Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Striking Couple

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market (l), Peasant Girl Catching a Flea (r). c. 1715.

These two caught my eye at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts the other day.

I love their simplicity. I think it's a large part of their power. 

The painter, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, is remembered as a successful artist of the late Baroque/Rococo period (c. 1680-1750). He studied with Crespi, one of the "Caravaggisti" (basically, hundreds of artists who painted in the Italian Baroque style of Caravaggio - i.e., darkish canvases in which piercing directional light dramatically pulls subjects out of the engulfing shadows).

Piazzetta here applies his own version of the style - but with his own sensibility. Where Caravaggio and most of his followers went for highly dramatic, often religious or mythological canvases, Piazzetta and to some extent Crespi sought a quiet serenity to be found in the unguarded moments of everyday lives.

Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market
Perhaps the lack of pretense in Piazzetta is what makes him so different. Here, Piazzetta's, Peasant Boy at a Market appears simply at home in his own world, unconcerned by his own poverty as he is momentarily preoccupied with digging a presumably single, small coin from the folds of his little satchel. The same poise and unconcern radiates from the woman's face in the work's companion piece.

Piazzetta, Peasant Girl Catching a Flea.
In the painting of the woman, Piazzetta treats a theme that Crespi had also tackled - a woman removing a flea from her person. But whereas Crespi's painting candidly details the process with a rather harsh degree of realism only partly softened by the warm, womblike light pooling around his subject, Piazzetta's bolder, more stylized art fully and lovingly transforms the moment. It's Piazzetta's painting that more whole-heartedly redeems the common and sordid, the "all-too human."

The MFA suggests that as the son of a woodcarver, Piazetta brought a sculptural sensibility to the modeling of figures with light and shadow. Perhaps his humble origins informed his whole approach to painting, i.e. his "naturalistic images of ordinary life that are characterized by a dignified, sympathetic portrayal of his subject, often peasants," as the MFA says.The poetry in his work is wholly his own.

I think these paintings' lasting value springs not from anything innovative in Piazzetta's style but in his feeling for the world he knew, his sincerity. Sincerity in art is something one must feel or sense rather than see. La Farge defined it as the intention "to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you... not your knowledge (of artistic representation) but your way of using it."

There's a sort of archetypal, universal quality in these two works, born of rendering ordinary people's lives with almost religious dignity, much as Millet did in the 1800s. They work beautifully together too. 


  1. Thank you for this post! I've just found it while I was looking for information on Piazzetta's Peasant Girl Catching a Flea. "... Not your knowledge [or your technical ability] but your way of using it" is my new motto. It's exactly what I've been thinking about my writing from the very first time I consciously started doing it.

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