Painting for Profit: The Economic Lives of Seventeenth-century Italian Painters

Julian Bell writes:

Painting for Profit looks past the ideologies and rhetorics involved in these style wars to examine the interests at play. The title points us towards a world of rational self-interested agents: maybe if we look at the high achievers among them, common patterns will emerge. For instance, Reni’s art, with its beauteous physiques and silvery suavity, has a very different profile from Rosa’s, yet his was a pricing strategy Rosa would have recognised and saluted: occasional stroppy ‘Because I’m worth it’ grandstanding, plus regular ‘Oh, up to you!’ guessing games for clients desperate not to make fools of themselves before a great master. It did the trick, even if Reni did keep blowing his mega-scudi earnings at the gaming tables. And by the same token Reni scorned softheads like Guercino, who charged for canvases on a straight figure by figure rate. Artisan practice, letting down the profession: hopelessly pre-modern! The book aims to bring the low achievers into the picture too. You glimpse in passing Onofrio de Anfora, a murdered Neapolitan whose workshop inventory reveals scores of saints’ heads turned out at ‘a semi-industrial rate of efficiency’, and the Venetian landscapist Bartolomeo Pedon, who, ‘“reduced to working for shopkeepers”, walked around barefoot with only a tattered cloak and sword to cover his naked body.’ A ragged kind of profession, in truth, painting: ‘The gap between poor and rich,’ Sohm reports, ‘and the uncertainty of regular employment, resemble the income inequality and working conditions of Venice’s courtesans more than its master craftsmen, teachers or bureaucrats.’

(LRB 2 December 2010)