When painting lifts off into the ineffable, it’s hard to account, even internally, for what has taken place, much less why. You can stroll through one gallery after another, nodding at this and pausing at that, homing in more often than feels warranted on wall labels, frames, and other incidentals. But when you come across something like this painting by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747), at the Museum of Fine Arts, you suddenly find your soul on the hook.
What has happened?
Honestly, I have no idea. When I look at the painting — which is not of a woman playing a lute, as the MFA’s title has it, but rather of a woman tuning a lute — I am conscious of many things at once. A very specific human presence, to begin with — a woman who, although her face is turned mostly away, feels in no way generic or obscured by false mystique.
Look at her lovely, knobbly ear that catches the light and the tensed, claw-like tendons of her strumming hand. These body parts may not convey much about her personality. But they say everything about her gorgeous, inimitable human presence. And what a contrast they make with her blood-flushed cheeks and face, which turns and tilts so far into shadow that her profile is almost lost.
Note, too, her dark, pulled-back hair — those few loose strands on top and at back so tenderly observed!
None of my painting descriptions get close, I realize, to the simple, almost sacred feeling the image triggers in me. I assume that feeling is also affected by its surprising scale and unusual horizontal format (it’s 5 feet across), and all its inevitable associations: music, femininity, youth, privacy, and so on. But what does all this tell us?
Described by the art historian John T. Spike as “reclusive, proud, and obstinate,” Crespi was a marvelously versatile, fluent, and expressive painter from Bologna. He was a key figure in the expansion of Italian painting, at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, from its traditional focus on religious and mythological compositions to genre scenes — depictions, that is, of everyday life, including the life of the poor.
“Woman Playing a Lute,” which was painted around 1700 or shortly after, was his most important early work in this vein, although its emotional delicacy and absence of picturesque detail make it in no way typical of what was to come.
If you look at the woman’s ear, and then the mysterious, not-quite-real line that runs from her brow to the tip of her nose and then down her neck to the top of her blouse, you may feel, as I do, that painting, for all its limitations, can be asked to do no more.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.