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Golden Age

Golden Age

Gregorio Lazzarini, Venice 1653 – 1730 Villabona, Italy The Golden Age, ca. 1700.

 Oil on canvas, 94 x 144 in (240.4 x 366.5 cm) Gift of George Washington Wales, 1861


When this large Baroque painting entered the Boston Athenæum’s collection in 1861, it was attributed to the Italian master Luca Giordano (1634-1705).[1] Since that artist enjoyed a certain amount of popularity among collectors and the public in general throughout the nineteenth century, the attribution, undoubtedly a result of wishful thinking more than anything else, is not surprising. In fact, the attribution to Giordano remained unchallenged until the early 1980s, when scholarly enquiry led to a convincing reassignment of the painting to the lesser-known Italian painter Gregorio Lazzarini. It is not unusual for paintings such as this one—so-called Old Masters that were bought in Europe and brought to America in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century—to be reattributed in modern times. Usually such works are discovered to be copies made by competent but unidentified painters. The fact that The Golden Age can now be firmly identified as an original work by a professional, successful artist, if not one of Giordano’s fame, allows the work to retain a certain status within the collection of the Boston Athenæum.

Lazzarini was born in Venice and spent most of his life there. He was a student of the Genovese painter Francesco Rosa and of Pietro Vecchia and, in turn, was a teacher of Giovanni Tiepolo. He was known for the linearity and clarity of his paintings, attributes that were more often seen in the work of Roman and Bolognese painters than in that of the Venetians. Nevertheless, Lazzarini shared an interest in classical subjects with his contemporaries, a legacy passed on to these Baroque painters by masters of the Italian Renaissance.

George Washington Wales, who gave this painting to the Boston Athenæum, had a fairly large art collection. Judging by the titles of works that he lent to exhibitions, notably the annual exhibitions of the Athenæum, his collection consisted mostly of copies of Old Master paintings as well as works by contemporary Americans. In the latter category were at least three views of Italian cities by George Loring Brown, a figure painting by John Gadsby Chapman, a seascape of Nahant, Massachusetts, by Fitz Henry Lane, a mythological figural painting by William Page, a portrait by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, two paintings with literary subjects by Luther Terry, and three figure paintings by Cephas Giovanni Thompson. Among the Old Masters represented in Wales’ collection were Perugino, Botticelli, Carlo Dolci, Guido Reni, and Peter Paul Rubens, although most, if not all, of the objects thought to be by these artists were actually copies. The titles of a number of these paintings suggest a special fondness by Wales and his wife for Italy, and  a significant portion of their collection, including Lazzarini’s The Golden Age, was undoubtedly acquired in Europe.[2]

As a collector, Wales is probably best remembered for donations that he and his wife made to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These donations included a collection of over 650 ceramics they presented in installments as gifts to the Museum in 1884, again in 1895, and finally by bequest in 1903. In addition, Wales gave the Museum an anonymous gift of $5,000 in 1889.[3]At the Boston Athenæum, Wales’s support came in the form of loans to the institution’s exhibitions and especially in his roles as a Proprietor of the Athenæum as of 1852 and a member of its Fine Arts Committee during the 1870s and 1880s, serving as its chairman in 1883-84. In fact, it was during Wales’s tenure on that committee that he played a key role in the founding of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to which he was appointed as one of the Athenæum’s representative Trustees.

David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 189. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] According to correspondence in the files of the Boston Athenæum’s Art Department, art historian and curator Sydney J. Freedberg made the attribution of this painting to Lazzarini in about 1982. Also see Harding, 85.

[2] Perkins and Gavin, 226. Wales also lent five paintings to the Sanitary Fair held at the Boston Athenæum in 1863. See Gerdts and Yarnell, passim.

[3] Whitehill, Museum of Fine Arts, 84, 556. Wales also bequeathed a late fifteenth-century tempera painting, The Adoration of the Christ Child with the Dove of the Holy Spirit, by the fifteenth-century artist known as the Argonaut Master, to the Museum of Fine Arts. While still attributed to Giordano, The Golden Age was deposited on long-term loan at the Museum from the 1870s until sometime after 1905 (Appleton Prentiss Clark Griffin, “Property of the Athenæum at the Museum of Fine Arts,” Boston Athenæum, 1895, with later annotations, BA archives, no. 42).