This Old Singer was first connected by Francesco Frangi with two other pictures painted in the same vein, and without question by the same hand: the Old Man Holding a Pilgrim-Bottle by a Globe (London, National Gallery) and the Pilgrim with a Stick (Dallas Museum of Art).1 This trio shows a perfect unity of style and reflects the highest quality when compared with a number of pictures sometimes attributed to Bellotti, while forcefully posing the question of chronology, ever problematic in the case of this artist. As illustrated by the celebrated Fate Lachesis (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie), an early work that is signed and dated 1654, Bellotti soon established his own stylistic trademarks: a concern with deep facial wrinkles, after Ribera (1591-1652); clothing with picturesque detail and crude stitching in plain sight; and visual framing centred on a bust-length composition with a focus on hands in the foreground. Documents are lacking for Bellotti’s mature years, after 1664, the period in which Francesco Frangi suggests this group of works was painted, to judge by the adoption of these fine accents of luminosity, laden with pigment, and expressing an inspired, virtuoso approach to naturalism that displays a clear evolution of style.
These three compositions form the most powerful part of the oeuvre of this Lombard artist, whose brilliant images of paupers were new and original, in compositions that may recall parallel instances in French and Spanish painting, especially as regards the spare pose and bold touches of light between the fingers and along the forearm. Compared to the subjects treated in the canvases in London and Dallas, our painting represents a rarity in the field of genre painting. The concert, or in our case an isolated figure of a singer – and here one may recall a precedent painted by Angelo Caroselli (1585-1652), in a work now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna – was one of the favoured subjects of Caravaggesque painting. Indeed, this is an instance of reappropriation: a subject dear to the followers of Caravaggio is transformed through the lens of poverty and directness of expression, not only by the description of a singer with unexpected, wrinkled features but also by the gesture of his right hand, as it beats time, suggesting the figure is truly inhabited by the musical moment. The same ample gesture reflects the expressive qualities of his sheet of music, while the old man uses his left hand as a small music-stand. His sideways gaze, directed beyond the picture space, suggests an attentive audience, and creates heightened tension as he implicitly addresses the viewer too. Bellotti’s brush lingers on physical details, choosing when to keep his touch light, full-bodied, or almost anecdotal, as in his description of the arabesque patterns in the singer’s beard. While placing his figure in full light, the painter is just as interested in the shadows cast by the hat or the manuscript, a simple, fragile sheet of paper that lies across the singer’s hand. True humanity emanates from this person, modestly dressed, aged, and convincingly engaged in what he is doing – a beautiful occupation that addresses itself to the soul.
The monograph on the artist by Luciano Anelli offers a comprehensive view of Bellotti’s biography, revealing a fairly eventful life and showing the artist to be a veritable connecting link between Lombardy and the Veneto in the domain of genre painting. He arrived in Venice at the age of twelve and was apprenticed to Girolamo Forabosco (1605-1679), staying until the end of the 1670s. While there he was especially partial to portraiture, which he considered with humanity and naturalism, in the manner of Ribera, and he paved the way for later developments in the genre, as seen in the work of Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767). The fact that he worked for highly prominent families in Venice and beyond, and for patrons such as Cardinal Ottoboni – and perhaps for Mazarin, during a hypothetical sojourn in Paris in 1660-1661 – for Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria (in Munich between 1668 and 1669), and for the Governor of Milan between 1670 and 1674, attests to his success, culminating in his appointment in 1681 as Superintendent of Ducal Galleries for the Duke of Mantua, a post he still held in 1691.
1 For Bellotti’s Old Man Holding a Pilgrim-Bottle by a Globe (London, National Gallery, NG 5595) and Pilgrim with a Stick (Dallas Museum of Art., 1987/4), see Luciano Anelli, Pietro Bellotti 1625-1700, Brescia, 1996, p. 379, R.46 and p. 382, R.60. For the attributional history of the canvas in the National Gallery, see Marianne Haraszti-Takács, Genre Painting in the Seventeenth Century, Budapest, 1983, pp. 243-244, no. 264, fig. 96, and more recently Paolo Casadio, in Antonio Carneo nella pittura veneziana del Seicento, exh. cat. by Caterina Furlan, Portogruaro, Palazzo Vescovile, 6 May – 6 August 1995, pp. 190-191, no. 50. The latter entry also addresses the provenance of the Pilgrim with a Stick in Dallas, for which see the recent entry by Gerlinde Gruber in La scena di genere e l’immagine dei pitocchi nella pittura italiana, exh. cat. by Francesco Porzio, Brescia, Museo di Santa Giulia, 28 November 1998 – 28 February 1999, p. 420, no. 79, and, in the same catalogue, Francesco Frangi, “La scena di genere in Lombardia e in Veneto”, p. 409, fig. 3
Paris, private collection
-Francesco Frangi, entry on Pietro Bellotti in Un museo da scoprire. Dipinti antichi della Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, Milan, 7 April – 6 June 1993, pp. 96-97, under cat. no. 47;
-Luciano Anelli, Pietro Bellotti 1625-1700, Brescia, 1996, p. 385, R.70;
A Selection of Paintings from Galerie Canesso, Paris, New York, Didier Aaron, 20 January-4 February 2011, pp. 14-17