Update: Ceruti’s Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length fetched $615,000–more than double its high estimate.
What you see: Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length, an oil on glass painted in the late 1720s or early 1730s by Giacomo Ceruti, who also went by the name Pitocchetto. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.
Who was Giacomo Ceruti, and why was he called Pitocchetto? He was a northern Italian artist who roamed across genres, painting portraits, still lifes, and everything in between. “Pitocchetto” (pronounced Pee-to-ket-to) translates as “the little beggar,” and refers to his talent for capturing images of the humble people of his day–beggars, chefs, farmers, and the like. He died in 1698 at the age of 68.
Ceruti painted this portrait on glass. Why? Wasn’t glass expensive in the early 18th century? “Glass was expensive, but for the artist, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility,” says David Pollack, a specialist in Sotheby’s Master Paintings department. “Glass is rare compared to canvas or wood panels. You see it much less frequently, but it’s not unknown. The Romans painted on glass. As far as Ceruti goes, there are a few examples of him painting on glass, showing the same model, in the same dress.” (Scroll down and look to the right to see another Ceruti oil on glass.)
Why might Ceruti have attempted a painting on glass? “In this particular case, it’s unclear. We don’t have a record of it being commissioned, but we do have a period inventory,” he says. “There was a taste for works on glass, and works on glass by Ceruti in particular. They were popular in his own day.”
How is painting on glass different from painting on canvas or a wooden panel? “It’s a challenge for the artist,” he says. “Painting on glass has to be done in reverse. You put in the details first, and you really can’t make changes. You had to be a perfectionist or you’d have to start all over. But the payoff is really high. With glass, the colors remain extremely well-preserved as long as it’s not broken or damaged.”
How sturdy is the glass? Is it the same as window glass? “It’s as sturdy as today’s glass, and this glass is really clear,” he says. “When you need a wooden panel for painting, you need one without imperfections. It’s the same for glass. It needs to be smooth and clear. The standard is higher than for glass for drinking out of.”
The portrait doesn’t have a background. Did Ceruti choose not to paint it, or is it unfinished by accident? He appears to have left the background blank on purpose. “Other versions [other Ceruti paintings on glass] are that way as well,” Pollack says. “I’m surmising here, but the focus of the painting is the woman. He’s all about figures. He’s a figurative painter, and he put the focus on the technique, the painting on glass.”
This isn’t like a flat painting on canvas. Is Sotheby’s handling it differently? “On the cover of the physical catalog, we show the painting as we will exhibit it–on a plinth, so you can see it in the round,” he says. “Otto Naumann displayed it with a piece of salmon pink cardboard behind the painting, but not on it. We’ve chosen to display it completely bare. You can walk around it. It’s incredibly modern and totally chic. I think people are really going to react to it.”
Ceruti did at least two portraits on glass, apparently of the same model. Why might he have done that? “It was a popular and commercially successful composition for him, and he returned to it,” he says. “Throughout art history, we see [other paintings that are] not the exact version, but sitting the same model. A patron might have written to Ceruti and said, ‘I want the same model and a similar type of work, but without the basket.’
The model seems to be wearing the same outfit in both paintings. Why would he have wanted her to don those clothes twice? “It’s a combination of it being the type of garb of the day for a woman in her position, and he probably thought the blue, red, and white was pleasing,” he says. “The white folds in such a way that allowed him to play with shadow and light. Same for the blue. If it was one color, he couldn’t show off as much, frankly. With a different-color combo, he’s able to.”
How did you put an estimate on this Ceruti? “We didn’t just compare it to works on glass. We compared it to works by Ceruti in general, and works by Milanese 17th century artists in general, and the market in general–works that are unfinished, quirky, off-beat, nontraditional,” he says. “The market reacts to a simple portrait that’s appealing to the modern eye, be it unfinished or quirky.”
Oh, like the unfinished Anton Raphael Mengs portrait that Otto Naumann showed at TEFAF New York in 2016, which Anderson Cooper bought? “That’s Otto,” he says. “The thing that Otto cares about is not that it’s unfinished or that it’s different. It has to have a story to it. These types of unfinished works give insight into an artist’s working method.”
The lot notes describe the colors of the Ceruti oil-on-glass as being “exceptionally fresh and vivid and, as is the case with this beautiful example, the subject is startlingly life-like.” Are there aspects of the painting that the camera doesn’t fully capture? “It is more vibrant in real life. The best way to look at it is to look at the front cover of the catalog,” he says. “The flesh tones, when you see them in person, are incredibly warm by virtue of being painted on glass. It’s similar to painting on copper. Because they are hard surfaces, the paint sits on top and it stays stable. It’s almost as if it was painted yesterday.”
Why will this painting stand out in your mind? “In a world of Old Masters, the public and even professionals don’t get to see this often, or ever,” he says. “To see a portrait surrounded by transparent glass is such a modern presentation. Being able to view it in the round shifts it from a painting to an object. As you walk around it, it changes with the light, and with different times of day. It’s really alive.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Old Masters dealer Otto Naumann has a website. He is retiring and has consigned much of his inventory to Sotheby’s.
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