ITALIAN masters         







(1698 – Milan – 1767)


Portrait of a countrywoman



Oil on glass

26 x 18 ¼ inches (66.4 x 46.4 cm.)



Martinengo Collection, Brescia; F. Steffanoni Collection, Bergamo; Falanga Collection, Milan; Private Collection, Milan; Private Collection, Rome; sale, Christie’s, Milan, 25 November 2008, lot 41; with Galleria Cesare Lampronti, Milan.



G. Testori, Il Ghislandi, il Ceruti e i veneti, in “Paragone”, 1954, 57, pp. 31-32, pl. 15;

F. Ferro, Giacomo Ceruti, in “I maestri del Colore”, Milan, 1966, p. 1;

O. Marini, Qualcosa per vicenda del ‘Pitocchetto’. I. I committenti bresciani del Ceruti; a) il Ceruti nella Galleria Barbisoni, in “Paragone”, 1966, 199, pp. 41-42;

G. Testori, Giacomo Ceruti, trentadue opere inedite, catalogo della mostra, Milan, 1966, pp. 70-71, n. 27;

M. Valsecchi, Inediti di Giacomo Ceruti, in “Le Arti”, XVI, 1966, November, p. 64;

L. Mallé and G. Testori, Ceruti e la ritrattistica del suo tempo nell’Italia settentrionale, catalogo della mostra, Torino, 1967, p. 51, n. 40 e p. 95, pl. 27;

U. Ruggeri, Ceruti a Torino, in ‘Critica d’Arte’, XIV, 1967, April, p. 6;

O. Marini, Qualcosa per la vicenda del ‘Pitocchetto’ I. I committenti bresciani del Ceruti: il Ceruti nella galleria Avogadro, in ‘Paragone’, 1968, 215, pp. 46-47, 50, 51, 55;

M. Gregori, Giacomo Ceruti, Bergamo, 1982, p. 439, n. 76 and p. 226, fig. 76;

F. Frangi, in Giacomo Ceruti. Il Pitocchetto, exhibition catalogue, Milan, 1987, p. 177;

Galleria Cesare Lampronti, Rome (TEFAF, Maastricht 2009), Rassegna di importanti dipinti dei secoli XVII e XVIII, catalogo della mostra a cura di M. Moschetta, pp. 30-33, n. 9.


For many centuries, the age old practice of reverse painting on glass has been considered a fascinating and complex medium, admired for its “luster, play of light and breaking up of colors, [and] the irreality of [the] technique that, whilst displaying an image, at the same time renders it difficult to grasp.”[1]  Aside from decorated glass fragments embedded in the walls of Roman tombs from the fourth and fifth centuries, the earliest surviving paintings on glass were created in Italy in the latter part of the thirteenth century.[2]  It is believed that Venice was the first Italian city to practice the technique due to the availability of locally-made, hand-blown glass.  The first Venetian works display the early sgraffito technique, in which gold leaf was attached to glass with natural glue and then scratched with a sharp instrument to produce a design.[3]  Glass painting reached its highest production in the 1500s and continued to enjoy enormous success throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  However, in the mid-nineteenth century, the accessibility of cheaper colored prints and mezzotints, in addition to the increase of commercial glass production, ultimately contributed to the decline of the genre.


During the height of its popularity, artists found that there were many appealing qualities of painting on glass.  First, the preparation of glass was much more time efficient; unlike wood, which had to be prepared and sealed with gesso, glass simply needed to be cleaned before the painting process could begin.  Second, because the paint was applied to the back of the glass, the added protection reduced the risk of deterioration and fading.  Finally, artists enjoyed the illusion of painting on glass and the unique appearance that it produced.  The one drawback of course is that glass easily shatters, and one would therefore assume that much material in this medium is irretrievably lost.


Despite many intriguing qualities, the technique of painting on glass can be very challenging.  The main difference in painting on glass (as opposed to wood or canvas) is that the image is painted on one side of the glass, but viewed from the other.  Thus, the paint must be applied in the reverse of the usual order, with the finer details painted first and the background completed last.  The artist must “therefore position every detail in exactly the right place at the very beginning—eyelashes must be situated precisely where he will later place the face [and] the wavy lines of curls where he wants to put the hair.”[4]  To facilitate this fastidious preparation, artists would produce “simple drawings in pencil or pen…in a fairly free and bold manner.  The drawings [are] then laid under the glass and used as a pattern for the painting.”[5]  When the work is complete, the glass is turned over and the design or scene is displayed, in reverse, on the opposite side.


The present work is a rare example of painting on glass by Giacomo Ceruti.  The painting was originally published by Giovanni Testori in 1954 as part of a group of four paintings on glass from the Martinengo collection in Brescia.[6]  A decade later, Oreste Marini, citing an unpublished manuscript from the Biblioteca Queriniana in Brescia, incorrectly identified the portrait as a work from the Avogadro collection.[7]  According to Marini, the manuscript identified two paintings on glass by Ceruti in the collection; the first ‘Un ritratto dipinto sopra il vetro, del Ceruti’ and the second ‘Un altro di Donna, del sud.o Ceruti, pure sul vetro,’ the last reference erroneously attributed to our painting.[8]  In 1982, Mina Gregori proved that the second inventorial quote did not refer to our portrait, but to a strikingly similar version of the painting, entitled Ragazza con canestro (also on glass and with similar dimensions, but depicting the same young girl holding a basket on her left knee).  Gregori also included an excerpt from the 1820 collection catalogue of Villa Fenaroli, in which the latter version is specifically identified by the quote: ‘Ritratto dipinto sopra il vetro d’una donna con canestro, del Ceruti.’[9]  The word canestro, or basket, confirms that the other version was part of the Fenaroli collection and originally came from the Avogadro collection.  The other painting on glass, cited by Marini (‘Un ritratto dipinto sopra il vetro, del Ceruti’), was most likely lost or destroyed. 


Thus, Gregori confirms that the present work, along with Busto di Vecchio (Location unknown, Gregori, p. 439, n. 77), comprised part of Testori’s originally documented group of four from the Martinengo collection.[10]  This pair, along with the similar version of our work, Ragazza con canestro (Private Collection, Brescia), and Il Padreterno (Private Collection, Frangi, p. 61) are among the few remaining examples of reverse painting on glass in Ceruti’s oeuvre.


According to Gregori, our portrait was completed between the late 1720s and early 1730s, during the final years of Ceruti’s Brescian period.  The head of the sitter bears a close stylistic affinity with a portrait from the same period, formerly part of the Oldofredi collection (Gregori, p. 437, n. 70).  In the present work, Ceruti painted a simple, unembellished portrayal of a young country woman against a plain background.  The artist has demonstrated his skill in depicting surface materials, such as the rough texture of the sitter’s garments and the delicate tendrils of her hair.


Instead of using stock types, Ceruti seems to have painted actual individuals in his portraits.  In addition to our portrait, Francesco Frangi observed that Ceruti has depicted the same model in three other paintings: the similar version of the portrait from the Avogadro collection, also on glass; Ragazza con canestro, painted on canvas, formerly in the Rota Collection and now in a Private collection in Brescia (Frangi, p. 177, n. 31); and the figure in the left foreground of Ragazze al tombolo (Private collection, Frangi, p. 174, n. 18).[11]  While there is no documentary evidence revealing the woman’s identity, it is likely she knew the artist during his late Brescian period.


[1] Gislind Ritz, Hinterglasmalerei – Geschichte, Erscheinung, Technik, Munich, 1975, p. 57 (Translated by Wolfgang Steiner, Hinterlas und Kupferstich, Munich, 2004, p. 7.).

[2]Mildred Lee Ward, “Reverse Paintings on Glass before 1900” in Reverse Painting on Glass: Mildred Lee Ward Collection, exhibition catalogue, Spencer Art Museum, Lawrence, 8 October – 5 November 1978, p. 14.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

[4] Wolfgang Steiner, Hinterlas und Kupferstich, Munich, 2004, p. 7.

[5] Heinrich Buchner, Hinterglasmalerei in der Böhmerwaldlandschaft und in Südbayern, Munich, 1936, p.27.  (Translated by Wolfgang Steiner, Hinterlas und Kupferstich, Munich, 2004, p. 11.)

[6] Giovanni Testori, Il Ghislandi, il Ceruti e i veneti, in “Paragone”, 1954, 57, pp. 31-32, pl. 15.

[7] Oreste Marini, Il Qualcosa per vicenda del ‘Pitocchetto’. I. I committenti bresciani del Ceruti; a) il Ceruti nella Galleria Barbisoni, in “Paragone”, 1966, 199, pp. 41-42.

[8] Mina Gregori, Giacomo Ceruti, Bergamo, 1982, p. 439, n. 75.

[9] Ibid., p. 439, n. 75.

[10] Ibid., p. 439, n. 76 and 77.

[11] Francesco Frangi, Giacomo Ceruti, Il Pitocchetto, exhibition catalogue, Commune di Brescia, Brescia, 13 June – 31 October 1987, p. 177.