Lot 54
  • 54

Giuseppe Maria Crespi

300,000 - 400,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Giuseppe Maria Crespi
  • La pulce or the flea hunt
  • oil on canvas


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This work has been cleaned and retouched. The restoration is still attractive, but the very old lining to the picture is not supporting the paint layer as well as one would hope. There is visible cracking and associated distortion as a result. Very few retouches are visible under ultraviolet light. However, details such as in the dog on the pillow have probably been retouched. There are presumably other retouches that are not visible under ultraviolet light. The condition of the paint layer seems to be very good in general. If the cracking were minimized or eliminated with careful re-lining and the restoration re-examined, the painting would improve noticeably.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This newly discovered scene of tranquil domesticity was painted by the enigmatic Giuseppe Maria Crespi, one of the leading figures in the development of Italian genre painting in the first half of the eighteenth century. The composition is arguably Crespi's most celebrated and is known in three other versions. All are on canvas of very similar dimensions and they are thought to date from different stages in the artist's career:  the earliest from 1710 is in the Museo Civico, Pisa; the work in the Louvre, Paris, is datable to 1720-25; the version in the Museo di Capodimente, Naples is from circa 1730.1 In each of these the quality inferior to the present work and the design is more cramped, virtually omitting the warm glow of the fire lower right as well as several other details.

The painting of genre scenes afforded Crespi with the perfect vehicle to explore his wide range of painterly techniques. With his light brushtrokes, dramatic lighting and interest in chromatic movement, Crespi delights in describing with the eye of a still-life painter the everyday objects of the room and their different textures, and adds a charm and respect not always present in similar supposedly low-life scenes painted by those seventeenth-century Northern artists active in Italy known as the Bamboccianti.

The Italian name for the composition is La pulce, which broadly translates as "the flea hunt". The design is a development of two earlier works in the Uffizi, Florence, and in the Barber Institue of Fine Arts, Birmingham (and a work in Chicago whose attibution has been questioned) which focus on the central female figure sitting on a bed, either washing or checking herself for fleas.2 In the present treatment, the artist steps back and allows us to appreciate a wider perspective of the room and includes the secondary characters, who are probably family members. It has been proposed that the composition is the opening scene of a lost series which tells the story of the rise and fall of an opera singer. The contemporary commentator G.P. Zanotti reported that the series was commissioned by the Englishman Owen McSwiny and was painted on copper (thereby excluding the present or the three other versions as the actual painting from the set), though until this series emerges this can be no more than conjecture.3 Moreover, McSwiny was not in Bologna until 1730, a date which seems too late stylistically since Merriman dates the Pisa version to as early as 1710. Certainly, there are some elements which support the musical idea and a singer on the verge of success: to the left of this humble home we see a rather unexpected spinet while theatre programmes are affixed to the wall behind the protagonist, and the little lap dog sugests a hint of luxury, perhaps a gift from a rich patron or admirer.

We are grateful to Professor Daniele Benati for endorsing the attribution after first-hand inspection.


1. See M.P. Merriman, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Milan 1980, pp. 307-08, cat. nos. 250-52, reproduced figs. 250-52.
2. Ibid., pp. 247-49, pp. 305-7. reproduced figs. 247-49.
3. See G.P. Zanotti, Storia dell'Accademia Clementina, Bologna 1739, vol. II, p. 59.
McSwiny also commissioned from Crespi a portrait of the celebrated contralto Vittoria Tesi; as interesting as a link would be, Zanotti does not specify that the series depicted the life of Tesi.