Crespi was a painter in Italy’s late Baroque period, becoming a unique talent in the Bolognese School of painting. He painted religious works, but his lasting legacy was primarily for his contributions to genre painting, or scenes from everyday life. He was called Lo Spagnuolo, meaning the Spanish One, a nickname endeared to him for his love of Spanish fashion in his dress.
His earliest training and influence was received under the artist, Angelo Michele Toni (1640 – 1708), then with the Bolognese painter Domenico Maria Canuti (1620 – 1660). There in Canuti’s studio Crespi worked alongside his Bolognese near contemporary, Giovanni Antonio Burrini (1656 - 1727). Crespi and Burrini would be became close collaborators, but Crespi also studied drawing under another Bolognese artist, Carlo Cignani (1628 – 1719) in his Accademia del Nudo.
While Crespi welcomed the influence of Cignani’s vivid use of colors, he is famous for having rebelled against the rather academic style of art imposed upon him. Crespi also implored a much greater sense of contrast in his use of color and also the chiaroscuro effect of dark and light contrasts. Within this highly individual style, Crespi explored an almost gritty reality and adept sense of humanism. This was most evident in his genre works, often compared to that of the leading Bolognese family of painters, the Carracci, most notably Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), but also to the Dutch and Flemish traditions of genre painters in Rome. The bold colouring used, influenced by the Venetians, is what set the Italians apart in genre works, where softer pastoral colors were more common.
Crespi spent some time in Venice absorbing this style and also in Parma where he studied the religious masterworks of Correggio (1489 – 1534). While his religious frescos and altarpieces were of no less skill, Crespi’s artistic revolution was his intense observation of everyday life. These works often contained a hint of darkness in their sympathetic portrayals of lower class life and beggars. While he is sometimes compared in this respect to his Italian contemporary, Alessandro Magnasco (1667 – 1749), it is noted that Crespi’s highly individual style might have been more of an influence, than a similarity to Magnasco. His insights into harsh realty did not spare the mundane and could often magnify the impact of small things, such as his depictions of Fleas invading human comfort. This is seen in his piece, Searcher of Fleas, with a woman distraught and unsettled from her sleep to scratch out the little pests. There is also his piece, now in the Uffizi Gallery, The Flea, which focuses on another woman in a contorted pose in search of a flea. Of his most notable religious works is his series of canvases, titled The Seven Sacraments.
The artist was also a portraitist and caricaturist, known equally for his etchings of genre pieces from the Dutch master, Rembrandt. Crespi headed a school in Bologna, where he became an important influence to several Venetian students. He also had two sons who followed their father’s tradition of painting.
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