Saint Joseph's dream

This heretofore unpublished painting represents an exciting addition to the oeuvre of Alessandro Magnasco. The Dream of Saint Joseph is recounted in Matthew 1:20-21: an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' The scene takes place in Joseph's workshop, where tools of the carpenter's trade are evident: a hammer is propped upon the sill of the window through which the angel has entered, curly shavings of wood litter the floor, and Joseph himself is seated on a workbench. The angel points to Mary, the subject of his message, who kneels in prayer in an illuminated chamber beyond a curtained doorway.

Alessandro Magnasco was born in Genoa but trained in Milan in the workshop of Filippo Abbiati (1640-1715). He was influenced from an early stage by the art of 17th-century Lombardy, in which the emphasis on chiaroscuro and earthy colors was very different from the vibrant palette of contemporary Genoese painting. Hugely successful during his lifetime, Magnasco spent time in Florence where he worked for Prince Ferdinando de' Medici (1663-1713) and his court. There he had access to the legendary Medici collections, and was able to study major works of the Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish schools. Magnasco eventually returned to Milan, where he worked for the Lombard aristocracy, including members of such celebrated families as the Borromeo, Archinto, Arese, Visconti, and Casnedi.

Magnasco's distinctive style is found in his many famous depictions of monks at prayer and is characterized by fragmented forms rendered with swift brushstrokes and darting flashes of light. His fluid, expressive handling of paint lends energy and tension to his images, as seen here in the frenetic folds of Joseph's robe and the animated gesture of the angel, whose billowing robes indicate that he has just swooped down, disturbing several wood shavings on the floor. In 1954 Herman Voss saw the present work firsthand and recognized it as a characteristic and authentic painting by Magnasco, citing its excellent state of conservation and very beautiful quality (private communication, 29 December 1954).

We are grateful to Dr. Fausta Franchini Guelfi, who has confirmed the attribution on the basis of photographs.

PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE FRENCH COLLECTION

Bought from the Galerie François Heim, Paris, by the stepfather of the present owner circa 1954.

About Alessandro Magnasco, called il Lissandrino

Italian, 1667-1749, Genoa, Italy, based in Genoa, Italy