Museum Home Past Exhibitions Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575–1725

December 16, 2008–May 3, 2009 at the Getty Center

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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife / Cignani
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Carlo Cignani, about 1670–1680

This exhibition tells the extraordinary story of a small group of artists who changed the course of art history. In the decades after the deaths of the great Renaissance masters, such as Raphael and Michelangelo, the art of painting was thought to have gone into steep decline. But then, in the late 16th century, the Carracci family of painters from Bologna burst onto the scene with tremendous energy and vitality, raising art to new heights. Their heroic achievement set standards that were to remain authoritative for more than 200 years. Here a selection of key works by the Carracci and several generations of their pupils and followers brings this artistic triumph to life. For them, the visible world became their principal source of inspiration, and nature was their teacher. Painting was about to enter a new era of creativity and lavish patronage, resulting in the glories of the Baroque age.

This exhibition has been co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Twenty-seven of the paintings in this exhibition have been generously lent by the museum in Dresden, one of the world's premier collections of old master paintings. Most of these works have never been seen before in North America.

Madonna Enthroned with Saint Matthew / Annibale Carracci
Madonna Enthroned with Saint Matthew, Annibale Carracci, 1588
audio Audio: Listen to a description of this 'sacred conversation.'
interactive Zoom in and explore this painting.

The Carracci Family

Four hundred years ago the Carracci family of painters was as famous as Raphael or Caravaggio. Two brothers, Annibale and Agostino, and their cousin Ludovico challenged the artistic establishment of their day and revolutionized the art of painting. The academy they established in their workshop in Bologna influenced artists of the next generation, including Guido Reni, Domenichino, and Francesco Albani (all represented in this exhibition).

The Carracci and their students remade their art through the observation of nature and by studying the works by great Renaissance painters, especially Raphael. The altarpiece seen here epitomizes Annibale Carracci's ability to depict the human body, diverse textures, and light and shade. Annibale made his figures spring to life in three dimensions by covering the discernible bone and muscle with a veil of soft flesh, as can be seen in the adolescent angel seated at the bottom, and the sun-reddened chest of Saint John the Baptist at right. Annibale masterfully distinguishes various textures, such as the yellow satin over the seated angel's legs and the ragged brown sackcloth habit worn by Saint Francis who kisses the foot of the Infant Christ. The colors appear, as in nature, at full intensity in direct light while gradually darkening into the shadows.

Portrait of the Lute Player / Annibale Carracci
Portrait of the Lute Player Giulio Mascheroni, Annibale Carracci, 1593–1594


This exhibition includes portraits by four of the greatest Bolognese artists—Annibale and Agostino Carracci, Guido Reni, and Guercino. None of them specialized in portraits, yet they possessed the gift of imbuing their works with an acute psychological insight and arresting authenticity that other painters of their day could rarely match. The young Annibale Carracci's skill at portraiture came in handy when he served as his own police sketch artist: he was so successful at recording the faces of some thieves who had attempted to rob him and his father that the men were soon caught and punished.

This portrait by Annibale Carracci depicts a family friend. Mascheroni is elegantly placed within the picture plane; the soberly dressed lute player has been caught at practice, perhaps even writing a score (a quill pen and sheet of music rest on the table in the foreground). Interrupted, he acknowledges the viewer's presence with an attentive but imperious gaze.

Saint Luke / Guercino
Saint Luke, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1615
learn_more Compare this naturalist painting with a classicist painting.

The Ideal versus the Real

Should painters represent objects exactly as they appear, or should they aim to enhance the natural world in order to depict timeless perfection and ideal beauty? These two opposing views profoundly marked the artistic world of 17th-century Italy.

Artists following the direction known as naturalism cultivated convincing and illusionistic visual effects that correspond as closely as possible to the experience of the viewer. The goal was to copy nature faithfully, whether ugly or beautiful.

Compare this naturalistic painting of Saint Luke with an example of the classicist style.

 The Return of the Prodigal Son / Guercino
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1654–1655
audio Audio: Listen to a discussion of this parable about forgiveness.


Because of his congenital squint (in Italian, guercio), Giovanni Francesco Barbieri became known as Guercino. He never studied with the Carracci, but he was deeply influenced by their theory and practice. In 1621 the Bolognese pope Gregory XV recognized Guercino's talent and summoned him to Rome to paint his papal portrait. The artist moved to Bologna after the death of Guido Reni in 1642 created new opportunities for him there.

This painting is one of several interpretations by Guercino of the Prodigal Son theme. The Gospel of Luke (15:11–32) tells the story of a youth who broke the ancient law of inheritance. He embarked on a sinful life, wasting his money, and then, driven by contrition and filial piety, returned home for forgiveness. The painting is redolent of contemporary theater, which emphasized the emotional encounter between the father and son. The close framing of the central characters—the loving father trying to embrace his son, who turns away his head to hide his tears—invites the viewer into the drama, while the servant theatrically pulling the curtain engages the viewer with his direct gaze.

The Way to Calvary / Domenichino
The Way to Calvary, Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri), about 1610
audio Audio: Conservator Mark Leonard describes how Domenichino used the copper support.
interactive Zoom in and explore this painting.

Painting on Copper

To protect their works from the ravages of time, artists have always looked for materials that promise permanence. Toward the end of the 16th century, copper plates came into use as a new support for painting. Bologna was one of the major centers of this technique. The copper was hammered or rolled into sheets about one-eighth of an inch (3 mm) thick.

Copper panels were also popular for their brilliant visual effect. Because the hard, smooth material does not absorb oil pigments, painters could create intricate details and a glossy surface in jewel-like colors. Meant to be seen up close, they were sought after by collectors for display in small private rooms, and also served as powerful devotional images.

Here, Christ's fallen body contrasts with the violent movements of the guard to create drama. Thrown to the ground, Christ addresses the viewer with his inquisitive gaze and silent cry. Domenichino infused his composition with multiple actions and figures described in the Gospels: Simon of Cyrene tried to ease the load on Christ's body, an attendant carries the ladder later used in the execution, and the curious crowd observes the heightened moment that preceded Christ's execution.

Baptism / Crespi
Baptism, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, about 1712
audio Audio: Learn more about Baptism and Crespi's depiction of the Catholic sacrament.

Crespi's Seven Sacraments

The seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony) are understood by the Roman Catholic Church as a visible form of God's invisible grace. These rites were part of the everyday life of any 18th-century Catholic. Giuseppe Maria Crespi's series The Seven Sacraments—each painting representing one sacrament—is one of the greatest achievements of 18th-century painting. The artist presented the sacraments as he witnessed and experienced them himself, in contemporary dress, without idealization.

Baptism, seen here, represents the sacrament that admits a candidate to the Catholic Church. The priest administers Baptism, usually soon after birth, by pouring water on the child's head and pronouncing a blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity. Many of the immaculately observed details in the series are reminiscent of still lifes, such as the black rosary beads around the woman's wrist in this painting. The somber, almost nocturnal atmosphere of all of these paintings is juxtaposed with shimmering fabrics, faces, and metal liturgical instruments reflecting the light.

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife / Cantarini
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Simone Cantarini, about 1640
learn_more Compare three paintings of the same subject by different painters.

One Story, Three Painters

Joseph, the hero of this biblical story (Genesis 39), was sold into slavery by his brothers. His new master, Potiphar, a minister of the Egyptian Pharaoh, promoted the diligent young man to overseer of his household. The handsome Joseph attracted the attention of Potiphar's wife, who pressed him to share her bed, undeterred by his repeated refusals. One day she found him alone in the house. Clutching his cloak, she pleaded with him once again to yield to her desire. Joseph fled, leaving his cloak in her hands. When Potiphar came home, his humiliated and vengeful wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, using the cloak as evidence.