Art Review: ‘The Baroque Genius of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’


Every corner crackles with activity in Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s lyrical image of Noah leading the animals onto the Ark; the work was copied by French artist Francois Andre-Vincent more than a century later. (Partial Gift of Gilbert Butler, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art)

The images emerge from the etchings as if drawn like iron filings from the paper: figures appearing from the rocky landscape behind them; portrait heads coalescing from a scattering of tiny, inarticulate lines. Contemporaries drew comparisons to Rembrandt; looking back today, you could also think Seurat for the all-over dot patterns, the way it takes a minute for your eye to draw the sense and story in the clouds of markings.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, the 17th-century Italian artist (not the courtier!) whose works on paper are the focus of a new show at the National Gallery, incorporated influences from around Europe, and was himself so influential that his work was copied and echoed a century and more after his death, in Germany and France as well as Italy. But what strikes a modern eye is the flickering, all-over quality of the work, as filled with event and often as hazy as perception itself.

The show introduces Jonathan Bober, the museum’s new curator of Old Master prints, who ranged through the museum’s holdings to find not only Castiglione works but also the pieces that influenced the artist and that he influenced, from Rembrandt and Tiepolo to Fragonard and Boucher. It’s a great approach. For one thing, it helps spotlight Castiglione’s style by showing it in comparison to those of other artists: After spending some time in this show, you no longer need to look at the wall tag to recognize his particular, fuzzy images as his own.

For another, this approach deflates the common misconception of artistic lineage as artistic progress. Too often, in museums, we follow chains of influence with the underlying assumption that the things that came later are more advanced and somehow “better.” But some imitation is merely overripe. Among Castiglione’s most famous etchings was a series of portrait heads of exotic, imaginary figures: turbaned corsair-like men, elderly men, one man hiding his face behind a scroll of paper he is reading, setting up a game in which the surface of the paper depicts the surface of a paper. This show presents a set of these prints next to similar series executed by two German artists, Paul Haubenstricker and Bartolomaeus Ignaz Weiss, more than a century later; and the Germans’ work seems merely mannered, deliberately evoking a genre. (Someone actually filed Weiss’s name off his etchings and added “Castilone” instead; the show does not reveal whether anyone was fooled.)

What we get, then, is the genesis of particular tropes of imagery, coalescing around themes that ran through Castiglione’s work: the exotic heads; images of classical antiquity; or Bible stories such as that of Noah and the Ark, to which the artist returned again and again. But there’s also the genesis of kinds of execution. Castiglione was heavily influenced by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, both of whom worked in his native Genoa, and the oil-on-paper drawings he created were emulations of techniques he learned from them. Notably, though, Castiglione’s were conceived as discrete works rather than studies for larger paintings.

Those on display here include a lyrical image of Noah leading the animals onto the Ark, every corner of the paper crackling with activity as the animals curl in a kind of wave toward the gangplank, guided by Noah’s pointing arm. A later copy of the image by the French artist Francois-Andre Vincent, made more than a century later, adds putative drama through the contrast of white and black chalk, but grooms much of the energy and force from the composition.

Another is an Adoration of the Shepherds in which the brown figures flit, translucent, across the page while the opaque blue sky cuts airlessly into the architecture, carving out negative space. The work, until now in private hands, was formally donated to the museum last week, filling a gap in the museum’s holdings. Another gap, unfortunately, are the sketches by Rubens and Van Dyck that might illustrate the influence Castiglione was incorporating; the National Gallery, Bober said, simply doesn’t have them.

Castiglione was himself a technical innovator, trying out new ways to use various media. He’s cited as the inventor of the monotype, the technique of applying paint directly to a plate and pulling from it a single print. Sometimes there was enough pigment to yield a second image, and the show includes one of these echoes: David with the head of Goliath, the background figure shadowy but the head still massive and dark and wild as a Green Man, coalescing out of a snaking tangle of lines.

It’s striking that an artist of such influence was also capable of such gaucheness, both of depiction and execution. Castiglione was clearly probing for something beyond the merely attractive. Some of the figures in the later etchings take on a grotesque, cartoonish air: In a late Madonna and Child, two baby angels with a kewpie-doll cast to their features watch the Christ child like little vultures. And the jagged, nervous lines of Castiglione’s pen-and-ink sketches make flesh appear to be decaying, dropping from the figures’ limbs, even as the same lines carve out compositions of eminent solidity.

But he was never careless in his use of paper. There is very little white space, or down time, in Castiglione’s works here; they are all-over compositions, filling every square inch of the surface, art actively happening everywhere you look. In that late Madonna and Child, the upper left corner of the plate is not actually engraved; rather than leave it empty, the artist laid an ink wash across the corner so that the composition dissolves into an ambiguous cloud. But at least Castiglione had left his mark.

The Baroque Genius of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione

On view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through July 8.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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