February 9, 2011

Paolo de Matteis

Andromeda and Perseus (ca. 1710) by Paolo de Matteis
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

Paolo de Matteis was born in Piano del Cilento, near Salerno, on February 9, 1662 in the Kingdom of Naples. According to the Neapolitan biographer Bernardo De Dominici (1683-1759) the young Paolo showed great promise as a painter. His parents encouraged him, providing him with art instruction, though his father wanted him to pursue a more distinguished career in liberal arts. Brought to Naples he studied philosophy and mathematics under the guidance of some of the Kingdom's leading intellectuals, including Lionardo di Capoa and Tommaso di Cornelio. Paolo's natural talent, however, was painting and he was allowed to return to it.

At first he studied under Francesco di Maria, but his father pulled some strings and secured a place for him in the atelier of Luca Giordano, who, at the time, was one of Naples' most influential and respected painters. Inspired by his master's Roman drawings, de Matteis travelled to the Eternal City as part of Don Filippo Macedonia's entourage to see the masterpieces first hand. In Rome the Marchese del Carpio, Spain's ambassador to the Papal States, took the young artist under his wing and sent him to study in the workshop of Giovanni Maria Morandi, a follower of Carlo Maratta. Under Morandi's influence, the Neapolitan began to fuse Giordano's vigorous idiom with Roman classicism.

In 1683 the Marchese del Carpio was appointed Viceroy of Naples and de Matteis returned with him back to Giordano's studio. At first the youthful painter's Roman training predominated his work, but after Giordano's departure to Spain in 1692, de Matteis began to emulate Giordano's style, possibly to satisfy the taste of his patrons. The artist's reputation began to grow and he received many important commissions, not least among which was the vault for the Certosa di San Martino, where he painted the magnificent St. Bruno Interceding with the Madonna for the Suffering.
The Certosa di San Martino overlooking Naples (New York Scugnizzo)
De Matteis visited France in 1702 at the invitation of the Count of Estrées, where he served in the court of le Grand Dauphin. Among his distinguished patrons were Antoine Crozat, the Marquis de Clérembaut and the Duc d'Orléans. In addition to decorating some of the most stately palaces and galleries of Paris, de Matteis also painted the vault for the Augustinian royal convent. In gratitude for his refusal to accept payment for the work, they granted him, his wife and eight children honorary membership into the order.

On his return to Naples de Matteis composed brief biographical accounts of the lives of eighteen Neapolitan painters at the request of a French historian. The profiles were intended for an encyclopedia of European painters, which never came to fruition. Thankfully, De Dominici included them in his Vite de'pittori, scultori ed architetti napoletani (1742-45), a valuable, if somewhat imperfect, source of information about the lives of Neapolitan artists.

Not surprisingly, after the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) de Matteis was commissioned by the Kingdom's new Austrian rulers (1707-1734), most notably Count Wirich Philipp von Daun, the Imperial Viceroy of Naples, and Emperor Joseph I. Perhaps the artist's most interesting piece during this period was his Self-portrait with Allegories of Peace, a large canvas celebrating the peace treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714), and the transfer of power over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from Spain to Austria. Only a fragment of the work survives (Capodimonte Museum), however an extant bozzetto gives us a clue as to what the finished painting may have looked like.
Bozzetto for Self-portrait with Allegory of the Peace of Utrecht and Rastatt
In 1712 the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, hired de Matteis to paint Hercules at the Crossroads Between Virtue and Vice (Ashmolean Museum). The painting depicts the great hero contemplating the choice between sybaritic pleasure and a virtuous life (represented by allegorical figures). The work is considered, by some, to be an emblematic example of the artist's evolution from Giordano's baroque style towards the more refined classicism he studied during his time in Rome and Paris.

In the same year he gained the prefecture of the Corporazione dei pittori napoletani (Neapolitan Painters Guild). He also completed The Annunciation (Saint Louis Art Museum) and Adoration of the Shepherds (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) for the Duchess of Laurenzano, Donna Aurora Sanseverino, an important patroness of the arts and a founding member of the Neapolitan Arcadian Academy.
The Annunciation
Canvases were sent to Lecce and Grottaglie, acquiring him more prestige and commissions. Traveling to Apulia he continued his synthesis of styles, decorating, among others, the Monastero di Santa Maria delle Vergini in Bitonto and the Chiesa di San Giacomo in Bari. Some credit him with a series of frescoes in the chapel of Saint Cataldo, in the transept of the Cattedrale San Cataldo in Taranto, the "City of Two Seas."

After his success in Apulia the artist returned to Naples and started working alongside the versatile Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678-1745) in the chapel of St. Joseph at the Certosa. He completed a series of paintings and frescoes highlighting the saint's life, culminating with the marvelous St. Joseph in Glory. In 1723, under the patronage of French diplomat Cardinal Melchior de Polignac, de Matteis made another journey to Rome. He stayed for three years, distinguishing himself with many works for the clergy and Roman nobility, including two popes—Innocent XIII (1721-24) and Benedict XIII (1724-30).
La morte di san Giuseppe by Paolo de Matteis
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Back in Naples de Matteis executed extensive work for the Chiesa delle Crocelle ai Mannesi, the church where he wished to be interred. Still in great demand, the aging artist's fame travelled well past the city's walls. He continued to receive commissions from the Kingdom's provinces, as well as internationally, and among his last known works was a canvas (possibly two) shipped to Messina, Sicily, and a group of paintings depicting biblical scenes to Bergamo in Lombardy. 

Shortly before his death in 1728, he started goldsmithing and making models for sculpture in silver.

According to De Dominici:
"He also took delight in sculpture for his own amusement, and he modeled many heads and half-length busts; and on a bet with some sculptor (I know not whom) who wanted to criticize him, he carved some half-figures of marble; especially beautiful was a Madonna with the Child in her arms which was executed with such tender care that it seemed not of marble but of soft flesh. But due to an accident in the polishing of the face of the Blessed Virgin, a little black spot is apparent right on her left cheek that lessons the value of so beautiful a work." (Quoted from the Golden Age of Naples: Art and Civilization Under the Bourbons, 1734-1805, Volume II, p. 420)
Unfortunately, the only known sculpture by the artist is a half-length bust of Saint Sebastian, rendered in silver by Gaetano Starace.

The following sources proved invaluable to this post:

• A Taste for Angels: Neapolitan Painting in North America 1650-1750, Yale University Art Gallery, 1987.

• Golden Age of Naples: Art and Civilization Under the Bourbons, 1734-1805, Volume II, The Detroit Institute of the Arts with The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.