The large canvas “Working Women” is part of a 14 canvas collection that was documented for the first time in 1931. Back then it belonged to Bernardo Salvadego’s collection and was located in the Martinengo castle in Padernello, in the province of Brescia. Later on, the canvases were separated and acquired by different private collections such as the Lechi Museum in Montichiari and the Tosio Marinengo Art Gallery. The identification of these masterpieces led to the actual rediscovery of their author, the Milanese painter Giacomo Ceruti, who is today considered one of the major artists from 18th century Lombardy.
Known as the “Padernello cycle”, these canvases were conceived as decorative pieces for various noble palaces in Brescia only to be subsequently grouped in the 19th century. They depict humble people intent on everyday chores. This could be ascribed to the tradition of genre painting, which typically represents scenes from ordinary life: such paintings were particularly appreciated by aristocrats especially for their light and inviting tone. Nevertheless, the paintings by Ceruti dedicated to such themes (all dated to the period he spent around Brescia, between 1724 and 1735) are characterized by a completely different atmosphere.
While painting beggars, portaroli (boys carrying large baskets of goods), shoemakers, women intent on their daily activities and street kids, Ceruti never intended to recount funny anecdotes or depict caricatures: he portrayed a condition. Scholars though insist on the fact that the intention of the painter or clients was not to show a flawed society (as it would happen in the 19th century art), but a deep involvement in the human condition that the artist represented through these glimpses of daily life. The dignity of characters resurfaces in the size of figures, who are not barely sketched but attentively portrayed, and in the realistic depiction of scenes, which resemble ‘photographs’ exuding real life rather than bizarre and strange portraits.
This canvas in particular shows a group of women in a bare indoor scene. Their chairs randomly occupy the space as though the group gradually grew larger with the members clustering around the two elderly protagonists. Nobody but a little girl is looking at the painter. In silence, they are concentrated on their knitting; the eldest of women has left her knitting in a basket and is now teaching a girl - who has put a book on her lap - to read. The profile of the woman is not marked or gracious, most probably is deformed. The colours are dull and cover a delicate palette that spans from white to grey, with unexpected touches of purple, red and orange. The decent clothes vaguely suggest a bygone elegance; the sad and concentrated faces reveal their awareness and the burden of difficult circumstances. Probably these women live in a charity institute for poor people: the attentiveness for their work and towards learning is emphasized by the painter with the tangle of hands in the centre of the whole composition and the basket in the foreground. Such expedient fully reflects the widespread charitable attitude among Ceruti’s clients in Brescia, who often covered responsibility posts in orphanages and charitable religious institutions.
Giacomo Ceruti, known as il Pitocchetto
Donne che lavorano (Working Women)
Oil on canvas, cm 194 x 170,5