Nestled among Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art contemporary paintings and sculpture are lush old master paintings of beatific Madonnas holding the baby Jesus as the perfect toddler. There are over 50 autographed paintings in this exhibition by Carlo Dolci (1617-1687), who was the most famous painter in Florence, Italy, in the 17th century.
Museums such as Italy’s Uffizi and Pitti Palace, England’s Courtauld, France’s Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts among many others have paintings by Dolci in their collections and have loaned them to this exhibition, yet Dolci is practically unheard of today.
In fact a 19th century critic sealed his fate by saying his paintings are so sweet they give a toothache.
At a press preview of the exhibition, Nasher Director Sarah Schroth said Dolci, a gifted Baroque artist in his own time but long dismissed by contemporary historians, needs to be reexamined.
With the exception of a few portraits, an “Annunciation” and one still life, Dolci’s canvases focus on religious subjects. According to his biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, Dolci refused large commissions of altarpieces and frescoes and chose to paint intimate depictions of divine subjects. He felt his art was part of a spiritual mission with the hope they would “inflame the faith of those who viewed them.” This is his first exhibition in the U.S. and only his second solo show ever.
It is difficult for a contemporary audience not to dismiss out of hand dozens of smallish paintings of the simple subject of Mary and the baby Jesus. Although at first glance they seem exactly alike we need to get as close as is allowed to see how the artist has painstakingly applied his paint and achieved jewel-like colors and surfaces as smooth as enamel.
The late 1640s “Virgin and Child” introduces the show and has its own gallery. That Dolci was a powerful technician cannot be denied. The perfection of the baby’s hands and feet has the delicacy and realism of sculpture. The cushion on which the baby stands is of deep greenish-brown velvet and, as we look, our imagination feels the softness of the velvet. Next to the cushion is a woven basket with a white shirt waiting to be mended and a needle already threaded.
Each element of the painting required the perfect-sized brush. For the thread there was no more than one hair, and for the baby’s halo he used powdered gold. When the color blue was needed, he was able to obtain lapis lazuli, one of the most expensive of all the colors.
Dolci’s rich palette comes from his access to expensive materials and indicates his many commissions for which he was paid handsomely. His painting was painfully slow; some commissions took more than 11 years to complete. Part of his problem was his need to say a prayer after every brushstroke.
The paintings are shown in ornately carved frames. Most are modern but there are a few that date to the 17th and 18th centuries. He was noticed by Renaissance art patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, when Dolci was just a teenager. Ninety paintings by Dolci are listed in the Medici 17th century inventory. Such support by this famous family was a guarantee of success and Dolci was successful in his own time.
An unusual painting in the show is a copy of the “Annunciation” painted for the church of Santissima Annunziata (Most Holy Annunciation) in Florence, Italy, c. 1340.
The original artist was having difficulty painting Mary’s face and, according to myth, while he slept the face was completed by an angel. The image became a cult object and was copied as commissions by many artists in later centuries. Dolci made two copies in oil.
One ended in the chapel of a Polish nobleman where it is today. The other one was copied for Marchese Scipione di Piero Capponi in 1657. After Capponi’s death it ended in the collection of Tuscany’s Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici. Dolci is buried in a family tomb in the Santissima Annunziata church.
The exhibition also includes a small St. Jerome in Penitence, 1648. It is in a glass display case and the back has been removed so we can see the stretcher and the canvas where the artist has written a bit of poetry and a prayer. There is also a tag attached to the back with the name of Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York, which owns the painting today.
Among a small group of portraits is a self-portrait of the artist who holds a sketch of himself in his hand. The sketch is signed and dated, information invaluable to the scholar. An iPad is also available to see all the artist’s sketches from one of his sketchbooks.
The catalogue details criticisms of Dolci’s work which were damning to his reputation and excluded him from serious study. John Ruskin (1819-1900), one of the most important critics of his time, wrote that Dolci’s seamless surfaces showed the absence of “one atom of thought.”
George Hay, author of the earliest monograph on Dolci, wrote, “We suffer from the painter’s excess of sweetness … from a sentiment that comes dangerously near sentimentality.” And that, according to Eve Straussman-Pflanzer’s catalogue entry, has been the leitmotif of reactions to Dolci’s work — “it is often regarded as so sweet that it gives the viewer a toothache at best or tooth decay at worst.”
There is no question Dolci was a master craftsman devoted to Christian themes. In his time that is what most art patrons wanted and that is what a painter, who lived by his art, painted.
At the Nasher visitors have a chance to consider whether an artist’s technical ability is enough to sustain a reputation throughout the centuries. The exhibition asks for a reappraisal of an artist almost forgotten. We are invited to be part of that conversation. It does not take a position about greatness, only about another long look.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Medici’s Painter, Carlo Dolci and 17th Century Florence,” is on exhibit at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, 2001 Campus Drive, Durham, through Jan. 14.