Castiglione: Lost Genius. Masterworks on Paper from the Royal Collection

Castiglione: Lost Genius. Masterworks on Paper from the Royal Collection

November 22, 2015 to February 14, 2016
On view in the Renzo Piano Pavilion.

Admission is free to this special exhibition.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione had all the natural skills to have been one of the most celebrated artists of his age. He was a talented painter, a technically brilliant printmaker, and a dazzling draughtsman—but his violent and erratic character ultimately thwarted his ambitions. This exhibition, which unveils Castiglione’s drawing practices during his formative years in Genoa and Rome, his mature years spent peripatetically throughout Italy, and finally his last years in Mantua, aims to restore his reputation as one of the greatest, most innovative graphic artists of the seventeenth century. The works in the exhibition, including ninety of the artist’s finest drawings, etchings, and monotypes, are generously loaned by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.

Castiglione (1609–1664) spent his early life in the port city of Genoa. There, he built his reputation on depictions of pastoral scenes, often illustrating Old Testament episodes. In his early twenties, Castiglione moved to Rome—the dauntingly competitive center of the Italian art world. To establish himself as a stronger contender, he began to take inspiration from more-established artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin before arriving at his own unique style. The majority of his drawings are executed in the unusual technique of oil paint on paper, completed rapidly with no preparatory underdrawing. They are not direct studies for paintings, and many were probably exercises in draftsmanship, as he built up a portfolio of compositions for future reference.

After almost a decade in Rome and Naples, Castiglione returned to Genoa in the late 1630s and established himself as one of the city’s leading artists. During the 1640s, Castiglione became one of Italy’s foremost etchers. His prints display technical finesse, dramatic lighting, and abstruse subjects, often addressing the fashionable themes of death, decay, and the transience of earthly endeavors. He executed two series of etchings of exotic heads that resemble expressive portraits known as “tronies,” produced by Rembrandt and other Dutch artists. These demonstrate his inventiveness and ability to achieve dramatic lighting with nothing more than an etcher’s needle. Castiglione also seems to have invented the technique of monotype, a hybrid of drawing and printmaking. He worked up the image directly on a metal plate with sticky printer’s ink or coated the plate in ink and scraped away the light tones of the image with a stick or cloth. These techniques produced stunning effects of light and dark to create images that are unique in the seventeenth century. The art of monotype then lay almost dormant for 250 years, until artists such as Degas and Gauguin revived the technique.

But Castiglione’s unpredictable temper—in the late 1640s, an argument over the valuation of an altarpiece led the artist to slash a painting to shreds before the Genoese Court—forced him to flee to Rome. Notwithstanding his travails, Castiglione began to demonstrate more assured technical virtuosity and an elevated subject matter of religious and mythological narratives that attracted powerful patrons like Carlo II Gonzaga, ninth duke of Mantua.

During the 1640s and 1650s, Castiglione made a series of large oil drawings, uniform in size and dazzling in their execution, but whose function is puzzling. Some may have been intended for possible sale or simply exercises in bravura draftsmanship. Whatever their explanation, they are unique. No other artist of the period worked in this technique in such a sustained way. In his last years, Castiglione’s oil drawings became more colorful, but smaller and denser, perhaps a result of arthritis that restricted his movement but did not dim his creative capacities.

At the beginning of the 1700s, many of his drawings found their way to Venice, where they were admired by artists such as Tiepolo and eagerly sought after by collectors. The British consul there, Joseph Smith, acquired more than two hundred of them, and in 1762, King George III of Britain purchased that group (along with others) for the Royal Collection. Castiglione’s original, improvised techniques fell out of favor during the nineteenth century, and today he remains little known outside academic circles. Only now, through archival discoveries and the exhibition of his works, are we starting to understand the peculiar trajectory of Castiglione’s life and the unique character of his astonishing production.

The exhibition catalogue, co-authored by Timothy J. Standring and Martin Clayton, is the first book to be published on the artist in English in more than forty years and constitutes a major revision of the artist’s chronology; it will become the standard for connoisseurship of Castiglione’s drawings.

The works forming this exhibition, organized by
Royal Collection Trust
in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, have been generously lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II from the Royal Collection. Promotional support is provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC 5.


Image Captions:
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Omnia Vanitas, early to mid-1650s, dark reddish-brown oil on paper. Royal Collection
              Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, The Genius of Castiglione, 1648, etching. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen
              Elizabeth II 2015. 
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, The Nativity with Angels, c. 1655, monotype. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty
              Queen Elizabeth II 2015.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Saint Francis in Prayer, mid-1650s, red-brown and blue-gray oils on paper. Royal
              Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015. 
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, The Head of an Oriental, c. 1645–50, monotype with black oil and brown wash on
              brown-toned paper. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015.