Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Baciccio), (Italian, Genoa 1639 - 1709 Rome)
Death of Adonis, ca. 1683-85
Oil on canvas
60 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (153 x 122.5 cm)
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1966
Gaulli, a late Baroque master of theatricality, imbued his depiction of Ovid's Death of Adonis with pathos, grandeur, and graceful movement. Saturated colors and swirling draperies underscore the drama of the moment.
In Gaulli's composition, the mortally wounded Adonis sprawls weakly on the ground as Venus springs from her chariot in a flurry of frantic concern. The blood-tipped hunting spear lies forgotten in the foreground. Two grieving putti attend the dying hunter, as others pursue the murderous boar through the distant hills.
There are preparatory drawings for the painting at the Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, and in the British Museum, London. The Düsseldorf sketch, a preliminary compositional design in black chalk, focuses on the fallen Adonis and attendant putti, omitting Venus entirely.1 A more finished compositional drawing in the British Museum is probably the artist's final design for the painting.2 This lyrical drawing is executed with short, lively strokes of the pen, selectively shaded with a thin, delicate grey wash. Although this drawing is quite close to the final painting, the artist made some changes in the position of the putto flying over Adonis's head, for example, and in the position of Adonis's right arm. Ultimately, the painted composition places greater emphasis on the fluid, undulating contours of Venus's urgent pose. The more vertical proportions of the drawing, situating the figures within a more spacious setting, undoubtedly records the original appearance of Gaulli's painting which, as noted below, has been reduced on all sides.
Spear has convincingly argued that the Oberlin picture may have been conceived as a pendant to Venus Dissuading Adonis from the Chase, in the collection of the Marquess of Exeter at Burghley House.3 In addition to the thematic and stylistic continuities, several identical accessories and costume details in the two paintings support a connection between them. The paintings are further linked by the elaborate compositional sketches that exist for each work, which are essentially identical in style and technique.4 Although the Burghley House painting is significantly larger than the Oberlin Death of Adonis, the latter has been substantially cut down and may originally have had the same dimensions as the Venus Dissuading Adonis (see Technical Data).5
The Death of Adonis is a mature work by Gaulli, evincing the typically warm, rich palette and the characteristic female type seen in works from the early 1680s. The heavy, angular, windswept draperies reflect the potent influence of Gianlorenzo Bernini's sculpture on Gaulli's figural style.6 Another, compositionally unrelated, painting by Gaulli of the Death of Adonis, which can be dated slightly later than the Oberlin painting (ca. 1685), is in the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico.7
M. E. Wieseman
Born in Genoa in 1639, Giovanni Battista Gaulli (il Baciccio) left that city around 1657 and established himself in Rome. He became a protegé of the sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), and was accepted as a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1662. He received his first public commission, for an altarpiece in the church of San Rocco, Rome, in 1663. In 1672, Gaulli was awarded the prestigious commission for decorating the interior of the Jesuit church of Il Gesù in Rome; the ceiling fresco, illustrating the Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1678-79), is a masterpiece of High Baroque illusionism and theatricality.
Gaulli received many ecclesiastical commissions for decorative cycles and altarpieces. He also painted portraits and mythological and religious works for private patrons, among whom were several popes. Early works by the artist show his Genoese heritage in their broad, painterly manner and warm, dark palette. Gaulli also experimented with Bolognese classicism in the 1660s, affecting a cool, dry palette and more linear style. In his later years (after about 1685), he moved away from the grandeur of the High Baroque towards a more classical, almost proto-rococo style, employing less intense colors and more delicate compositions. Many drawings by the artist have survived, in a wide range of media; almost all are studies for paintings, giving insight into the artist's working process. Gaulli died in Rome, shortly after 26 March 1709.
Enggass, Robert. The Painting of Baciccio, Giovanni Battista Gaulli 1639-1709. University Park, Penn., 1964.
Enggass, Robert. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 12. London and New York, 1996, pp. 197-203.
With Leger Galleries, London (1953-54)
With Giovanni Salocci, Florence (1956-57)
Private collection, New York (by 1962)
With Gualteiro Volterra, Florence, from whom purchased in 1966
Dayton Art Institute, 1962. Genoese Masters: Cambiaso to Magnasco. 19 October - 2 December (also shown at Sarasota, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; and Hartford, The Wadsworth Atheneum). Cat. no. 36.
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1967. An Exhibition of Paintings, Bozzetti and Drawings by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio. 16 January - 13 February. Cat. no. 13.
Zeri, Federico. "Quattro tele del Baciccia." Paragone 6, no. 67 (1955), pp. 56-57.
Manning, Robert, and Bertina Suida. In Genoese Masters: Cambiaso to Magnasco. Exh. cat., Dayton Art Institute, 1962. Cat. no. 36.
Enggass, Robert. The Painting of Baciccio, Giovanni Battista Gaulli 1639-1709. University Park, Penn., 1964, pp. 29, 133.
Spear, Richard E. "Baciccio's Pendant Paintings of Venus and Adonis." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1965-66), pp. 98-112.
Enggass, Robert. "Addenda to Baciccio: III." The Burlington Magazine 108 (July 1966), p. 365.
An Exhibition of Paintings, Bozzetti and Drawings by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, cat. no. 13. (Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 24, no. 2 [Winter 1967]), p. 84.)
Enggass, Robert. "Baciccio at Oberlin: Some Reflections." The Burlington Magazine 109 (March 1967), p. 187.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 59, fig. 46.
Spear, Richard E. "Baciccio's 'Venus and Adonis': A Postscript." The Burlington Magazine 110 (January 1968), p. 38.
Brugnoli, Maria Vittoria. Il Baciccio (I Maestri del Colore, 214). Milan, 1966, n.p., pl. 15.
Spear, Richard E. "Baroque Paintings from Ligozzi to Hogarth." Apollo 103, no. 168 (February 1976), p. 109.
Graf, Dieter. Die Handzeichnungen von Guglielmo Cortese und Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Kataloge des Kunstmuseums Düsseldorf III, vol. 2/1). Düsseldorf, 1976, p. 99 under nos. 252-53.
Brigstocke, Hugh. In Italian Paintings from Burghley House. Exh. cat., The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh, 1995, pp. 74-76 (under cat. no. 18).
Enggass, Robert. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 12. London and New York, 1996, p. 200.
Originally, Gaulli's painting was somewhat larger than its present dimensions. Based on the observation that no cusping (resulting from the unprimed canvas being tacked to the stretcher) is visible in the canvas weave at the top, and only a slight distortion of the weave is apparent at the right, left, and bottom edges, Spear has suggested that the original canvas was reduced significantly, "approximately five inches from each side, one or two from the bottom, and as much as nine or ten inches from the top."8
In 1980 an earlier lining canvas was removed and the painting was lined with wax-resin adhesive onto a linen and fiberglass cloth support, and mounted on a new stretcher. There are old tears in the original canvas near the bottom, to the left of center, and at the upper right. Fills and inpainting are mostly limited to the area of these tears and smaller losses resulting from tenting and cupping of the paint layer. The flesh tones and parts of the background, which have suffered from overcleaning, were toned with glazes during the treatment in 1980.
The paint layer was fluidly applied over a thin, smooth, light-colored ground. Glazes were used to model drapery and indicate shadows. Pentimenti show that the artist made several adjustments in details of the composition, in the wings of the doves at left, in Venus's thumb, and especially in Adonis's garments, which originally included knee-length leggings.
1. Black chalk with white heightening, 33.3 x 23.2 cm, Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, inv. FP 1925. Also in Düsseldorf is a related sheet with several studies of putti, which more closely resemble those in the London drawing than in the finished painting; pen and brown ink over black chalk, washed in grey, 27.8 x 43 cm, Kunstmuseum, inv. FP 10814 recto. See Dieter Graf, Die Handzeichnungen von Guglielmo Cortese und Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Kataloge des Kunstmuseums Düsseldorf III, vol. 2/1 [Düsseldorf, 1976]), p. 99, nos. 252 and 253, respectively.
2. Pen and brown ink with grey wash, squared for transfer in black chalk, 23.9 x 16.8 cm; London, The British Museum, inv. Fawkener 5211-71. See Richard E. Spear, "Baciccio's Pendant Paintings of Venus and Adonis," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1965-66), pp. 101-3, for discussion of the drawing and its relationship to the Oberlin painting.
3. Richard E. Spear, "Baciccio's Pendant Paintings of Venus and Adonis," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1965-66), pp. 107-12. Venus Dissuading Adonis from the Hunt, oil on canvas, 180.3 x 148.6 cm; see Hugh Brigstocke, in Italian Paintings from Burghley House (exh. cat., The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh, 1995), pp. 74-76, cat. no. 18. Enggass originally disagreed with Spear and rejected the proposed relationship between the two pictures (Robert Enggass, "Baciccio at Oberlin: Some Reflections," The Burlington Magazine 109 [March 1967], p. 187), but has more recently accepted the pairing (idem, in The Dictionary of Art, vol. 12, ed. Jane Turner [London and New York, 1996], p. 200).
4. The drawing for the Oberlin picture is in the British Museum, London (see above); a drawing for the Burghley House picture is in The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, pen and brown ink with grey wash, 23.1 x 16.8 cm, inv. 155.
5. Furthermore, the catalogue of the recent exhibition of paintings from Burghley House suggests that the Oberlin picture may also have been in that collection at one time: "The Oberlin picture is not identified in the 1738 inventory at Burghley House, but it might well have been acquired by [John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter (1648-1700)] and sold after his death" (Hugh Brigstocke, in Italian Paintings from Burghley House [exh. cat., The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh, 1995], pp. 74-76; see also pp. 29-37). Cecil, an avid collector, traveled to Italy at least three times between 1679 and his death in 1700.
6. On the influence of Bernini in Gaulli's work in general, see Robert Enggass, The Painting of Baciccio, Giovanni Battista Gaulli 1639-1709 (University Park, Penn., 1964), passim; specifically with regard to the present painting, Richard E. Spear, "Baciccio's Pendant Paintings of Venus and Adonis," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1965-66), pp. 104-6.
7. Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 116.2 cm; An Exhibition of Paintings, Bozzetti and Drawings by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio (exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 24 [Winter 1967]), p. 84, cat. no. 14.
8. Richard E. Spear, "Baciccio's Pendant Paintings of Venus and Adonis," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1965-66), p. 110; these dimensions accord with the measurements of Gaulli's Venus Dissuading Adonis at Burghley House, the proposed pendant to the Oberlin work.