by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

The Triumph of the Fair Sex

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 December 1993
National Gallery, London
The Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice by Pietro Longhi, 1751



Pietro Longhi put women center stage as never before in Italian art. It is a woman or women who are the focus of nearly all the pictures he painted - whether they be bright girls at their studies, sumptuously dressed aristocratic wives presiding over their households, or out and about during Carnival, masked, or (unwilling to hide their pampered charms) unmasked, street vendors, cheerful cooks, rollicking and sleeping peasants, reluctant, discreetly-rouged and beauty-spotted young nuns, faithful retainers, old crones and pretty working-class girls in search of a wealthy local or foreign patron.

Longhi was born in 1701 and was nearly forty when he decided to abandon religious and historical subjects 'in the grand manner' in favor of genre painting, a phenomenon he played an important role in establishing. 'He changed tack,' his son Alessandro later recorded, 'and being of a quirky and witty disposition, he dedicated himself to everyday spectacles, or Conversation Pieces, playful treatments of love and jealousy, taken straight from real life...' The engaging results of this mid-career switch are ärevealed in an admirable exhibition of over fifty paintings and nearly as many drawings and prints (at the Correr Museum, till 4 April).

By the 1740s Venetian women were enjoying an unprecedented freedom - unparalleled in the rest of Italy, or in some respects, any other European city. Carlo Goldoni reflected this change in mores in his new-syle realistic dramas. 'Men have reached the point that they are men in nothing but in name,' lamented the buffoon Pantalon, in one of the dramatist's dialect plays. 'It's women that hold the whip hand... the fair sex is triumphant - men have reduced themselves to slaves in chains, idolators of beauty...'

Longhi celebrated this feminine revolution in a fashion far more direct and unambiguous than that of his playwright friend Goldoni - the painter almost turning himself into the artist-in-residence of this brighter, gayer, more adventurous and more pleasurable world. His viewpoint was, no doubt, considerably influenced by the fact that these 'new women' were frequently directly and indirectly responsible for commissioning his works - as is revealed in the splendid exhibition catalog (Electa), which is replete with the new discoveries and insights of a team of Italian scholars and art historians, ranging from documentary evidence of Longhi's birth-date, to his subtle and tongue-in-cheek use of symbolism and the identity of those depicted.

The artist's original entree into the homes of the Venetian upper-crust had been as a painter of large-scale mythological scenes, such as 'The Fall of the Giants' in the Palazzo Sagredo. äThus he already had valuable contacts among potential buyers when he launched himself into genre painting. These smaller-scale works, most measuring a little over half a square metre, were not designed for the spacious piano nobile rooms where prosperous households entertained (and where historical and mythological scenes still held sway), but for the smaller, cosier appartments where (especially in winter) the family actually lived, and where women were more likely to be in command of the decor.

This period also saw the proliferation of the 'casino' or 'ridotto' - small, intimate rooms or apartments maintained by both men and women, where they could receive friends (and lovers), socialize, play cards and enjoy themselves away from home. Longhi's paintings - with their colorful, amusing, risque scenes, often open to varying interpretations - were an ideal ornament for such settings.

A 1762 'Compendium of the Lives of the Venetian Painters' describes Longhi as an artist 'praised in his home country, and beloved of all the Venetian nobility'. It may, at first glance, seem puzzling, given the ironic and mildly satirical elements in many of his pictures, that the Venetian aristocracy should have been so willing to pay to have themselves, however gently, sent up. Yet evidently it was these sharply-observed, humorously irreverent touches that made the works so appealing. Painters of stiff, official dynastic pictures (of the kind seen hanging on the wall in the background of Longhi's compositions) were two a penny, but Longhi could hold up a mirror to his patrons 'as they were' - with their beautiful clothes and comfortable homes äcertainly, but also with their characteristic gestures and poses, foibles and peculiarities.

In view of the importance of Longhi's female patrons, it is notable how often it is men who are shown in a truly comic, even ridiculous light. In 'The Geography Lesson', to take a typical example, the elder of two aristocratic sisters turns to face us as though interrupted by our entry into the room (one or more figures look directly at us, the viewers, in virtually all of Longhi's pictures, cleverly drawing us into the scene). Meanwhile, taking advantage of the distraction, the libidinous geography tutor raises his eye-glass surreptitiously to admire the decollete of his younger pupil.

Unlike Canaletto and Guardi, Longhi painted almost exclusively for the home market, and happily for Venice most of his best pictures remain here. Greater completeness is, nonetheless, achieved by the loan of some first-class canvases from other collections, notably from America and Britain. The inspired thematic arrangement of the pictures, stylish installation, and informative and stimulating catalog, make this show as good a way as can be imagined of awakening new interest in this humane and delightful artist.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023