Giuseppe Maria Crespi was born in Bologna in 1665. He learned the rudiments of drawing and painting from his first teacher, Angelo Michele Toni (1640-1708), a professional copyist. Crespi's unique style, however, was largely of his own creation during years of essentially self-directed study in the 1680s. After leaving Toni, he began to draw after and copy the fresco decorations of the Carracci in the cloister of San Michele in Bosco and in Palazzo Magnani and Palazzo Fava. For all its uniqueness, Crespi's style never abandoned its origins in the art of the Carracci and their followers, particularly Guercino in his first manner. During the 1680s Crespi formed loose associations with leading Bolognese painters of the day.
He worked briefly in the studio of Domenico Maria Canuti (1626-1684), who represented the more exuberant current in Bolognese painting, but he soon returned to his independent study of the Carracci. Eventually Crespi entered the studio of Carlo Cignani (1628-1719), the leading exponent of Bolognese classicism derived from the late styles of Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Guercino. Upon Cignani's departure for Forlì in 1686, Crespi and Giovanni Antonio Burrini (1656-1727), also a student of Canuti, rented Cignani's studio; Crespi soon adopted Burrini's Venetian color and brushwork. Crespi also frequented the drawing academy in the palace of Senator Ghisilieri, where he won several prizes. With the financial support of the Bolognese collector Giovanni Ricci, Crespi followed his own version of the Carracci's "studioso corso" to Parma, Urbino, Pesaro, and Venice, in order to study and copy (also for resale by Ricci) the works so important in the initial formation of the Bolognese school. Crespi made a second brief trip to Venice in 1690 when he felt constrained to flee Bologna, having, in an expression of his characteristic humor, caricatured Carlo Cesare Malvasia as a dead chicken. In Venice, Crespi again studied the loose, loaded brushwork and rich surfaces of the great sixteenth-century masters and also of Sebastiano Mazzoni (1611-1678).
Although no chronology can be established for Crespi's works of the 1690s, it was in this decade that he attained his distinctive mature style and developed new types of subject matter. Crespi's scenes of mythological and genre subjects set in delicate landscapes reinterpret in his more playful and often earthier mode the Bolognese pastoral tradition begun by Francesco Albani (1578-1660) and continued in a more rarefied vein by Cignani. His genre paintings capture common people and laborers in the activities of everyday life, generally set in a dark, monochrome brown atmosphere relieved by carefully studied light effects. As he cultivated a clientele of private collectors and connoisseurs for his pastoral and genre subjects, Crespi turned away from the altarpieces that seemed to dominate his production up to about 1690.
By the first years of the eighteenth century, Crespi had developed a considerable clientele in Italy and northern Europe. While he refused a lucrative commission to execute frescoes in Vienna for the Prince of Liechtenstein, Crespi actively cultivated the patronage of Ferdinando III de' Medici, to whom in 1708 he personally presented a Massacre of the Innocents (Uffizi, Florence) painted especially to show his ability in disposing many figures engaged in complex actions. A close friendship developed, and Crespi presented some of his most innovative and complex genre works to Ferdinando. On several trips to Florence, Crespi was able to study the genre scenes by the Netherlandish painters known as the Bamboccianti in the extensive Medici collections. From these he assimilated new types of subject matter and new modes of observation into his already well developed genre style.
After the intense genre production of the 1710s, Crespi in his last years received an increasing number of religious commissions in and around Bologna. In these works he continued to develop his style with reference to the early seventeenth-century Bolognese masters rather than to contemporary developments in altar painting. In the 1720s he also returned to his earlier pastoral subjects, but now with a lighter palette and more elegant conception, and continued to execute portraits. From the later 1720s Crespi withdrew increasingly into himself; he closed his studio and relied only on his sons Luigi (1709-1779) and Antonio (1700/1704-1781) for assistance. Yet he did not cease to be an innovative creative artist, exploring light effects with a camera obscura and remaining open to new artistic influences, such as that of Rembrandt (1606-1669).
Despite his wide fame, Crespi had little influence on Bolognese artists; he had withdrawn quite early from active participation in the Accademia Clementina, which he had helped to found in the first decade of the eighteenth century. His genre painting was the most influential aspect of his art, especially for the Venetians Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, who almost certainly studied in Bologna for a time, and Pietro Longhi. Crespi's sons were his closest and most successful followers; Luigi had particular success as a portrait painter. Crespi died in 1747. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Zanotti, Giampietro. Storia dell'Accademia Clementina di Bologna. 2 vols. 1739. Reprint. Bologna, 1977: 2:31-73.
Crespi, Luigi. Vite de pittori non descritte nella Felsina Pittrice. Rome, 1769: 201-232.
Merriman, Mira Pajes. Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Milan, 1980.
Spike, John. Giuseppe Maria Crespi and the Emergence of Genre Painting in Italy. Exh. cat. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. Florence, 1986.
Giuseppe Maria Crespi 1665-1747. Exh. cat. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Bologna and Stuttgart, 1990.
[volume devoted to Crespi]. Accademia Clementine. Atti e Memorie n.s. 26 (1990).
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 66-67.