Guido Cagnacci, Repentant Magdalene, ca. 1660Oil on canvas,
Norton Simon Museum, PasadenaOn display at the Frick Collection, New York.

One of the current exhibitions at the Frick Collection consists of a single painting, Repentant Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci. You would be forgiven for never having heard of Cagnacci. He dates from a later point in the Italian Baroque that cowers under the long shadows of Caravaggio and the Carracci family. The greatest artist of the middle seicento was the sculptor Bernini, to whom no contemporaneous painter compares except Guercino in his finest moments. Guercino was no Caravaggio, but he makes Cagnacci look like a dummy.

Nevertheless, the Magdalene is a minor masterpiece, and it’s on a once-in-a-lifetime loan from the Norton Simon Museum, from which it has not traveled since the Pasadena institution acquired it in 1982. It is the culmination of a rocky career that got off to a weak start. What we know of Cagnacci’s biography has been narrated by Xavier F. Salomon in a readable, endearing catalogue produced by the Frick in conjunction with Scala Arts Publishers in honor of the occasion. This gold-stamped, cloth-covered, novella-sized volume, generously illustrated with matte color plates, is itself a minor masterpiece of art publishing.

Therein lies a saucy tale. As a teenager he was probably trained by an unknown painter in provincial Santarcangelo, in Emilia-Romagna, establishing for him a shaky foundation that dragged his work down for a long time. In his late twenties he attempted to elope with an aristocrat’s widow. That escapade put him on the run from the law and got her imprisoned in a convent. Her family finally married her to her own nephew in order to secure the dowry, which Cagnacci demanded for years after the affair.        

A mason’s daughter inexplicably signed over her worldly possessions to him, suggesting another impossible romantic entanglement. All at once he seems to have gotten fed up with prudish, Papal-State Emilia-Romagna and moved to libertine Venice, changed his name, and took up with a woman who went around in drag as his servant boy. She is thought to be the model for many of his works from the 1650s and ‘60s.

He conducted his professional life in the typical Baroque manner, taking in students, producing multiples of commercially demanded works, and jockeying for patronage, sometimes with success. Notably, in 1635 Cagnacci’s work suddenly took a turn for the better. Scholars cautiously attribute this to contact with the work of Guido Reni in Bologna. Another possibility, not mentioned by Salomon, is that he obtained a camera obscura. Cagnacci had already cribbed from other artists—Virgin and Child with Saints Sebastian, Roch, and Hyacinth (ca. 1620–25) quotes a Ludovico Carracci St. Sebastian from 1599 verbatim—and wouldn’t have been above such things. One of the more convincing demonstrations in David Hockney’s controversial book Secret Knowledge cites Cagnacci’s Death of Cleopatra (ca. 1660–62) and its repetition of one model in various poses as evidence of the camera’s assistance. Regardless of how he managed it, Cagnacci improved, learning on the job and overcoming his inauspicious beginnings.

The Repentant Magdalene dates from the end of his life, and the top of his game, around 1660–63. The main character lies prone, looking up dully at her sister Martha, who gestures at a winged angel beating a devil with a rod, driving him out stage left. Two maids flee the scene in tears, having flung open the doors to an exterior hallway, illuminated by daylight.

Parts of this scene are exquisite. The satins, jewels, and fancy shoes that Magdalene has cast from her person form a still life in the foreground that looks Dutch in its loving detail. Martha has so much human presence as to upstage Magdalene even as she brings her the comfort of her wisdom. The light on the angel’s form is sublime, the “X” of his pose serving as a conduit of movement through the composition.

Parts of this scene are not exquisite. The painting made unprecedented demands on Cagnacci’s architectural draftsmanship, and he did not meet all of them. We are looking down at a window in the upper left corner at which we should be looking up, and conversely looking up at a balustrade at which we ought to be looking down. The fleeing maids’ faces are inchoate. The devil’s body seems to have been stunted in order to fit in the picture.

Nevertheless, the whole of the thing is a marvel. Light catches on an interior corner, forming a dagger of illumination that points at the devil’s back. The two-point perspective on the tiled floor is not just convincing in its demonstration of perspective, but also conveys the eye through the lower edge of the painting in a canny way. The angel’s blue drape snakes nonsensically in the middle of the picture, but how Cagnacci handled the color tone against the warm, dark background is enthralling. The plant on the railing is a gorgeous bit of observation despite the fact that the pot that it has been planted in has simply not been drawn correctly.

The 1660s must have been an odd time to be an Italian painter, with the last of the senior talents on the way out and no notable youths coming into prominence. Even Guercino’s students are hardly remembered, to say nothing of Cagnacci’s, and Tiepelo and Canaletto wouldn’t be born until the 1690s. By the time of his Magdalene, Cagnacci was mostly competing with himself, and in that regard he was a formidable opponent. But his ambitions took him ever forward, into an imperfect but undeniable mastery.

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