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An Italian Baroque masterpiece from the Norton Simon Museum on view now at the National Gallery
Guido Cagnacci, The Repentant Magdalene, after 1660 © Norton Simon Art Foundation.

LONDON.- Visitors to the National Gallery have a unique opportunity to admire what is widely regarded as Guido Cagnacci’s greatest work, The Repentant Magdalene, an exceptional loan from the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena (California).

Guido Cagnacci (1601–1663) is one of the most unconventional and sensual artists of the Italian Baroque period, and yet he is largely unfamiliar to people today as his paintings are not represented in any UK public collections.

Cagnacci was born in Santarcangelo di Romagna, but by the age of 20 he was living in Bologna, having twice visited Rome where he is recorded as staying in Guercino’s house. From 1649 Cagnacci was in Venice, where he worked entirely for a private clientele. In 1658 he moved to Vienna. Little documentation about Cagnacci survives, though some of the racier episodes in his personal life are mentioned in legal and criminal records of the time, which provide an insight into his character.

Few of Cagnacci’s works are dated, but from around 1640 he began to paint extremely sensual, half-length female figures, for which he became renowned in his lifetime. It was whilst living in Vienna (around 1660–61), that Cagnacci painted this monumental (229.2 x 266.1cm) and erotically charged picture.

This is no ordinary representation of Mary Magdalene, who became a follower of Christ and later, a saint. Traditionally shown holding a skull and contemplating her morality, here she lies almost naked on the ground, begged by her virtuous sister Martha to abandon her sinful life of vice and luxury. Virtue, a blond-haired angel, chases out Vice, a devil who bites his hand in anger as he turns for a last look at the Magdalene. The painting is a celebration of the triumph of virtue over vice, but Cagnacci takes obvious pleasure in describing worldly temptations – in particular, the attention he lavishes on the expensive costume, beautiful shoes, and jewellery scattered across the floor. This depiction of Mary and Martha is entirely original, and Cagnacci knew it: he boastfully signed his work ‘GVIDVS CAGNACCIVS INVENTOR’, rather than the usual ‘pinxit’ (painted) or ‘fecit’ (made).

'The Repentant Magdalene' was originally in the illustrious Gonzaga collection in Mantua, Italy (by 1665) but arrived in England in 1711, entering the collection of the Duke of Portland. The painting remained in England for over 250 years until it was purchased by the American collector, Norton Simon (1907–1993) in 1981. This exhibition in Room 1 marks the spectacular return to England of Cagnacci’s masterpiece, 35 years after its departure, and offers National Gallery visitors a unique opportunity to discover the astonishing naturalism and characteristic eroticism of his paintings.

Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings said: “It has long been a dream of mine to bring this painting to London – it is unquestionably Cagnacci’s masterpiece and one of the greatest Italian Baroque pictures of all time. I hope our visitors are bowled over by it, as I was when I first saw the painting in California 15 years ago.”

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi said: “Cagnacci is a little-known master, but 'The Repentant Magdalene' is his most important work and once seen it gets lodged in the mind. It is an unforgettable work.”

The exhibition has been organised in association with The Frick Collection in New York.

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