, the head of Goliath worn like a badge of honor, here David clutches a sword clearly larger than he can hold and looks at us with sincerity, knowing he wasn't stronger but by using his intelligence he defeated brute strength.

Domenico Fetti - Portrait of an Actor - WGA7859
Portrait of an Actor, 1623

Dignified and composed, this somber portrait of a middle-aged actor is both modern and characteristic of its period. Thought to be Tristano Martinelli, a comic actor from Mantua who performed at one point for King Louis XIII, some think he actually may be Claudio Monteverdi. He holds a dark mask in his hand while looking at us with a face that is unflinching yet weary. We can sense just by his costume that he probably performed on stage in a variety of productions and was well-respected, as his posture indicates a certain importance. Yet, here he seems to know somehow that he will only be remembered as an unknown man in this portrait, not celebrated like the painters in his day (if he had only lived in our times). Fetti takes a truly honest look at a man, not just a profession, and under his brush creates a haunting portrait that is timeless and quietly powerful.

Domenico Fetti - The Guardian Angel Protecting a Child from the Empire of the Demon - WGA7849
The Guardian Angel Protecting a Child from the Empire of the Demon, 1618

Fetti's key figures are strong and fearless, and in this painting the guardian angel is portrayed by the body language as compassionate yet formidable. On the left side one leg is bent while extending his arm out, alternating with the extended left leg and hidden left arm with hand on the shoulder of the boy, who is clearly frightened and eagerly listens to the angel. Note the use of warm side-light raking across the figures while the demon hides in the shadows. Fetti splits open the skies as if to indicate hope with a faint blue sky behind the angel. Fetti is a natural storyteller, and his compositions and figures are totally compelling.

Domenico Fetti 003
Repentant Peter, 1613

One of the most painted apostles of Christianity, St. Peter was a common subject among Baroque artists such as Caravaggio and Ribera especially yet here we see a unique interpretation. Without the grandeur of a noble saint, Fetti has depicted St. Peter as weary and self-loathing, as if a failure. The facial expression says it all. Note the unusual dark/light sky behind him with psychological colors, a Venetian trademark. This kind of honesty is rare in painting, and Fetti makes the common uncommon by his astute powers of observation and naturalism.

Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Vineyard - WGA7858
The Parable of the Vineyard, 1618

An interesting point of view with a vertical composition, characteristic figures, and the use of architecture to define the setting along with the dramatic sky are what make this painting so hypnotic. Said to have been painted by Fetti's workshop, the body language of the figures have Fetti's unmistakable eye.

Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam
The Parable of the Mote and the Beam, 1619

This striking work appears unfinished, yet with only two figures and a few architectural details is compelling. In the parable Jesus warns against hypocrisy and judging others harshly as others will judge you the same. Fetti uses the pointed hands of both figures to underline this, along with the large wooden beam to indicate how the smallest of judgements of others become magnified in our own faults. Note the glazing of the sky with browns to grey it down. Fetti was a master of mood.

Domenico Fetti 001
Parable of the Wicked Servant, 1620

One of Fetti's most haunting paintings, this depiction of a servant choking his debtor against a background of peaceful calm and winding architecture is breathtaking despite its simplicity. The themes of hypocrisy and lack of forgiveness and understanding repeat themselves here. Interestingly, the use of the branch curved against the post seems to mimic the figures below, as if to reinforce the fact that they are both servants and the same in the eyes of God. Note Fetti's use of light here, which is gentle and warm, in contrast to his usual dramatic touch and vibrant skies.

Domenico Fetti (Italian - Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music - Google Art Project
Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music, 1620

Another iconic portrait that showcases an artistic talent, this time a musician. The costume is distinctively from the period and his confident body language indicate an important figure from the era. Note Fetti's luscious brushwork everywhere. Fetti's genius for facial expression and naturalism shines here, creating a figure with an elegant pose yet with the face so natural that seems to be speaking mid-sentence. Fetti instinctively knew that it isn't enough to depict a person, that in order to truly capture their personality facial expression must be understood clearly, that the face is always communicating something and our job as artists is to discover what that is. If you don't understand your subject you can't hope to paint them with any sense of conviction. Fetti knew that the tiniest variation in line of the mouth or eye could change the meaning of the portrait, and paid the utmost attention to this. Personality determines the portrait. And Fetti knew how to listen and observe.


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