WELLESLEY — Carlo Dolci: Most people either love him or hate him.
John Ruskin, the 19th-century British critic, described the Italian Baroque artist’s paintings as “excrescence and a deformity.” Thomas Jefferson called him a “violent favorite.”
Dolci’s perfectionism and his piety divided his audience. Detractors deemed his work — lustrous, naturalistic, each painting a manifestation of prayer — saccharine; fans found it touched their hearts.
“The Medici’s Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence” is the painter’s first exhibition in the United States. With more than 50 Old Master paintings and drawings on loan from such institutions as the Uffizi Gallery and the Louvre, it’s a formidable effort indeed by curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer.
In English, Dolci’s name means “sweets,” and his critics had great fun using that against him. But many of the sweet elements of his paintings can be a balm: his attention to humility, tenderness, and compassion. Rather, something absent from his paintings — call it saltiness, or a kick — impedes their greatness.
Most of the works are declaratively religious: paintings of saints, a portrait of a patron in the guise of a saint. There are biblical scenes, but nothing with the scale, swagger, or Spielbergian drama of Caravaggio, the avatar of Italian Baroque painting.
But Dolci, who was born in 1616, six years after Caravaggio’s death, was a different man. He was meek, resistant to travel, prone to physical and emotional breakdowns. When he married late, at 38, he didn’t show up at the altar; he was found in a chapel in terrified prayer.
Faith was paramount. The Italian Baroque sprang from the Counter-Reformation. The Catholic Church responded to Protestantism’s iconoclasm and attacks on the church by turning up the volume on Catholic beliefs: Saints, for instance, were intermediaries to God. The Council of Trent tasked Catholic artists with depicting the miracles and suffering of saints. Protestants took a more intellectual approach; Catholics aimed for the heart, and the heart-rending.
Dolci’s life revolved around his faith. He was a longtime member of a confraternity devoted to Saint Benedict, a group that practiced self-flagellation in order to better know the pain of Christ.
This was not a strategic or cunning artist. Everything he made sprang from tenderness.
And he was an exquisite painter, if not a truly great one. He worked his surfaces to an enamel-like gloss with little or no evidence of the brush. His colors and textures — the lapis of Mary’s cape in “Madonna and Child,” the velvet pillow upon which the baby Jesus treads in “The Virgin and Child” — are spellbinding. His scrupulous attention to detail sharpened embroidery and beard hair, and his carefully wrought hands and feet communicate as much as his faces. His baby feet are to die for.
The sheer splendor of many of Dolci’s paintings mirrors the circles in which he traveled. Several of the Medicis, the extraordinarily powerful Florentine family, commissioned his work. In the 17th century, the city’s great artistic moment was passing; the sense of pride and abundance evident in the art remained.
Yet Dolci’s great gift was in capturing humility. Two paintings of Saint Matthew writing his gospel, a cherub at his side, depict his face radiant with patience and gentleness; he might be teaching a beloved child.
That mildness recurs in Dolci’s self-portrait: He gazes wistfully at us, holding up another self-portrait, a quirky little sketch of the artist at work. There’s no pride, no pomp, no buttering up his own image. It’s a wonderfully telling portrait of a mere shrug.
But humility can also limit. Dolci’s art is modestly scaled; it’s mostly in the style of portraiture. While his elegant touch with flesh adheres in more narrative works, some can be stiff or claustrophobic.
Principally, the problems aren’t with his technique. To look at Dolci through 21st-century eyes is to squint through a centuries-long haze of changing mores and attitudes about religion and emotion. In this show, Straussman-Pflanzer asks us to look beyond our defensive apparatus of reason and let ourselves be moved. But reason does not get in the way of truly moving art.
Through the ages, the really great art has communicated what it is to be human — the grit and wallow as well as the sublime. In the end, this is what hobbles the show. Dolci shied from grit.
Not from suffering. There’s plenty of it, and sanctified and vaunted suffering, at that.
The wonderful “Saint Dominic at Prayer” portrays the saint on his knees and shirtless in a cave where he went to pray and do penitence. Is he lashing himself, in the manner of Dolci’s confraternity? His eyes rise to the heavens. In a portrait, Saint Apollonia, martyred for the faith when her teeth were yanked out as torture, holds up a tooth with pliers.
No, what’s missing is what psychoanalysis calls the shadow, and what Dolci might call sin — images of any passion other than a passion for God: anger, lust, resentment. Darkness. Caravaggio excelled in this realm, and sin has never been exempt from religious art.
The excellent catalog has small reproductions of two paintings not in the show — a portrait of Fra Angelico (in many ways Dolci’s artistic progenitor), and one of Dolci’s last works, a portrait of Vittoria della Rovere, the grand duchess of Tuscany. In both, he abandons color; dark clothes frame his subjects’ unearthly pallor. Fra Angelico’s eyes are lost in shadow.
These figures reach into something cold, something mysterious beyond the prescribed mysteries of the church. Something thrilling. They seem more real than any saints on view, and perhaps they say more about Carlo Dolci.
THE MEDICI’S PAINTER: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence
At Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through July 9. 781-283-2051, www.thedavis.org