Christ is depicted in conversation with a Samaritan woman, a member of a sect despised by the Jewish authorities, signifying the universality of his message. The subject relates to a larger oil on canvas listed in an inventory taken after Luti’s death. However, the high level of finish and surface detail as well as the use of an expensive copper support make it unlikely that this work was made merely as a preparatory study. Luti enjoyed an outstanding reputation in Rome and this painting may have belonged to Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667–1740), one of the most important patrons and collectors of the day.
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The Artist: One of the most influential and important artists active in early eighteenth-century Rome, Benedetto Luti was born and baptized in Florence on November 17, 1666. The son of an artisan, his connections to the upper reaches of Florentine artistic circles at birth is indicated by the fact that his godfather was Justus Suttermans, a well-placed painter in the Medici court. By the 1680s, Luti was training with the Florentine artist Antonio Gabbiani but his wider awareness of Florentine artistic practice is revealed in a letter in which he mentions making drawings from works by Andrea del Sarto, Raphael, Pietro da Cortona, and other artists whose paintings he had access to in that city. After receiving important commissions in Pisa, Luti left Florence for Rome, settling there in the early 1690s, and presenting his monumental painting God Cursing Cain after the Murder of Abel at the annual Saint Bartholomew’s Day exhibition. Luti’s talent was quickly recognized in the papal city and by 1694 he was elected to the Accademia di San Luca where he was eventually made head, principe, in 1720.
Luti benefitted from the very highest levels of patronage both in Rome and in his native city. In Rome, he worked for many of the city’s greatest families as well as for Pope Clement XI and other members of the curia, especially Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, one of the leading cultural figures of his age. In Florence, the artist enjoyed the support of Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici. These connections helped secure his acclaim beyond Italian borders.
In the first decades of the eighteenth century, Luti’s reputation as a painter was arguably greater than that of any other artist in Rome. Charles François Poerson, director of the French Academy in Rome, described him as the best painter in the city (Correspondence des directeurs de l’Académie de France à Rome, ed. A. de Montaiglon, Paris 1889, vol. 6, no. 2353, p. 61, July 22, 1721). However, Luti engaged in many other pursuits. He was one of the principal dealers on the Roman art market and was admired as one of the greatest connoisseurs of this age. He shared expertise with the collectors Pierre Crozat and Pierre Jean Mariette, and served as advisor in the sale of Queen Christina of Sweden’s collection of paintings to Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, in Paris. Luti was also an admired collector of drawings—one contemporary estimation counted around 15,000 in his possession. The artist also played an important role in the administration of the Accademia di San Luca, taught there, and ran a large studio of his own. He trained an international roster of successful students, among them Jean-Baptiste and Carle van Loo, William Kent, and Giovanni Paolo Panini. Such distractions from his studio practice may explain Lutis’s relatively small painted oeuvre.
The Painting: This elegant painting on copper depicts a scene from John 4:4–26. Christ engages with a woman who has come to draw water from a well outside of the city of Sychar in Samaria. In the ensuing exchange, the woman recognizes Christ as a prophet and returns to her people to proselytize. Luti has eliminated the anecdotal details of John’s account and pared down the narrative to the two key figures in this exchange. Christ’s teachings, supported by the weighty column behind him, draw the woman’s attention. Her receptiveness to his arguments is emphasized by the receptacle she embraces.
Dating to around 1715–20, this painting on copper is an especially fine example of the classicism that defines Luti’s later work. Centered around the well, its gracefully calibrated composition is complemented by a luminous and subtly modulating palate of soft but saturated colors. Luti balances an acute sensitivity to carefully observed detail, such as the undulating lip of the metal vessel containing the reflecting water at the foot of the well or the rhythmically twisting rope above it, with the soft atmospheric effects in the characteristically Roman vista at the left and the lush grove of trees in the upper right of the painting.
Olszewski (2004) associated the copper with one mentioned in the 1743 Ottoboni inventory ("Altro in rame di mezza testa rappresentante la Sammaritana al pozzo originale di Benedetto Luti: 320."). Assuming that this painting is the one mentioned there, it is one of at least four coppers that belonged to Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, grandnephew of Pope Alexander VIII and one of the Rome’s greatest patrons of the arts. Although small copper paintings were often found in seventeenth-century collectors cabinets or were made for precious devotional use, the function of Luti’s small paintings on this support is unclear. Maffeis (2012) suggests that they might have served as presentation pieces for important patrons, citing the example of the Holy Family the artist sent to Pommersfelden as a gift to gain favor with the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz. Indeed, Luti produced a number of highly finished compositions such as this that relate directly to larger works on canvas. The postmortem inventory of the artist’s studio mentions an unfinished canvas of the Woman of Samaria at the Well in a gold frame. ("Un quadro in tela rappresentante la Samaritana al pozzo originale del Cavalier Luti non finiito con sua cornice dorata." See M. Guerrieri Borsoi, "La collezione di Benedetto Luti," in E. Debenedetti, Collezionisti, disegnatori e teorici dal Barocco al Neoclassico, vol. 1 ("Studi sul Settecento Romano," 25), Rome, 2009, p. 100.) The date of this copper toward the end of the artist’s career makes the connection between the two works plausible. The expensive gilded frame suggests that the unfinished canvas was a paid commission that was never delivered.
Although there are elements in the landscape, in the positioning of figures, and elsewhere that indicate that Luti developed and refined the composition while executing this painting, the exceptional level of finish make it clear that it was not a preparatory study but a finished work of exceptional refinement, meant to be admired independently.
Stephan Wolohojian 2016
?Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome (until d. 1740; posthumous inv., 1743, no. 241); ?Benjamin West, London; [Arthur Appleby, London, until 1960; sold to Clark]; Anthony M. Clark, Minneapolis, later New York (1960–d. 1976); private collection, Houston (1976–2015; on loan to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; sold to The Met]
Art Institute of Chicago. "Painting in Italy in the Eighteenth Century: Rococo to Romanticism," September 19–November 1, 1970, no. 84 (lent by a private collection, U.S.A.).
Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Painting in Italy in the Eighteenth Century: Rococo to Romanticism," November 24, 1970–January 10, 1971, no. 84.
Toledo Museum of Art. "Painting in Italy in the Eighteenth Century: Rococo to Romanticism," February 7–March 21, 1971, no. 84.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome," March 16–May 28, 2000, no. 242 (lent by a private collection, Houston).
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome," June 25–September 17, 2000, no. 242.
Nota de Quadri, et altri mobili Ritrovati nell'Ere dita Della ch. Mem. del fù Card. P. Ottoboni Spettanti alla Primogenitura istituita Da Papa Alessandro VIII. 1743, no. 241 [Archivio di Stato, Rome, R.C.A. 604; published in Olszewski 2004], as "Altro in Rame di mezza testa rapp.te La Sammaritana al Pozzo Originale di Benedetto Luti . . . 320," possibly this picture.
Anthony M. Clark inPainting in Italy in the Eighteenth Century: Rococo to Romanticism. Ed. John Maxon and Joseph J. Rishel. Exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, 1970, pp. 200–201, no. 84, ill., dates it 1715–20; states that it is said to have been owned by Benjamin West, based on a now-illegible inscription on the reverse; calls the woman a typical Trasteverina and notes that the landscape recalls the Alban Hills outside Rome; finds the composition traditional and generally reminiscent of the Carracci; states that a painting by Sebastiano Conca showing that he was aware of this picture was sold at Sotheby's, Florence, in 1969.
Giancarlo Sestieri. "Il punto su Benedetto Luti." Arte illustrata 6 (August 1973), p. 252, no. 33.
Edgar Peters Bowron. "The Paintings of Benedetto Luti (1666–1724)." PhD diss., New York University, 1979, pp. 179–80, 268, no. 32, fig. 109, dates it about 1715, based on the "weight and clarity of form, and the accomplished and balanced composition" of Luti's mature style; noting that Luti's pupil Placido Costanzi painted a work of the same subject and composition with a companion depicting the "Noli me tangere," believes that the MMA picture must also have had a pendant.
Giancarlo Sestieri inSebastiano Conca (1680–1764). Exh. cat., Palazzo De Vio. Gaeta, 1981, pp. 120–21, ill., as formerly in the collection of A. M. Clark, Minneapolis; compares it with the painting by Conca of the same subject, mentioned by Clark (1970), finding the MMA picture more psychologically penetrating but with a similar delicacy.
Ágnes Szigethi. "Két Maratta követo, Giacinto Calandrucci és Benedetto Luti képei Budapesten / Due seguaci di Maratta a Budapest: dipinti di Giacinto Calandrucci e Benedetto Luti." Annales de la Galerie Nationale Hongroise / A Magyar Nemzeti Galéria Évkönyve (1991), pp. 188, 191, pl. LXII, fig. 5.
Giancarlo Sestieri. Repertorio della pittura romana della fine del Seicento e del Settecento. Turin, 1994, vol. 1, p. 110; vol. 3, pl. 648.
Edgar Peters Bowron inArt in Rome in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Edgar Peters Bowron and Joseph J. Rishel. Exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 2000, pp. 394–95, no. 242, ill. (color), states that Clark bought the picture from Arthur Appleby, London, in 1960; calls Annibale Carracci's painting of the same subject (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) this work's "ultimate compositional prototype".
Edward J. Olszewski. The Inventory of Paintings of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667–1740). New York, 2004, pp. 52, 95, 237, no. 241, fig. 86, tentatively identifies it with a work included in Ottoboni's postmortem inventory of 1743, noting that the appraisal of 320 scudi includes the three following paintings.
Rodolfo Maffeis. Benedetto Luti: l'ultimo maestro. Florence, 2012, pp. 129, 140 n. 17, 269–70, no. I.38, ill. p. 270 and colorpl. 14, states that it is most similar to the artist's "Rebecca at the Well" (fragment: about 1716, oil on canvas, 144.8 x 104.2 cm, Holkham Hall, Norfolk; study: oil on canvas, 96.5 x 133.5 cm, formerly Suida-Manning collection, New York) and that it is stylistically close to his "Education of the Virgin" (1715, Staatsgalerien, Munich); notes that the 1724 inventory of Luti's paintings included an unfinished canvas of this subject.
The frame is eighteenth-century Roman and was acquired and adapted for the picture in 2017.
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