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Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

The Penitent Magdalene


Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini
Venice 1675 – Venice 1741


The Penitent Magdalene


About 1720-1725


Oil on canvas


118.5 x 94.3 cm


Purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michal Hornstein, inv. 1995.11


Western Art

Pellegrini was one of the outstanding Venetian Rococo history painters. A prodigy, by the age of fifteen the artist had travelled internationally. His loose brushwork was encouraged by visits to Rome, where he encountered the art of Giordano and the late paintings of Gaulli. He brought a new sprezzatura (spontaneous brushstroke) and vividness of colourism to Venetian decorative painting. He also was profoundly indebted to the Venetian Renaissance master, Veronese.

This painting is characteristic of the artist’s works of the early 1720s, with its weaving, nervous diagonal compositional structure, pastel palette and intense silvery light that dematerializes the figure. The artist prepared the canvas of The Penitent Magdalen with white, instead of red, ground. The result contributes to the brilliance of light and softening of forms defined in rapid brushstrokes as if dissolving in palpable atmosphere — a characteristic of the Venetian school — and the freshness and sensuality of the Magdalen, who is shown here surrounded by amor-like cherubim. The iconography is part of an extended Venetian heritage. Bare-breasted with long hair, the sensual Magdalen refers to her putative earlier history as a prostitute before her conversion to Christ. She appears accompanied by angels, shown in the open landscape of the wilderness to which she retreated, penitent and regarding scripture and a cross, with a skull as a memento mori, a Venetian type that had a long and notable history, with examples by Titian and Veronese, among others.

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