Pisa 1563 – London 1639

Mary Magdalen

Oil on canvas
82.3 x 68.5 cm


Private Collection, New York




R. Ward Bissell, Andria Derstine & Dwight Miller, Masters of Italian Baroque Painting, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2005, p.91, fig 3;
K. Christiansen & J.W. Mann (eds.), Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, exh.cat. New York 2001, p.192

This painting is an important example of Gentileschi’s repertory. Like other Caravaggesque painters, he was thought of as working without disegno, whereas in fact he worked a sophisticated variety of designs that are employed for quite different subjects, and with entirely separate clothes and attributes. The basic pose of this Magdalen is used again in the Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Allegory of Music at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is obvious that a cartoon was used for all three paintings, and they were all three probably painted within the same period, which Mann dates to the visit to Genoa in 1621-24. The brilliant handling of the drapery and colours is the mark of a moment of maturity in Gentileschi’s career, and the use of the cartoon is not as different to the two versions of the Danae (New York, private collection and Cleveland Museum of Art).

Orazio Gentileschi is a painter of an older generation, born some twenty years earlier than Caravaggio. He was an unpretentious individual, who one suspects liked working for other people, rather than managing the decoration of a whole palazzo himself. The interior decoration business demanded whole teams of people to undertake all aspects of construction and design: the painters of the scenes with figures had a relatively straightforward contribution. But Gentileschi was undoubtedly tremendously impressed by the appearance of Caravaggio’s paintings, and his encounter with him in the summer of 1600 was a watershed in his artistic career. His previous paintings had been conventional inventions that illustrated a narrative well, but without reference to the real model. In a way this never changed, because an artist who is already trained finds it difficult to change his spots, like handwriting that remains the same even after a course of calligraphy.

Gentileschi had joined the Accademia right from the start, and he tended to vote with the majority, even siding with Baglione when it came to a crucial vote for the new constitution in 1607, which would exclude the voting rights of painters under thirty years of age.

So his Caravaggism is an extraordinary amalgam of the experience of a generation of professional painting, marked with the impact of the realization of what was perceived as the true appearance of the outside world, a sight that could be seen to be very different from the fictional narrative that stood for the real thing in the fresco cycles of people like Cesare Nebbia and even Cavalier d’Arpino. Gentileschi was incredibly sensitive, after his conversion, to the superficial look of surfaces and materials, while remaining bound to traditional design. He could never bring himself to make the break and rely solely on observed reality, there is always a structure behind his compositions, a framework to his scenes, anatomy behind his forms. Unlike Caravaggio he had a workshop, which had to supply a range of designs for frescoes as well as oil paintings – something that the latter was never able or prepared to undertake, and which involved drawings and cartoons, for the complicated shapes of vaults and loggias were difficult to apply painting directly from a model. Again, as in sites like the Casino delle Muse at Palazzo Rospigliosi, he had to work with specialists in architectural perspective, in order to provide balconies and balustrades for the figures to look out from. The specialists of this kind of business were people like Pietro Paolo Bonzi, who himself painted floral swags and landscape detail, but who also planned the operation, like a modern contractor, and perspective or quadratura designers like Agostino Tassi, who was a threat to Orazio’s daughter. Increasingly Gentileschi was called upon to travel, to journey to France and England, and the fame of the naturalistic style that he came to represent after the disappearance of Caravaggio himself played a large part in his appeal to the courts of Paris and London.