As you enter the "Bernardo Strozzi" exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery, you're confronted by one of the Italian baroque master's most fascinating paintings, his "Madonna and Child with St. John" of 1621-1622.
This is no sweet-faced mother gazing fondly at the infant she holds. This madonna, seated with a barefoot up on her sewing basket and her head resting informally on her right hand, lifts her eyes from the book she's reading to look straight out at us. Here's a practical-looking, no-nonsense sort of woman, a person we can easily imagine chatting with. The Christ child, too, looks approachable as he leans casually on his mother's knee and raises a finger in gesture toward St. John.
Everything about the picture conspires to make it an everyday scene with which the viewer can feel comfortable. The basket of peaches and plums on the table, the scissors protruding from the sewing basket and the ball of thread on the floor nearby are similar to objects we see around home today.
As it did four centuries ago, Strozzi's work appeals for its visual banquet of brilliant highlights, varied textures and rich colors, but above all, for its naturalism. The quality, developed in response to the Catholic church's desire at the time for easily understandable images, brings immediacy, liveliness and human warmth to most of the 27 paintings in this fine exhibit.
A happy choice
Several things conspired to make "Strozzi" the right show in the right place at the right time. Earlier this year, there was a much larger show of Strozzi's work in Genoa, his native city. The National Gallery in Washington was interested in, but unable to schedule, a show based on the one in Genoa. Fortunately, the Walters was able to accommodate it.
To complement the 19 paintings from the Genoa show, Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of renaissance and baroque art, borrowed eight Strozzis from American collections. The show is installed in the red gallery of the Walters' original 1904 building, whose architecture is based on a Genoese palace.
Baltimore is a happy choice for "Strozzi." The show celebrates the 10th anniversary of Baltimore's sister-city relationship with Genoa. Also, the Walters has a notable collection of baroque art, including a major Strozzi, "Adoration of the Shepherds" (about 1618), which went to the Genoa show.
Finally, this show of largely religious art will be in town when Pope John Paul II visits Baltimore on Oct. 8. For the occasion, the Walters even pulled from its vast collection two 19th-century papal ceremonial keys to hang in the exhibit. Appropriately enough, they're placed between the show's two Strozzi paintings of "Christ Giving the Keys of Heaven to Saint Peter" (1625-1630 and 1635-1637).
These paintings, like much of Strozzi's work, also reflect the Catholic church's agenda: In response to the Protestant movement, it sought to assert the authority of the popes by emphasizing their role as successors to Saint Peter.
The church played a major role in Strozzi's life, as the show's small but informative catalog explains. Born in Genoa in 1581 or 1582, he showed artistic talent early and had already studied with two established painters when at 17 he joined a Capuchin monastery. His earliest work here, "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1598-1609), is a somber painting that reflects the ideal of simplicity of the Capuchin order, a branch of the Franciscans.
Strozzi left the monastery in 1609, but his work remained primarily religious. In the following decade his style developed from the bravura brushwork, cool colors and somewhat artificial poses of his "St. Catherine" and "St. Cecilia" (both 1610s) to the warmer and more intimate quality of the Walters' "Adoration of the Shepherds."
In this middle period, Strozzi developed a full repertoire of effects to make his paintings immediate -- including cropped figures in a shallow space up close to the viewer, dramatic lighting, and a lack of detailed background, which could act as a distraction.
But a new worldliness was creeping into Strozzi's work, too, which the church evidently found disturbing. It can be seen in some of his non-religious works, such as the charming "Piper" and the detailed domestic scene of "The Kitchenmaid" (both about 1625). Even in a religious picture, such as "St. Lawrence Distributing the Riches of the Church" (1625-1630), the sumptuous gown of the saint and the luxuriousness of the foreground objects vie with the religious narrative for the viewer's attention.
In the 1620s and 1630s, the church tried repeatedly to force Strozzi back into the monastery, resulting in his flight to Venice in the early 1630s. There, a more accepting atmosphere allowed him a fuller expression of his powers before his death in 1644.
Richness of color and texture exist for themselves alone in the garments worn by the figures in "Joseph Interpreting Dreams" (about 1633) and the feathers of the headdress in "David Returning with the Head of Goliath" (about 1636). And in the second version of "Christ Giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter," Strozzi makes his religious theme especially realistic through facial expressions and cropped figures.
An admirable show
The 27 works in this exhibit have been judiciously selected to cover the artist's career, and they constitute a manageable, undaunting experience. We could wish for a few things that are not here -- for example: more than one portrait; one of the larger versions of the "Healing of Tobit" than the small 1625 prototype shown here; one of the still lifes shown in Genoa (though there are still-life elements in several pictures here); and the marvelously telling "Vanitas" (also shown in Genoa), with its expression of life's fleeting pleasures.
But on the whole, this is an admirable show, given a thorough presentation that allows us to become well acquainted with an artist too little known in this country.
What: "Bernardo Strozzi: Master Painter of the Italian Baroque"
Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Nov. 26
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students and 18 and under free
Call: (410) 547-9000