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Alessandro Magnasco, also called Lissandro and Lissandrino

Italian (active Genoa, Milan, Venice, and Florence) c. 1667 - 1749

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Alessandro Magnasco was born in Genoa in 1667. His father was a painter but died when Alessandro was a child. At about the age of fifteen the young man went to Milan, where he joined the workshop of Filippo Abbiati. Most of his working life was spent in Genoa, though in 1716 he was in Venice, where he knew Marco Ricci and where the fertile creative energy that the Venetians enjoyed may have been an element in lightening Magnasco's style. Characteristics of the Lombard school remained firmly imprinted, however, and are apparent in the artist's stark contrasts of light and dark and a palette that tends toward the monochromatic, even somber, in contrast to the brilliant colors favored by his Genoese and Venetian contemporaries.

Magnasco's work is distinguished by a personal expressive quality in both subject and style. His series of paintings of Capuchin friars in the Seitenstetten abbey in Austria verges on caricature, as does his Satire of the Nobleman in Poverty in the Detroit Institute of Arts, suggesting that Magnasco was aware of the criticism of church and class structures filtering into northern Italy from France during the first half of the eighteenth century. Other seemingly innocuous subjects, such as the Virgin frightening away thieves intent on stealing from a church, are peopled by skeletons, and often he simply portrayed the macabre for its own sake, as in a series of four fearsome witches.

His style was equally eccentric, exhibiting a predilection for fleshless, elongated figures depicted with rapid, vigorous brush strokes that streak across the surface of his paintings and drawings like summer lightning. Unique though he is, Magnasco's roots can be traced to seventeenth-century Milanese predecessors, such as il Morazzone, Daniele Crespi, and Giovanni Battista Crespi. Similarities between Magnasco's style and that of El Greco have been noted, although whether these occurred by coincidence or through actual contact with El Greco's work is not known (Milan was controlled by Spain at that time). Magnasco spent the last fourteen years of his life in his native Genoa and died there in 1749.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 36.

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