These two caught my eye at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts some time ago.
I love their simplicity. I think it’s a large part of their power. But a look under the hood shows there’s more going on than you might first suspect.
The painter, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, is remembered as a successful artist of the late Baroque/Rococo period (c. 1680-1750). He studied with Guiseppe Maria 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 pairs his own version of the style with his own sensibility. Where Caravaggio and most of his followers went for highly dramatic, often religious or mythological subject matter, Piazzetta and to a lesser extent Crespi, sought nearly the opposite: a quiet serenity found in the unguarded moments of everyday lives, an artistic approach known as genre painting. Crespi used the genre like an illustrator; Piazetta raised it to a higher level of lyrical seriousness.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market,

The lack of pretense in Piazzetta has its own appeal. In Piazzetta’s, Peasant Boy at a Market, the very casually dressed kid appears simply at home in his own world. He is the antithesis of a character from Caravaggio, a monument to modesty instead of monstrosity.
Piazetta shows us a humble boy unconcerned by his own poverty, momentarily preoccupied with digging a (presumably single, small) coin from the folds of his common satchel. The same poise and unconcern radiates from the woman in the work’s companion piece. In Peasant Girl Catcing a Flea, Piazzetta treats a theme that Crespi, his teacher, had also tackled – a woman removing a flea from her person.

Guiseppe Maria Crespi, La Pulce, or the Flea Hunt

Crespi’s painting unsparingly details the process with what I read as a harsh cynicism. To me it seems Crespi mocks his flea-huntress’s poverty.  The title alone (The Flea Hunt, vs. Piazetta’s Girl Catching a Flea) suggests he’s looking at this as a typical, perhaps comical scene rather than the sympathetic portrait of an individual. He presents the woman as part of an extended family living in squalor, but he casts the figures in roles I think contemporaries would have read with a double meaning: the man with the child and the woman in the doorway carrying the water pitcher are posed to look like a nursemaid and house maid respectively, as if servants to the “lady of the house” – who in reality is just as impoverished as they are, as evidenced by her parasite problem.

In contrast, Piazzetta’s bolder, more stylized tenebrism (the high-contrast, theatrical play of light and shadow associated with the Caravaggisti) fully and lovingly transforms the moment.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peasant Girl Catching a Flea

Piazzetta’s painting whole-heartedly redeems the otherwise low and sordid by touching the common lot of humanity with beauty and dignity. Piazetti illuminates his subject and her glowing, healthful flesh with lighting normally reserved for “church paintings” of Biblical figures and Christian saints.

Uncommonly Beautiful

The MFA suggests that as the son of a woodcarver, Piazetta brought a sculptural sensibility to the modeling of figures with light and shadow: His “naturalistic images of ordinary life are characterized by a dignified, sympathetic portrayal of his subject, often peasants,” the MFA says.
The lighting may be Caravaggio’s, but 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 from his feeling for the world he knew, that is, from 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 each of these two works, born of rendering ordinary people’s lives with a bold, quasi-religious nobility. They both present the common as the uncommonly beautiful. They work beautifully together too.

If you love portrait paintings like Piazzetta’s, artist Oliver Sin, who’s associated with the classical portrait tradition, teaches in a manner that simplifies portraiture with an instructional video that happens to be on special.

I Must Have Flowers

There’s a supposed Monet quote that’s become an inspiring meme that goes, “I must have flowers, always always.” I think people like it because the words sound like a passionate determination to live a colorful life. 

I can picture a young Audrey Hepburn saying them over her shoulder while plunking down a vase full of lilacs on a Parisian coffee table. As a meme, it’s like a battle cry against the dull and overly familiar; it might as well say, “I refuse to live a drab existence, now and forever!” But I’m pretty sure Monet never really said them.

Monet definitely wrote, in a letter to his dealer, “What I need most are flowers, always.” He was being quite literal, referring to his love of gardening and his beloved home in Giverny. He also seems to have said somewhere, “What I need most of all is color, always, always.” So the meme appears to be a mashup.

Of course, Impressionistic painting, with its built-in love of vibrant color and light, still inspires, as do flowers of all kinds, always, always: Flowers, Impressionism, even the made-up meme – important reminders that for all its confusion and disappointments, our world can be, if we will and make it so, a beautiful place.

– Chris