Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Artemisia Gentileschi
(1593 – 1654)

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Painted circa 1635

Oil on canvas: 40 x 29 in. (102 x 74 cm.)

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Provenance

Finarte auction, Milan, 6 April 1965, lot 40 (as ‘attributed to Francesco Guarino’ by Giovanni Testori);

Private collection, Italy, until 2016.

Literature

R. Lattuada, Opere di Francesco Guarino a Campobasso, in ‘Prospettiva’,

vol. 31, 1982, pp. 50-69.

R. Lattuada, Civiltà del Seicento, exhibition catalogue, Naples 1984, I, pp. 326-327.

S. Causa, Risarcimento di Onofrio Palumbo, in ‘Paragone’, 515-517, 1993, pp. 20-40.

R. Lattuada, Francesco Guarino da SolofraNella pittura napoletana del Seicento (1611-1651), Naples 2000, p. 272.

R. Lattuada, Francesco Guarino da SolofraNella pittura napoletana del Seicento (1611-1651), Naples 2012, p. 272.

Other bibliographic sources quoted:

G. Porzio, Appunti sul catalogo di Onofrio Palumbo, in Ottant’anni di un Maestro. Omaggio a Ferdinando Bologna, ed. F. Abbate, Naples 2006, II, pp. 425-433.

R. Contini, ‘Quello che sa fare una donna. Napoli, anni Quaranta’, in Artemisia Gentileschi. Storia di una passione, exhibition catalogue curated by R. Contini and F. Solinas, Milano, 2011, pp. 109-117.

M.A. Pavone, Onofrio Palumbo e Francesco Guarini: due percorsi paralleli, in Francesco Guarini. Nuovi contributi. 1, Naples 2012, pp. 107-120.

G. Porzio, Palumbo, Onofrio, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 80, Rome 2014.

 

This magnificent painting first appeared at auction in Milan in a sale at Finarte on 6 April 1965, attributed to Francesco Guarino by Giovanni Testori. As early as 1982 Riccardo Lattuada considered the attribution questionable, suggesting a painter close to Finoglia.[1] In 1984 Lattuada once again expressed his doubts and, comparing our painting with Solofra’s Saint Christine at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Amiens (unanimously accepted as the work of the artist from Solofra), he observed how the woman's figure merely had a similar ‘typology’ – the same ‘haughty yet  common opulence’, but by no means by the same hand.[2]

 

In 1993 Stefano Causa[3] did not hesitate to reattribute our Saint Catherine from Francesco Guarino to Onofrio Palumbo noting that the latter would have ‘re-interpreted’ the work of the former in a more archaich style, with stiffer drapery. The scholar's strong opinion – indeed incomprehensible – was later shared by Lattuada at least as far as the attribution was concerned – in his essay on Guarino,  he placed the painting among Palumbo's in the section of rejected attributions, again suggesting this position in his updated version of the essay in 2012.[4]

 

The quality of the painting is exceptional; the shades of green in the dress are extremely refined as well as their chromatic relation to the auburn lights in the Saint's golden coat. Parts of the painting demonstrate an extraordinary perfection, notably at the center of the composition, where her sash and sword meet. Honestly I do not believe Palumbo could technically accomplish such a feat of visual perfection. Although some recent studies have attempted to outline his style and oeuvre more precisely, it still remains very hazy and his stylistic relation to Artemisia – so close as to appear almost mimetic – is somewhat perplexing in my opinion.[5]

 

We cannot disagree with Contini who in 2011[6] questioned the hypothesis that two paintings  at the Church of Santa Maria della  Salute in Naples, dated 1640 – 1641, were definitely and entirely by Palumbo's hand (apparently  confirmed by documents).[7] These paintings in fact show remarkable similarities with Artemisia's works (especially The Annunciation, but also some parts of the Adoration of the Shepherds, for example the Madonna's figure).

 

I am convinced that our Saint Catherine should be attributed to Artemesia Gentileschi's hand, who would have painted it during her first stay in Naples, (documented from 1630 and probably going on until the early months of 1638 when the artist temporarily moved to London). Her Neapolitan years have always presented the most complicated and difficult period to reconstruct in the artist’s oeuvre; we have no absolute documentation to follow, and in her work there is often the pitfall of collaborative pieces that can only be verified with a variable level of certainty.

 

However, the dazzling quality of the present painting rules out any possibility of collaboration, but rather reveals stylistic similarities with works of equal quality  made by Artemisia (and certainly by herself only) during that period. Most of all her signed painting of Corisca e il satiro from a private collection can be positively compared with the Saint Catherine under discussion, particularly in the woman's figure. The treatment of her ivory skin is identical and the Saint's features are very similar. The drapery of the snow-white sleeve, as well as the structure of the folds in her golden dress are likewise comparable – our saint's golden mantle is similarly arranged. Another important element connecting our painting with the Corisca is the relation both paintings hold with Ribera's work of the same period in Naples. In Corisca this is particularly evident in the satyr's figure but in Saint Catherine it's the whole picture that shows the influence – as it had never happened before in Artemisia's work –   of the outstanding  artist from Jativa.

 

It is indeed the above-mentioned elements (the sword, the sash, that particular shade of green applied with diagonal strokes as well as the rendering of the hands) that show such an affinity with Ribera and open the way to considering the possible relationship between these two great personalities, so far barely explored. The monumental power of this image and its close-up presentation to the viewer reveal the influence of the Spanish artist's works and might in turn provide an important precedent for Guarino's Saints.

 

And in further comparison to other works by Artemisia, we can see how the treatment of the white fabric of the shirt is similar to the cloth partially covering Bathsheba in the version today at Columbus (a subject repeated several times by Gentileschi with a number of variants), whilst the golden drapery of Saint Catherine's mantle closely recalls the dress abandoned in the foreground of her Bathsheba now kept at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

 

In consideration of all of this, I would suggest the present work was executed around the half of the fourth decade.

 

Gianni Papi

Florence, 22 January 2016

 

[1] Op. cit., p.69, no.49.

[2] Op. cit., p.327.  

[3] Op. cit., pp. 32-33.

[4] Op. cit. 2000, p. 272 & op. cit. 2012, p. 272.

[5] Porzio 2006; Pavone 2012; Porzio 2014.

[6] Op. cit., p. 114.

[7] Op. cit., Porzio 2014.

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