Where the ends never quite meet

“Women Working on Pillow Lace (The Sewing School)” (about 1720–1725), by Giacomo Ceruti. Oil on canvas; Private collection Image © Fotostudio Rapuzzi, Brescia

Destitution row

“Giacomo Ceruti: A Compassionate Eye” at the Getty

by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Beggar” (about 1735-40), by Giacomo Ceruti. Oil on canvas; Gothenburg Museum of Art Photo: Gothenburg Museum of Art / Hossein Sehatlou

I’ve never seen so much tattered clothing in one place. Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767), who was active in Northern Italy, seems to have been a fairly prolific and highly-regarded painter, but like most people, artists or otherwise, he slipped through the trapdoor of history and was only plucked out of it and re-celebrated in the early 20th century. Although he painted the portraits of the well-to-do and various notable people of his time, “for Ceruti, painting a genre figure was as exacting as painting a portrait.” On that note, he was nicknamed Il Pitocchetto (or, the little beggar), not because he was necessarily one himself, but on account of one subject to which he devoted much of his work: the impoverished, and those on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Ceruti wasn’t the first painter to depict the truly downtrodden; Carovaggio, La Tour, and the brothers La Nain had, so to speak, landed there ahead of him. However, Ceruti displayed something in his pictures of the poor that not many others had, and that was empathy.

This more or less sums up the title of the exhibition, “Giacomo Ceruti: A Compassionate Eye” which is on view from July 18 to Oct. 29 at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“The Three Beggars” (1736), by Giacomo Ceruti. Oil on canvas; Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, long-term loan to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2004

In the catalogue that accompanies the show, Francesco Frangi and Alessandro Morandotti tell us that there were other painters also depicting members of the lower classes. However, they write, “Ceruti’s silent revolution had a different function, which was to endow the faces of his protagonists with human truth, to adapt the tone of both expression and palette to their condition.” Regarding the palette, Ceruti’s work may remind one of van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters”; in other words, muted colors and brown earth tones.

The reason we’re talking about the poor, those minimally compensated, if at all, for their manual labor, and not the middle- or upper-middle class, is because the Getty show revolves around the so-called “Padernello cycle,” discovered near Brescia, in Lombardy, within the Salvadego family castle. Not surprisingly, there remain many unanswered questions, such as who commissioned these paintings (most of which are quite large) and why. Who would want to own this “Group of Beggars,” described here as “economically disadvantaged subjects”?

The trail meanders away, somewhat inconclusively, and plenty of ink is then diverted to discussions of poverty in Europe during Ceruti’s time. Roberta D’Adda and Davide Gasparotto (the latter also edited the catalogue) point out that “during the sixteenth century, on average the poor constituted at least one-fifth of the urban population of Western Europe.”

So, here we go: How were the indigent regarded? The same as today, here on the streets and in the parks of Los Angeles? Was there a social safety net? How effective was the Church is combating poverty?

“Woman Mending Socks” (about 1725–1730) by Giacomo Ceruti. Oil on canvas; Museo Lechi, Montichiari, Italy

Clearly, we cannot, or should not, apply our conceptions of homelessness to the reality of the situation some 300 years ago. Serge Paugam notes that “Every society defines its own poor and assigns them a distinct social status when it chooses to come to their assistance.”

For example, Lorenzo Coccoli provides a perhaps overly-detailed exploration of how poverty was perceived. Being poor didn’t necessarily mean camping under a freeway overpass; it could encompass those who were suddenly forced to subsist below their class standing. Therefore, a loss of reputation could have you being identified as “poor.” Let’s say, for instance, that Larry had been living in Pacific Palisades with a magisterial view of the ocean, but was abruptly compelled by a downturn in his fortunes to find a three-bedroom condo in Hermosa Beach. Larry would then be deemed poor, even though a three-bedroom condo near the beach might be considered the life of Riley by some or even most of us.

“Self-Portrait as a Pilgrim” (1737), by Giacomo Ceruti. Oil on canvas; Museo Villa Bassi Rathgeb, Abano Terme

Of course the poor weren’t necessarily just beggars, mendicants, paupers, prostitutes, vagabonds or vagrants (passé terms we’re warned about in a Note to the Reader), they were also luckless Joes who wanted to work but couldn’t find employment. And this also included those who did have jobs but with a paycheck insufficient to cover even basic expenses.

As you can see, we’ve drifted quite a ways from Giacomo Ceruti himself, and ultimately that’s where the focus needs to be. His pictures are touching, the subjects largely expressionless, and many simply look back at the viewer. I wouldn’t say that Ceruti is a major figure in the art world, and at times I wondered if he was edging too close to the sentimental, a death sentence in itself. But he doesn’t, and many of these portraits are touching, a quality I’m sure he wanted to convey.

The catalogue has a truly extensive bibliography, mostly in Italian and English, and then a list of past and relevant exhibitions, including numerous shows in Brescia and Milan, which were central to Ceruti’s life and art.

Giacomo Ceruti: A Compassionate Eye is on view through Oct. 29 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. More at getty.edu. PEN


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