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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Barbara Longhi

Probably Giulia Farnese,
1490-95, Luca Longhi
Lady with the Unicorn, 1605,
Barbara Longhi
In general, teaching others to paint is a very rewarding endeavor. It's quite gratifying to watch a would-be artist progress from novice to talented student to proficient practitioner. Their progress is often quite rapid, at least at first, usually tapering to gradual improvements as the lessons to be learned become more difficult and technical limitations must be overcome. One of the risks every painting instructor faces, whether consciously or not, is that one of his or her students may someday turn out to be a better artist than their teacher. So far, I don't think that's happened to me, at least not to my knowledge. (I've lost track of most of my former students in the passing years.) However, in the centuries before art academies sprung up in centers of learning all over Europe, when the apprenticeship system ruled the day, when fathers very often taught their sons (in most cases) to carry on the family name as artists, the student surpassing the teacher was not all that uncommon.

Madonna with Child, Barbara Longhi. The other two figures are Joseph and St. Anne.
Presumed Self Portrait as
St. Catherine of Alexandria,
Barbara Longhi

That was the case with an Italian artist named Luca Longhi. Longhi was born in 1507. His son, Francesco was born in 1544, his daughter, Barbara in 1552. The family lived in the northeastern coastal city of Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Luca was a locally respected Mannerist painter who taught both his children the art of portrait painting. His daughter (right) was quite attractive so she got instruction from both sides of the easel, often posing for her father when needed. From all appearances (as seen in comparing the paintings above and below), she was also the more talented of the two siblings. In fact, it would seem she may have been the best artist in the whole family, at least matching, and perhaps surpassing even her father. Unfortunately, none of the Longhi family was rich, famous, or talented enough to be well-known against the backdrop of the vast panoply of exceptional Italian artist plying their trade at the time (during the Mannerist period). Thus, their surviving work which we have left to observe and evaluate today is quite limited.

Francesco Longhi's Madonna and Child and St. Anne, would seem to indicate that the eldest son fell far short of his sister in talent. The baby Jesus appears to be getting his diaper changed. I guess when you're the Son of God, you can't expect much privacy.
Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
Barbara Longhi
Two paintings make comparisons on the father's and the daughter's work quite easy. Sometime during the latter half of the 16th-century, (well after her death) Luca Longhi was commissioned to paint a portrait of an attractive young lady (top, left) seen posed with a unicorn. She appears to be in her late teens, perhaps twenty at most. The figure is said to be Giulia Farnese, daughter of a wealthy Italian family living just outside Rome. Her family tree included a pope, (Boniface VIII) some one-hundred years earlier. From the portrait it's obvious she was quite attractive, said by some to be the most beautiful woman in Rome. Born in 1474, she married young (age 15) and a short time later became the mistress of her husband's third cousin, Rodrigo Borgia. He, in turn, became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He had her installed in a newly-built palace (next door to the Vatican) along with his daughter, Lucretia. The two became close friends.

The Holy Family with St. Anne and John the Baptist, Luca Longhi
Madonna and Child, Barbara Longhi
As interesting and scandalous as the Borgia storyline may be, it's not the fact that Luca Longhi's painted the pope's mistress which interests us at the moment, but that his talented daughter (then about fifty-three) painted a copy of the portrait. She titled it Lady with the Unicorn (top, right). The size and composition are closely similar (slightly different backgrounds), while the drapery and the face in Barbara's painting is, for all intents and purposes, identical to that painted by her father some ten years before. Only Barbara Longhi's reticence to employ color marks any significant failing as compared to her father's work; and this was a shortcoming she shows evidence of overcoming in later paintings (left). An additional comparison of all three artists can be seen in their handling of the ever-popular Holy Family paintings (above). Sometimes, it's difficult to judge one artist against another, especially if their style is similar and when dates are mostly lacking, even when the content of their work is the same. In the case of Barbara and Luca Longhi, it might be better to say they were simply "different," rather than that one being better than the other.

Madonna Adoring the Christ, Barbara Longhi


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