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Arcadian Landscape with Ancient Ruins, Orientals and Herdsmen. Pen and greyish-black ink and watercolour. 19.8 x 31.2 cm. Circa 1775.
In the overall perspective of Italian Settecento art the work of Giovanni David occupies a special place by virtue of its remarkable originality and the creative power of its imagery. David was a gifted etcher, and his extensive printed work, most of which was done between 1775 and 1779, owes its appeal to the artist’s verve and willingness to experiment with new techniques. Thus he anticipated Goya in exploring the possibilities offered by aquatint, while some of the Caprichos betray the influence David’s etchings had on Goya. David was also a respectable painter. The lustre and refined elegance of his self-portrait (c. 1775) are an impressive testimony to his skills in this field. David owed his artistic rise to the support of a single man, the Genoese diplomat and patron of the arts Giacomo Durazzo, who actively promoted him throughout his entire career and provided him with numerous opportunities to study abroad. In 1770, for example, Durazzo sent the young artist to Rome, where he was trained by none other than Domenico Corvi. In 1775 David settled for a few years in Venice, where Durazzo was also staying in connection with his diplomatic duties. Some time around 1780 David finally returned to Genoa, where he was to live and work until his death. However, numerous trips to France, England and Holland helped to expand David’s artistic horizon (see M. Newcome Schleier/G. Grasso, Giovanni David Pittore e incisore della famiglia Durazzo, Turin, 2003).
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Another aspect of David’s talent is demonstrated by his work as a draughtsman. Mythological and historical themes, genre subjects and allegorical motifs seem to blend effortlessly into highly original and inventive creations. Equally varied is the scale of artistic means used, which give effective expression to David’s penchant for eccentric fantasy and dramatic narrative. It is likely that the present drawing arose in connection with two etched Arcadian landscapes (Grasso 157, 158, fig. 1), which the artist produced around 1775, probably in Venice. It may have been a preliminary study for another etching that was never executed, as the stylistic and compositional matches with the two existing etchings are self-evident. The capriccio creates an unusual effect through its low and oblique angle of observation, complex composition and almost stage-like layout. A jagged tree stump in the right foreground and other bare tree trunks in the background form diagonal axes which reinforce the inner dynamic of the composition. A similar method of composition is used in a pen-and ink drawing, which was also done about 1775 and represents the inspiration of a poet (fig. 2). People and animals – even the gurgling stone gargoyle – are endowed with life and rendered with wit. The soft, gentle colouring creates a vibrant, Mediterranean light and intensifies the mood of this arcadian landscape with ruins.