The practice of reverse painting on glass was known as far back as the Roman world, and the earliest European paintings on glass were created in Italy in the latter part of the 13th century.1 Painting behind glass, or Hinterglasmalerei in German, reached its highest production in the 1500s and continued to be popular throughout Europe up until the 19th century when less expensive colored prints, framed behind glass and easily reproduced through such inventions as chromolithography, contributed to the decline of the genre.
The method of producing a painting on the back of a clear glass panel to be viewed from the opposite side is laborious and exacting, requiring a sure technique. The artist works in reverse to the usual procedure when painting on canvas or wood and begins by placing the fine details and highlights first and then filling in the background later. It is, therefore, necessary for the painter to “position every detail in exactly the right place at the very beginning – eyelashes must be situated precisely where he will later place the face [and] the wavy lines of curls where he wants to put the hair.”2 In preparation, the process would usually begin with a drawing of the subject laid under the glass and used as a pattern. When completed, the glass is turned over and the painting is seen in reverse. The sheet of glass provides both the base and the transparent cover for the work. With the pigment adhering directly onto the smooth glass surface, the color is exceptionally fresh and vivid and, as is the case with this beautiful example, the subject is startlingly life-like.3
Oreste Marini (see Literature) published this painting incorrectly as a work formerly in the Avogadro collection, based on an inventory description of two paintings by Ceruti on glass in that collection.4 Mina Gregori, in her 1982 monograph on Ceruti (see Literature), clarified the provenance by proving that the painting formerly in the Avogadro collection, that Marini equated with the present work, is a different but strikingly similar version by the artist, also on glass and with similar dimensions, however depicting the same model holding a basket (fig. 1).5 She noted that an 1820 catalogue of paintings owned by the Fenaroli family in Brescia (who became connected to the Avogadro family by marriage in the 18th century), gave a more detailed description of the painting in that collection: “Ritratto dipinto sopra il vetro d’una donna con canestro, del Ceruti" (Portrait painted on glass of a woman with a basket), the word canestro (basket) confirming that the Avogadro/Fenaroli picture was a different painting. Gregori confirmed that the present work, along with Bust of an Old Man also on glass, comprised part of a group of four paintings from the Martinengo collection.6 This pair, along with the aforementioned Young Woman Holding a Basket and another depicting God the Father are among the few remaining examples of reverse painting on glass in Ceruti’s oeuvre.7
Francesco Frangi has observed that Ceruti used the same model in three other paintings — the painting discussed above formerly in the Avogadro/Fenaroli collection; another painting of a Young Woman Holding a Basket, oil on canvas, formerly in the Rota collection; and the figure in the left foreground of Women working on pillow lace (the Sewing School) in a private collection.8 While there is no documentary evidence revealing her identity, it seems likely the artist knew her during his late Brescian period.
1. See M.L. Ward, "Reverse Paintings on Glass before 1900," in Reverse Painting on Glass: Mildred Lee Ward Collection, exhibition catalogue, Lawrence, KS 1978, p. 14.
2. See W. Steiner, Hinterlas und Kupferstich, Munich 2004, p. 7.
3. R. Eswarin, in Grove Dictionary of Art, London 1996, vol. 12, p. 797.
4. “Un ritratto dipinto sopra il vetro, del Ceruti,” and “Un altro di Donna, del sud.o Ceruti, pure sul vetro” (a portrait painted on glass, by Ceruti and another of a woman of the above-mentioned Ceruti, also on glass), see O. Marini under Literature.
5. See M. Gregori, under Literature, p. 439, cat. no. 75, reproduced p. 225.
6. Ibid., p. 439, cat. no. 77, reproduced p. 227.
7. See Giacomo Ceruti, Il Pitocchetto, exhibition catalogue, Brescia 1987, p. 61, reproduced.
8. For the latter two, see F. Frangi, in Giacomo Ceruti, Il Pitocchetto, exhibition catalogue, Brescia 1987, p. 177, cat. no. 31, reproduced p. 108; p. 174, cat. no. 18, reproduced p. 94.
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