Playing Footsie with Cagnacci’s Magdalene

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The doors wouldn’t open a second before 11 a.m. Once they did, journalists and the art crowd buzzed inside, grabbed their cups of coffee and took in the beauty of The Frick. As the clock slowly ticked closer to 12, we gathered to stare upon a not so popular, not so well known painting, Guido Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene.

“Cagnacci is not a household name, but it should be,” said Xavier Salmon, The Frick’s Peter Jay Sharp chief curator.

Theatrical in its composition, the painting is based on contemporary literary sources and on religious plays inspired by biblical texts. The scene is set in a large room, lit from a window on the left and from a door to the right; the columns and balustrade of the balcony beyond denote the house as an aristocratic residence. A terracotta pot on the balustrade holds a carnation plant, the flowers of which have yet to blossom. The room is richly decorated with a tiled floor, an Eastern carpet, and three red and gold damask cushions.

The event depicted in the painting is an episode from the life of Mary Magdalene, the courtesan who gives up her life and converts to Christianity, following her encounter with Christ in a temple. Magdalene is depicted having stripped herself of her opulent clothing and jewels, and lying naked in nothing but a sheet with her sister Martha trying to comfort her. “He had more eroticism than his contemporaries, his work was incredibly sexy,” Salmon said.


Although the scene might read like a new art section in Cosmopolitan magazine, it was actually one of the greatest works by a man who considered Italy’s bizarre genius.

The eccentric painter is a largely forgotten artist, with only so much known about his life known. Unfortunately, through periods of war, archives in Italy had been destroyed.

Cagnacci’s pictorial style was influenced by some of the other great painters of the time, including Carraci, Guercino, and Guido Reni, but he had his own immediately recognizable artistic language.

Curiously, the  picture is s one of only a few in which Cagnacci drew feet. No Quentin Tarantino he. Cagnacci remarked with bitter sarcasm in a letter to Gionima “and because I cannot paint feet, it would be better if Cavalier Liberi could come and paint them himself.”

The painter even included a pair of shoes in the composition. These shoes were so ornate that Roger Vivier would be jealous that he didn’t think of them first. “Her shoes were unbelievable, I’ve never seen anyone have shoes like that in a painting,” Salmon said.

This marks the first time that the work has been seen outside of California since its acquisition by the Norton Simon Museum almost thirty-five years ago. New York is privileged to be introduced to this fine artist.

Salmon also wrote a book to accompany it, The Art of Guido Cagnacci, which he describes as “The kind of thing I want people to be able to read in the subway and learn about this incredibly strange man.”

Visit the Frick’s website at


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