Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
Marcia Steele, Former Senior Conservator of Paintings
Published March 25, 2021
In the fall of 1970, Cleveland Museum of Art director Sherman E. Lee traveled to London weeks after receiving a letter from the Hazlitt Gallery informing him of the discovery of Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë in an English private collection. Lee put the painting on reserve for the museum and ordered its immediate conservation. Four months later, the picture had been cleaned; in another three months, it had been fully restored and shipped to Cleveland just in time to be featured in curator Richard Spear’s groundbreaking 1971 exhibition Caravaggio and His Followers (fig. 1).
As the restoration progressed, the dealer promised Lee that “the picture is staggeringly beautiful, and the final stages of cleaning have revealed the deep green curtain with gold tassels, and most of the original glazes on the flesh tones remain. . . .”1 Orazio’s Danaë is a masterpiece of Baroque painting, the restrained elegance of which hinges on a delicate balance of sophisticated textures and tones. However, within three decades, the 1971 restoration’s varnish had yellowed and the overpaint had become discolored; its condition rendered the painting ill-equipped to showcase Orazio’s virtuosity. When it appeared in the 2001 exhibition Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, curator Keith Christiansen lamented that compared to the first version of the subject (now at the J. Paul Getty Museum), in Cleveland’s Danaë, “[g]one is the effect of transparency, the coloristic brilliance, and the dazzling rendition of light playing on silk and gilt metal. . . . [T]here is a leaden quality that borders on dullness.”2
Today, nearly four years of conservation has transformed Orazio’s Danaë, restoring compositional clarity and spatial depth as well as the artist’s trademark tonal variations and modeling (fig. 2).
Comprehensive treatment provided an opportunity to better understand the artist’s working methods and materials while underscoring the skill Orazio could lavish on his copies. The nature of Cleveland’s Danaë as a second version of the subject—in addition to its formal relationship to the related painting Penitent Magdalene—invites consideration of the role of repetition in the artist’s practice. Looking closely at a small body of connected paintings by Orazio and his daughter, Artemisia, shows how the innovative reuse of forms provided a framework for creating poetically powerful works of art.
Born in Tuscany, the Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) worked in Rome, Genoa, Paris, and England for patrons including the church, monarchs, and erudite collectors. Profoundly influenced in his maturity by Caravaggio (1571–1610), whose dramatic paintings hinge on strong contrasts of light and shadow, Orazio was renowned for his skillfully painted drapery and flesh tones. His distinctive style combined Caravaggio’s deft manipulation of light with a formal elegance and a characteristically vibrant Florentine color palette. While contemporaries capitalized on Caravaggio’s fame by imitating his manner, Orazio employed it as one element of a highly personal style distinguished by careful compositions and refined gravitas. As Orazio’s fame spread in Rome during the 1610s, he turned from painting frescos to smaller works on canvas, panel, or copper, satisfying the growing desire among collectors to own his celebrated paintings. Given the sophistication of his demanding patrons, it is not surprising that copies by his hand could compete with the originals in excellence, even when the use of cartoons or tracings to facilitate reproduction meant that their mode of execution was circumscribed.
Repetition and Adaptation of Form
When the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired Orazio’s Danaë in 1971, it was believed to be the first version of the subject, commissioned by Giovanni Antonio Sauli, a revered Genoese nobleman. After a second version of the subject was discovered in an English private collection during the 1970s, Cleveland’s Danaë was reclassified as an excellent autograph copy of the Sauli commission. It was probably painted when Orazio was in Genoa between 1621 and 1624, when he received frequent requests from patrons for copies of his most admired pictures.3 The original Danaë was eventually purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum at auction in 2016 for more than $30 million (fig. 3).4 It closely resembles the Cleveland picture in quality and has also suffered from loss and abrasion to its paint surface.
Danaë was among three subjects Orazio executed for Sauli, each of which was copied. The story of Danaë from Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells how King Acrisius of Argos locked his daughter, Danaë, in a chamber to thwart a prophecy that her future son would kill him. Zeus, however, penetrated her chamber window disguised as a shower of gold (represented by golden curls and coins ornamented with thunderbolts and Zeus’s profile), thereby impregnating Danaë with a son, Perseus, who unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy. Renaissance and Baroque depictions of the story often include a maidservant who collects coins in her apron, or—as in this case—Cupid, who welcomes Zeus into the chamber.
The other subjects Orazio painted for Sauli were Lot and His Daughters and the much-copied Penitent Magdalene. The primary version of the latter is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (fig. 4), and at least three others are in private collections in the United States (figs. 5, 6), including one in Dallas attributed to Orazio and exhibited here for the first time (fig. 7). An overlay confirms how closely the figure in the Dallas painting replicates the Vienna model (fig. 8), although details of the landscape vary. When the Vienna picture is slightly reduced, the figures and the folds of drapery correspond closely, allowing for some slippage of the cartoon. The primary bodily change is seen in the foot, but there are also subtle shifts in the arm and alterations to the hair, and the book and skull have been repositioned. The placement of the book and skull in the Dallas version is similar to that in the New York private collection iteration, as are small details in the landscape absent from the Vienna picture, such as the disposition of ivy over the mouth of the grotto and the stone near the Magdalene’s knee. Two copies of the work after Orazio in the Pinacoteca in Lucca and the Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, also resemble the New York and Dallas pictures more closely than the Vienna original, particularly in the props and landscapes, suggesting that the New York picture generated these copies.
Like many artists of the period, Orazio used cartoons or tracings to create replicas of successful works, but he also employed them to lend the form from one composition to a new subject. The nude body in Danaë was elegantly adapted for the partially draped figure in the Penitent Magdalene. 5 In addition to utilizing the same figure, there are echoes of the first composition in the second (fig. 9): the open sky behind the grotto replaces Cupid, ivy snakes down the rock instead of the curtain’s fringes, and the Magdalene is propped on a book rather than a pillow. The secular trappings are replaced by sacred symbols. During his mature career in Italy, Orazio embraced Caravaggio’s practice of painting from a model rather than composing elaborate preparatory drawings of ideal figures. Orazio’s compositions often consist of one or two three-quarter or full-length figures, and the simplicity of these paintings made the role of lighting effects fundamental.
Orazio adapted this practice of transcribing a single figure into a new painting for more complex, multifigure compositions. The figure in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ arresting Young Woman with a Violin (Saint Cecilia) exchanges props and becomes the heroine in Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut (figs. 10, 11). Orazio excelled at painting individual figures, but his multifigure works can have a patchwork quality in which carefully studied parts fail to achieve an organic relationship when assembled. In Judith and Her Maidservant, the figures meet in sumptuous piles of limb-obscuring drapery. The image is strikingly beautiful and moving but lacks internal coherence. When the violin player and Judith are overlayed, the figures correspond closely around the head and shoulders, with only slight shifts evident in the disposition of the face and the right arm. But they diverge as the composition and the narrative place different demands on the limbs: holding a bow versus a sword (fig. 12). As in the transformation of Danaë into the Magdalene, Orazio reuses a form for a different emotional effect: the quiet reflection of the violin player is echoed in the eerie stillness of Judith’s frozen stare.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) was an eminent painter who trained in her father’s studio but developed her own intensely expressive style. She adopted many of Orazio’s techniques and painted from models; however, the result is strikingly different in their depictions of the nude Danaë (fig. 13). The Saint Louis Art Museum’s intimate painting is almost universally attributed to Artemisia and was probably painted around 1612 in Rome.6 A formal comparison of the two Danaës reveals significant differences in the painting of flesh tones and drapery, with Artemisia’s fabric stiffer than Orazio’s and her heroine’s body depicted with greater naturalism. Assessing stylistic differences is complicated by the fact that Artemisia’s Danaë is painted in oil on copper rather than canvas, which has ramifications for style, technique, and tonality, and it likely predates Orazio’s Danaë by a decade.
Artemisia’s identity as a woman who was sexually assaulted has featured prominently in appraisal of her work by scholars, and her painting differs conceptually from Orazio’s representation of Danaë’s story, which at its essence is about violation. The subject would have held painful significance for Artemisia, who was raped by a fellow artist and subjected to a high-profile court case attacking her virtue, motives, and truthfulness. Some scholars have seen Artemisia’s iteration of the subject as one of anguished resignation or even protest, far removed from the passive acceptance or active welcome given to Zeus in Orazio’s Danaë. However her expression and her clenched fist are interpreted, Artemisia’s naturalistic Danaë introduces a physical and emotional tension absent from her father’s serene heroine.
Complicating the formal and biographical interpretation of Danaë’s body by Artemisia is the fact that the reclining figure also appears in the Death of Cleopatra, whose attribution to Artemisia or Orazio scholars still debate (fig. 14).7 Cleopatra is about three times the size of Artemisia’s Danaë, but a scaled overlay reveals how closely these pictures are related and shows the artist’s proficiency in altering the size of replicated figures (fig. 15). Although the main facial features align, the shape of the mouth and the position of the nose are slightly different, and Cleopatra is somewhat fuller and longer, with a proportionally larger foot and hand than Danaë. The dying Cleopatra becomes Danaë when coins replace the snake and a maidservant enters the space, but the supple, splayed nude seems better suited to the intimate copper picture and its stifling confines. Orazio’s and Artemisia’s approach to reusing models was remarkable for preserving formal rigor alongside narrative flexibility.
Conserving Cleveland’s Danaë
The restoration campaign Danaë underwent in London in 1971 just prior to its arrival in Cleveland was completed in approximately six months. The work was perhaps hastened by the desire to feature the painting in that autumn’s Caravaggio exhibition, but the treatment was insufficient to fully address complex condition issues. For example, the extensive pattern of age cracks was not resolved, and abrasion in the left background had been quickly covered with a dark, muddy-brown overpaint. Over time, the varnish applied in 1971 had yellowed and cracked, obscuring the original tonalities of the colors and diminishing the gentle contrasts between light and shadow. Retouching that covered a number of sizable old losses had discolored. Danaë was a leading candidate for treatment for decades as it continued to appear in many Gentileschi- and Caravaggio-related exhibitions. In 2014 when it returned from loan to Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy, the decision was made to finally embark on the labor-intensive treatment before returning it to public view.
The cleaning itself resulted in a measurable improvement to the legibility of the composition (fig. 16). The curtain emerged dramatically from the formerly overpainted background at left, defining the space with greater depth. Over the course of several months, other losses, abrasions, and cracks were carefully inpainted with a small brush under magnification, and the painting regained its balance and theatricality. The vast degree of inpainting can be seen in a macro X-ray fluorescence image that maps the element of titanium present in the fills and the majority of retouching (fig. 17).
The most challenging area to reconstruct was Danaë’s hair, which had suffered grave damage. Tiny islands of original paint served as a guide for reconstructing her curls (figs. 18, 19). Disfiguring networks of dark cracks in Danaë’s chest, neck, and arms were inpainted, resulting in legibility of the elegant three-dimensional modeling so characteristic of Orazio. After treatment, the forms and folds of the white sheet became crisp and defined, and the sheen on the green coverlet was animated by the gleam of light. Once again, the subtle combinations and the blending of yellow-pink highlights with orange and brown in Danaë’s limbs, hands, and feet can be appreciated as masterful creations of naturalistic hues, highlights, and shadows.
Orazio’s Materials and Working Method
While plain-weave fabrics were most frequently used as supports by both Orazio and Artemisia, they also adopted unusual weave patterns and other types of painting supports. Even among this exhibition’s small sampling are two paintings on herringbone weave (Judith and Her Maidservant and Young Woman with a Violin), one on twill canvas with a vertical seam (Orazio’s Danaë in Cleveland), one on horizontally seamed plain-weave fabric (Penitent Magdalene in Dallas), and one on a copper support (Artemisia’s Danaë). X-rays and examination reveal Orazio’s penchant for patchworking bits of fabric to create the whole canvas, another indication of his proclivity for economizing. When Orazio painted two versions of the same subject, the weave type or support was often different. For example, the Getty’s Danaë is painted on a single large piece of plain-weave fabric, while Cleveland’s consists of two pieces of twill-weave canvas joined at the center with a vertical seam, visible in X-ray (fig. 20).
Despite Detroit’s Young Woman with a Violin being a modestly sized painting that could easily have been executed on a single canvas, it includes four sections that were hand-stitched together.
The ground layers used to cover the fabric in preparation for the paint application were laid down after the canvases had been assembled, stretched, and covered with glue size. Orazio, like his contemporaries in Italy, applied colored grounds, usually in two layers. The lower layer functioned to fill the canvas weave. In the Cleveland painting, this layer contains hematite, imparting a reddish hue. The upper layer (usually dark) served as a base tone for shadows. This practice was confirmed through analysis of Cleveland’s Danaë.8 Orazio and Artemisia both used thin, semitransparent layers of paint over dark grounds to transition from light to dark in flesh tones, rather than employing the dark ground alone, as was Caravaggio’s practice.9
Scholarly conjectures on Orazio’s preparatory methods have traditionally focused on his systematically planned compositions and his habit of establishing the contours of a figure on the canvas before working up the balance of light, shadow, and color in each section. By utilizing cartoons and tracings, Orazio ensured that his reproduction of a celebrated painting for a new patron was faithful. Until research was undertaken for this exhibition, there was general agreement that unlike Caravaggio, Orazio did not use incised lines in the ground layer to place main figures.10 However, with the use of extreme raking light and magnification, incisions can be identified in Cleveland’s Danaë, Hartford’s Judith and Her Maidservant, and Detroit’s Young Woman with a Violin. They were likely part of the preparatory process for establishing the composition when Orazio’s drawing or tracing was laid on the ground layers. In Cleveland’s Danaë, incisions are found at the edges of Danaë’s legs, at her knees, and at her proper right shoulder. A deep, long diagonal line also runs through her torso (fig. 21). In Judith and Her Maidservant, some straight incisions may be interpreted as establishing Holofernes’s and the maidservant’s facial features, as well as the position of her hand. Incisions in the Young Woman with a Violin are also concentrated in the facial features—one through her nostrils and the other, two shorter ones, through her lips—and all roughly parallel.11
The treatment of Danaë has revealed a picture that rivals the original in beauty and proficiency. Bathed in light and thrown into relief by the dramatic, golden-fringed curtain, Danaë’s nude form exhibits once again a masterful relationship with the textiles that surround her (fig. 22). The diaphanous cloth with its twisting folds and glimmering fringes barely conceals her pale flesh, composed of faint pinks and yellows. The complex modeling of Danaë’s rosy knees is enhanced by the soft folds of the white linens and the light-catching satin coverlet. Comparing such passages with the Getty version has been particularly fascinating, revealing slight differences in Orazio’s approach but also a divergent conservation treatment history. Planned technical analysis exploring the affinity between the Cleveland and Getty Danaës will shed light on how Orazio’s copies might depart from or adapt the materials employed in the original version.