Arts & Culture

Review: Exquisite drawings by Castiglione at Kimbell Art Museum

Circe with the Companions of Odysseus Transformed into Animals, c.1650, by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, etching
Circe with the Companions of Odysseus Transformed into Animals, c.1650, by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, etching Royal Collection Trust

The Kimbell Art Museum has mounted one of the exhibitions for which it is best known, an exploration of a little-known artist with a great deal to offer — “Castiglione: Lost Genius. Master Works From the Royal Collection.”

The artist, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, was a 17th-century Italian thug. His lawyer described him as a man who threw his sister from a rooftop, who accused his brother of being an assassin and thief, and who pummeled his nephew almost to death, although those heinous acts are unsubstantiated.

It is known that he fired a weapon at another artist and in a fit of rage took a knife to one of his own paintings.

Giovanni Battista Lomellini, Doge of Genoa, had commissioned a painting for his family’s chapel. Upon delivery, other artists convinced the doge that the painting might not be quite as good as it should be. The doge accepted the painting and agreed to pay the negotiated price, but declared it not suitable.

In front of the doge and his retainers, Castiglione took a knife to the painting, cutting it to shreds and swearing that neither the doge nor any of his family members would ever own one of his works. This necessitated one of his abrupt overnight moves to another city, Rome.

“This is one example of a pattern that appeared throughout his career. Just when he was on the verge of establishing himself, he would screw up spectacularly,” says Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings for the Royal Collection Trust. “We know more about him from courts cases than we do from paintings.”

It was obvious Castiglione had anger-management issues. Almost all of the known biographical information about him is in the 17th century arrest records of Genoa, Rome, Naples, Venice and Mantua.

Drawing was a specialty

When Castiglione died in 1664, at age 54, he left a huge collection of magnificent drawings and a few unremarkable paintings. England’s Queen Elizabeth II owns 250 of the drawings, and it is from the Royal Collection that the exhibit was made.

Castiglione specialized in drawings. This was not a recognized profession in the 17th century; artists either sculpted or painted, or did both. Drawings were preparatory exercises for other media.

Not so for Castiglione. He had a remarkable facility for drawing, and he made drawings as finished works of art.

“He did work as a painter, but he was he unexceptional. As a draftsman and printmaker he was unique,” Clayton says. “He used oil paint on paper, which sounds straightforward but was fiendishly difficult to master.”

Without any rough sketches, he would apply oil pigment with a brush directly on unprimed paper. The amount of oil in the pigment would render his marks soft and splotchy or dry and crisp as if he was using a pen. He manipulated the stains and scratches for maximum effect. No one else did this.

He didn’t date his drawings, and very few of them are signed, making the chronology extremely difficult. Clayton and Timothy Standring, curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum and the leading authority on Castiglione, worked for years to assemble this group of drawings, discarding the works attributed to Castiglione’s son, Giovanni Francesco, or his brother Salvatore, both artists who worked with him.

Surroundings suit fragile works

The Kimbell has mounted the exhibit in a loose chronological order based on Clayton and Standring’s assessment of Castiglione’s maturing skills as a draftsman and printmaker.

The exhibit is housed in the Renzo Piano Pavilion, in a gallery designed especially for works on paper. The ceilings are low, the lights are soft to protect the fragile drawings, and it is quite intimate, as the galleries are walled into rooms of a domestic scale.

The installation invites close inspection of the drawings, which are in remarkably pristine condition. After Castiglione’s death, they passed to the state, then to a collector, and then to the British consul in Venice.

In 1762, King George III purchased them from the consul, and they’ve been in the Royal Collection ever since. This is the first time many of them have ever been exhibited.

They look so fresh, it is difficult to believe they are well over 300 years old.

During his mature years, Castiglione broadened his interest in paper artwork, experimenting with different forms of printmaking.

He was the first artist to attempt a monotype. He would lay down a layer of thick, sticky ink on a printing stone, and using a sharp point, draw the highlights by pulling the ink off the stone. He would get one good print and a second ghostly print with the remainder of the ink.

He worked quickly and spontaneously making the monoprints. He often took his prints, either the monoprints or etchings, and worked on them after pulling the print, adding stains and washes of color. He was the only artist who did this, as well.

In fact, he was the only artist who did this until the impressionists came along. Clayton says he often shows contemporary artists Castiglione’s monoprints and asks them to guess when they were made. Most say the 1920s or ’30s. Perhaps by German expressionists.

Even though he was the only artist working in this manner, “There must have been a market for these things, as he was pretty well established,” Clayton says. Some of the possible buyers were the young gentlemen on their world tour.

“They would purchase drawings and prints as mementos of their travels. It was quite popular to sit down with friends after dinner and tease apart the esoteric messages,” he says.

Refocusing the spotlight

As Castiglione aged, gout rendered his arms and hands stiff, and he was unable to make the sweeping brush strokes of his earlier years. He began to add color washes to his drawings.

“He was unable to conjure up the fluid motion he used to have, and he compensated with color to give ooomph to the drawings,” Clayton says.

Castiglione’s abilities were quite well known when he was alive, and for the first 100 years after his death. But by the 1800s, the Baroque artists had fallen from favor and only a few survived with their reputations intact.

Castiglione wasn’t one of them.

It took scholars from the mid-20th century to find him, notice his singular contribution and try to refocus the spotlight. It is difficult. In a world besotted by color and animation presented in pixels, monochromatic drawings on paper are a tough sell, even if the exhibition is free.

Still, “people love the idea of an unknown artist,” Standring says.

They are flocking to the exhibition of the little-known impressionist Gustave Caillebotte in the Piano Pavilion’s next-door gallery.

So there is reason to hope they will take the opportunity to visit Castiglione’s drawings, broaden their knowledge of these two remarkable artists and come away with an appreciation for both.

Gaile Robinson: 817-390-7113, @GaileRobinson

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

  • Through Feb. 14
  • Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
  • Free
  • Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
  • 817- 332-8451; www.kimbellart.org
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