Galizia trained with her father, miniature painter Nunzio Galizia (1539–1621) in Milan, and received acclaim at the age of twelve when art critic Gian Paolo Lomazzo wrote that Fede was studying to imitate the great artists of her time. Although early modern female artists rarely received commissions for major history paintings, Galizia was best known in her lifetime for devotional works and commissioned portraits. While most 17th-century painters specialized in a single genre, she seems to have defied the obstacles presented by a male-dominated art world and produced a diverse body of work, an especially unusual feat for a woman artist. While her still lifes were virtually unknown to scholars until the 20th century, it is now apparent that Galizia was, like Clara Peeters (circa 1589–1657) in the Netherlands, one of the female artists who would play a vital role in the emergence of the relatively new genre of still life.
In his 1989 monograph on the painter, Flavio Caroli listed four fruit still lifes with similar compositions to the present painting: each features a central glass compote holding peaches, with two quinces to one side and a cut quince and jasmine flower to the other. Unknown to Caroli at the time, the present painting, along with another version, was added to the catalogue’s second edition in 1991, and later in the decade Sam Segal published a fifth version, dated 1607. The expansion of Galizia’s group of fruit still lifes has led to a resurgence in her popularity and an overdue reevaluation of her importance to Italian baroque art.
At the turn of the 17th century, still lifes of fruit alone were uncommon in Italy, the earliest known being the Basket of fruit by Caravaggio (1571–1610) in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, thought to date between 1595 and 1596. In the first decade of the century, when Galizia likely painted the present panel, Caravaggio’s painting was documented in the collection of Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, along with a number of works by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), and it is possible that Fede was influenced by the intense realism of these works. Galizia’s works, however, have a uniquely quiet atmosphere cultivated by the simplicity of the individual elements and the way that the fruits and flowers take on a monumental presence within a small space.
Galizia’s precise observation of natural details brings flora and fauna to life. She used modulations of light and shadow to convey the curve of the leaves on the apples and the ripeness of the peaches; she applied complex layers of glazing to create the believably soft skin of the peaches in contrast to the cold solidity of the glass compote. While Galizia repeated this composition at least four times, this is the only version featuring a grasshopper, a detail which suggests this could be the original design, after which she added and changed details for the subsequent versions. The grasshopper is not an arbitrary addition, however: grasshoppers have weighty symbolic associations, variously linked to evil or death or to converts to Christianity, and they also signal the arrival of spring. The grasshopper’s place next to a cut quince is perhaps intended to call attention to the frailty of human life and the danger of sin, as opposed to the pristine quinces opposite, which symbolize fertility, rebirth, and resurrection. While Galizia’s exact intention cannot be known for certain, the beauty and realism of her subject encourages the viewer to both ponder these symbolic meanings and simply enjoy the minute details and the artist’s finesse in execution. The excellent condition of this small panel also allows it to shine as an example of her finest work.
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