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Still Life with Musical Instruments

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo, and the Superintendency of Milan, under the Patronage of the President of the Italian Republic, with the support of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Cultural Heritage, Regione Lombardia, Provincia di Bergamo and Comune di Bergamo.

The exhibition is made possible by Banca Popolare di Bergamo-Credito Varesino, in cooperation with Camera di Commercio di Bergamo.

The Still Lifes of Evaristo Baschenis

The Music of Silence

November 17, 2000–March 4, 2001

Accompanied by a catalogue

This exhibition is devoted to the paintings of Evaristo Baschenis, the outstanding still-life painter of seventeenth-century Italy. Although unfamiliar to American audiences, his hauntingly poetic still lifes of musical instruments combine baroque splendor with a masterful, restrained geometry. Their quality of time arrested has led to comparisons with Chardin and Vermeer. Now eighteen superb paintings, many of which have never been seen outside the artist's native city, are on view in the Robert Lehman Wing.

Evaristo Baschenis (1617–1677) worked in Bergamo, northeast of Milan. As an artist who had worked outside a major artistic center and in what was considered a lesser genre, it is not surprising that by the beginning of the nineteenth century he had been largely forgotten. His rediscovery in this century is part of an ongoing re-evaluation of the history of Baroque art. This exhibition represents Baschenis's American debut, and presents a selection of the artist's finest pictures from public and private collections throughout northern Italy; some still belong to the families for whom they were painted. Among them is Baschenis's masterpiece, a triptych done for the Agliardi family of Bergamo, which includes portraits of the family and a self-portrait of the artist playing instruments. This work was on loan from the descendants of the family that commissioned the paintings more than three centuries ago. The paintings are shown alongside books on perspective and examples of period musical instruments from the Museum's collection—the kind that Baschenis collected, played, and depicted in his paintings.

Born in Bergamo in 1617 to a family of several generations of artists, Baschenis was previously remembered as living the provincial life of a priest and painter. We now know, however, that Baschenis traveled to Rome and elsewhere, and was involved with a large circle of artists, and had important patrons in Venice, Milan, and Mantua. From the moment he established an independent workshop in 1643, he dedicated himself to painting still lifes. Indeed, almost without exception, he restricted himself to two themes: kitchen scenes with foodstuffs and utensils, and musical instruments. He was probably drawn to still life because of its importance in Lombardy, where artists beginning with Caravaggio had created masterpieces in the genre.

Baschenis became widely known for the painting of musical instruments, single-handedly inventing a genre that was to flourish in the hands of followers into the following century. The paintings of musical instruments—which Baschenis refined to an unparalleled level of accomplishment—enjoyed wide popularity and were highly prized by the aristocratic families who were his patrons. In these circles music, associated with poetry, literature, and history, was regarded as a particularly cultivated form of entertainment.

During his lifetime Baschenis, himself a musician, amassed an impressive collection of instruments and musical scores. The artist would arrange these into carefully choreographed, highly geometrical compositions for his paintings, presenting novel and daringly foreshortened views of the instruments. Having studied with an expert in architectural perspective, known as quadratura painting, Baschenis was fascinated by the study of perspective and challenged by the depiction of lutes and violins, with their curved and irregular forms. The subtle variations between each painting suggest that Baschenis considered his works almost as musical inventions, with ever-changing rhythms and ornament. His finest paintings are imbued with an air of silence and time arrested, as the instruments—sometimes covered by a layer of dust—lie scattered on a table in a quiet angle of a room.

Still Life with Musical Instruments, ca. 1665. Evaristo Baschenis (Italian, 1617–1677). Oil on canvas. Private collection