Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Letter

Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca) (Italian, Venice 1701–1785 Venice)
Oil on canvas
24 x 19 1/2 in. (61 x 49.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 619
An older man with a coin in his hand negotiates with a procuress for the favors of a pretty young woman, who reads with evident pleasure the letter he has written her. The great Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi's dedication to truth, by which he meant the way the artist chronicled the foibles of contemporary society. This picture with three others in the Museum's collection seems to have formed part of a series painted in 1746 for the Gambardi family in Florence. The frames are original to the pictures.
Pietro Longhi was renowned in Venice for his small paintings representing scenes of everyday life. These were often salacious and depicted love stories, even though no particular narrative was presented and it is unlikely that these works would have had any moral commentary. The paintings often appeared in series and, again, these habitually did not follow a specific theme. Such paintings were avidly collected by patrician families, and the theatrical comic writer Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s work.

This scene is set in a poor room where seamstresses are meant to be at work—one, in fact, is fast asleep on the left. A pretty girl, dressed in pink and white, is intent in reading a love letter, presumably written by the older gentleman who enters the room from the right. He is offering a coin to the old woman, probably a procuress, who is acting as a business-like intermediary between man and girl. A young girl is innocently playing with her doll as this transaction takes place around her. For a discussion of the theme, see Bagemihl 1988.

This painting, together with three others at the MMA (14.32.2, 17.190.12, 36.16), is said to have been a part of a larger set of canvases by Longhi. It has been proposed (Volpi 1917) that the artist painted twenty pictures for the Gambardi family in Florence, and that the last member of the family left half of the set to the marchese Freschi in Padua and the other half to the conte Miari de’ Cumani in Padua. Out of the ten Freschi canvases, two are supposed to be in the National Gallery, London (An Interior with Three Women and a Seated Man and The Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice), and two others in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (The Little Concert and The Tooth Puller). These two pairs, however, are different in format from each other. The four MMA paintings, instead, were sold by conte Giacomo Miari de’ Cumani in 1912–13. He was said to have owned ten paintings by Longhi, four of which are at the MMA, and six of which were in the collection of Elia Volpi in Florence and later in that of Lionello Perera in New York, before being dispersed at two sales: four were sold at Sotheby’s, London, on June 24, 1964 (nos. 31–34) and two were sold at Sotheby’s, London, on April 19, 1967 (nos. 18–19). Documentation in the MMA archives, however, suggests that conte Miari owned fourteen canvases by Longhi, and not ten. He commissioned copies of the paintings he sold, but these works are still untraced. Four of the Miari canvases were sold to Carlo Balboni who, together with Antonio Carrer, sold them to the MMA. Of these four, two (14.32.1 and 14.32.2) were exhibited at the Museum, while two were sold to J. Pierpont Morgan (17.190.12) and Henry Walters (36.16), before eventually returning to the Museum separately. Of the six remaining paintings that were sold in 1964 and 1967, three are the Artist Sketching an Elegant Company (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena), The Quack Doctor (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and The Card Players (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Three more (A Gentleman and his Wife Taking Chocolate, A Musical Party, A Girl Dancing at a Picnic) are currently untraced. The set probably dates around 1746, the date inscribed next to Longhi’s signature on the back of The Visit (14.32.2). All four paintings have matching eighteenth-century Venetian frames, supporting their origin from the same set of canvases.

This painting was engraved by Cattini, and another version of it was in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford in London.

[Xavier F. Salomon 2011]
?Gambardi family, Florence; conte Giacomo Miari de Cumani, Padua (until 1912/13; sold to Balboni); [Carlo Balboni, Venice, and Antonio Carrer, Venice, 1912/13; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.

Venice. Museo Correr. "Pietro Longhi," December 4, 1993–April 4, 1994, no. 56 (as "La modista [La lettera]").

Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 7.

Barcelona. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. "Grandes maestros de la pintura europea de The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nueva York: De El Greco a Cézanne," December 1, 2006–March 4, 2007, no. 5.

"New Acquisitions of Pictures." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 9 (March 1914), pp. 75–77, ill., calls it one of a series of nine pictures said to have been in the collection of the Miari family since the eighteenth century; notes that the figure of the old woman is repeated in "The Temptation" (MMA 17.190.12).

Ancient Italian Art Treasures of Extraordinary Artistic and Historical Interest. American Art Galleries, New York. December 17–19, 1917, unpaginated, under nos. 441–46, identifies the four MMA paintings, as well as pictures in the National Gallery, London, the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, and six works included in this sale catalogue, as from a series of twenty works painted for the Gambardi family of Florence; gives provenance information for the series.

Aldo Ravà. Pietro Longhi. Florence, 1923, ill. p. 98.

Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, under pl. CCCCXXXI.

Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 3, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century. New York, 1933, unpaginated, under pl. 602.

Margaret D. Sloane. "A Genre Scene by Longhi." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 31 (March 1936), p. 52, repeats the provenance information given in Ref. Volpi 1917.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 293–95, ill., repeats the provenance information given in Ref. Volpi 1917.

Marian Davis. "Two Eighteenth Century Paintings: A Fete Galante by Pater and a Scene from Everyday Life by Longhi." Worcester Art Museum Annual 5 (1946), pp. 60–61, fig. 12, accepts the Gambardi provenance and the connection with the London, Milan, and ex-Volpi pictures; dates the series to the artist's middle or late period, 1750–70.

Antonio Morassi. "Una mostra del Settecento veneziano a Detroit." Arte veneta 7 (1953), p. 55.

Michael Levey. The Eighteenth Century Italian Schools. London, 1956, p. 72 nn. 7, 10, notes that there is no evidence to confirm the provenance given in Ref. Volpi 1917.

Vittorio Moschini. Pietro Longhi. Milan, 1956, pl. 64.

Francesco Valcanover. "Affreschi sconosciuti di Pietro Longhi." Paragone 7 (January 1956), p. 25 n. 1, lists the "bellissima" series at the MMA, noting that there are preparatory drawings in the Museo Correr, Venice.

Carlo Donzelli. I pittori veneti del Settecento. Florence, 1957, p. 135.

Rodolfo Pallucchini. La pittura veneziana del Settecento. Venice, 1960, p. 181.

Terisio Pignatti. Pietro Longhi. Venice, 1968, pp. 24, 88, 92–93, pl. 103 [English ed., "Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings," London: Phaidon, 1969, pp. 12, 76, 80–82, pl. 103], calls it "La crestaia" ("The Milliner") and gives the provenance as the Gambardi collection, Florence; assigns it to the "Temptation" series and dates it slightly before the other three MMA pictures of about 1746; publishes a second version of the composition (pl. 105; Brinsley Ford, London), dating it several years after the MMA painting; reproduces an engraving of the work by Cattini (pl. 103a).

Michael Levey. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Italian Schools. London, 1971, p. 154 nn. 9, 14.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 108, 500, 606.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, pp. 38–39, pl. 40.

Fern Rusk Shapley. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Vol. 3, Italian Schools: XVI–XVIII Century. London, 1973, pp. 136–37, under no. K393, dates all four pictures 1746, finding them "completely homogenous in style".

Julián Gállego and Frédéric Mégret. La grande histoire de la peinture. Vol. 11, Le XVIIIe siècle en France et en Italie. [Geneva], 1973, ill. p. 57 (color).

Terisio Pignatti. L'opera completa di Pietro Longhi. Milan, 1974, pp. 88–89, 92, 94, no. 46, ill. p. 89 and colorpl. XXI.

Ronald Paulson. Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1975, pp. 108–9, fig. 62, suggests that "the left-to-right reading structure" of this picture, which he calls "The Milliner," was influenced by Hogarth's prints.

Rolf Bagemihl. "Pietro Longhi and Venetian Life." Metropolitan Museum Journal 23 (1988), pp. 233, 242–43, fig. 15, discusses the subject matter, the roles of the various figures, and the significance of the setting.

Filippo Pedrocco. "Iconografia delle cortigiane di Venezia." Il gioco dell'amore: le cortigiane di Venezia dal Trecento al Settecento. Exh. cat., Casinò Municipale, Venice. Milan, 1990, p. 92.

Giorgio Fossaluzza et al. in Pietro Longhi. Exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice. Milan, 1993, pp. 20, 43, 112, 114, 116–17, 130, no. 56, ill. (color, overall and detail), accepts the Gambardi provenance; incorrectly states that it belonged to J. Pierpont Morgan and came to the Museum in 1917.

Katharine Baetjer in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 52–54, 56, no. 7, ill. (color) [Catalan ed., Barcelona, 2006, pp. 36–38, no. 5, ill. (color)].

Old Master Paintings: Part I. Christie's, New York. January 28, 2015, p. 132, under no. 48.

The frame (see Additional Images, figs. 1–4), one of a pair (with 14.32.2), is from Venice and dates to about 1746. This delicate variant of a Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) type frame is made of pine and has half-lap construction with a mitred face. The early water gilding with its distinctive luster includes a pale gold leaf applied to an orange-colored bole on a thin gesso layer. The sight edge is ornamented with applied carving of pierced acanthus leaf and husk. A gentle ogee rises to a step before a swept astragal top edge. A hollow on the outside falls back to raked knull ornament at the back edge which emerges from center points. This frame is original to the painting and the style is associated with the artist. Slight variations to the scale of the ornament occur on the two other frames (17.190.12 and 36.16) in this series of four.

[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2017; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]
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