SN 132, oil on canvas, 1631-38

Pietro Da Cartona
Italian, 1596-1669

Son of a stone mason, Da Cartona was following in his father’s footsteps when his obvious artistic talent dictated his re-apprenticeship as a painter. However, his own studies of antique statuary and works of Raphael and the Caraccis proved more valuable. Sponsored by the Barberini family, his greatest work was the ceiling in their palace, now in the National Gallery in Rome. He published Treatise on Painting in 1652. He worked in Italy, refusing invitations to France and Spain. His many pupils assisted him on frescoes.

The leading painter of Rome’s High Baroque period, da Cartona was 2nd only to Bernini as architect, decorator, and painter. Only 1 other U.S. museum (in Toledo,Ohio) owns his work.

The Biblical story is from Genesis (21:9-12). Abraham’s wife Sarah had been unable to bear him a son, so she suggested that her Egyptian maid, Hagar, might be a surrogate. Thus Ishmael was born. Later, however, Sarah bore Isaac and became jealous of the possible rival to his inheritance. She persuaded Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert of Beersheba, with only a little bread and water as sustenance. As they were indeed dying, an angel appeared (by tradition, the Archangel Michael) & led them to a spring. Ishmael lived to father the Arab nation, while Isaac became father of the Hebrews.

This painting embodies the wonderful diversity of Baroque in mid-century. Da Cartona’s work combines the tempestuous Baroque of Rubens with the more classical elements of Caracci, Reni, and Poussin – thus epitomizing the rift between the 2 major styles of Baroque painting. High Baroque artists aimed for sensuous, exuberant appeal; Classicists looked back to Roman and Greek tradition with a more intellectual approach.

Baroque characteristics:
•    Catching the moment with dramatic grace and movement. The angel is stepping forward….there is the ongoing motion.
•    Many diagonals, all highlighted – squint and you’ll see that the hands actually overlap one another.
•    The primary colors blue and yellow oppose the complementary orange, also lending vitality and movement.
•    The sensuous mood is reinforced by the lush landscape.

Classical reference:
•    Hagar’s pose is straight off a marble frieze. She looks as if she weighed a ton; you can’t imagine her rising.
•    Rather than motion, her body is “stopped dead.”
•    Her face is presented in profile.

Why is a dying woman looking so gorgeous? Because this is a Counter Reformation painter, supporting the Church against Luther’s Reformation heresy. The church wants the message direct, appealing, poignant. Ishmael was, at the time, about 13 – but a younger child is more appealing. There is a lot of church and palazzo decoration going on at this time - and who would want to look at a rack of bones? Decoration is decreed to be pleasant!