Together with his older brother Ubaldo (for whom, see 2014.566), Gaetano was the outstanding painter-decorator of eighteenth-century Bologna and was active throughout northern Italy. His work was much affected by his visit to Venice and his study of the work of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1760. He is the author of numerous altarpieces as well as frescoed decoration for churches and palaces. His most ambitious fresco project was in 1776 for the dome of the church of Santa Maria della Vita (an oil sketch for the project is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City). Like Tiepolo, in his palace decorations he often worked with a specialist in architectural painting (quadrature) and a professional in stucco work. His paintings are characterized by their fresh, open brushwork, combining brio with elegance. As with Tiepolo, their style does not fit easily into the conventional labels of Rococo and Neoclassicism. He had a solid training in the academic tradition in Bologna that extended back to the Carracci.
In addition to his large-scale works, Gaetano—like Ubaldo and Gaetano’s son Mauro (1764–1834)—was a master of the oil sketch and also painted numerous small canvases with heads. Some are portraits, but most are studies of figure types, carried out with great freshness. They are best understood as exercises in pictorial imagination—not unlike those done by Fragonard in France. This bishop saint falls into this category. However, a resemblance has been noted (see Rykner 2010) with the figure of Saint Egidius in an altarpiece in the church of Sant’Egidio, Bologna, that was painted in 1792, and it seems likely that the Museum’s canvas is in some way related to that project—possibly as an independent work for the patron or devotee of the saint. Gandolfi sometimes isolated figures from his major works and reworked them as independent compositions. This happened, for example, with the group of Saint Joseph holding the Christ Child in the Sant’Egidio altarpiece, which he also painted as a half-length composition (see D. Biagi Maino, Gaetano Gandolfi, Turin, 1995, p. 401, no. 212).
[Keith Christiansen 2014]