Domenico Fetti was born in 1589, almost certainly in Rome, and is known to have been educated at the Collegio Romano. He probably received his initial artistic training from his father, Pietro Fetti, a painter, perhaps from Ferrara, about whom very little is known.
Contemporary sources refer to Domenico Fetti as a student of Ludovico Cardi, called Il Cigoli (1559-1613). Domenico could have entered Cigoli's shop as early as 1604, the year in which the Florentine painter came to Rome. Prior to this, Domenico may have studied with Cigoli's associate Andrea Commodi (1560-1638), but the sources are inconclusive. Domenico's earliest known works, those of ca. 1610-14, show his awareness of contemporary developments in Rome, particularly the works of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and other Netherlanders, as well as the landscapes of the German painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610/1620); Domenico also appears to have studied the works of Federico Barrocci (1535-1612), Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Caravaggio (1571-1610), and Orazio Borgianni (1578-1616). In this initial period, led by his teacher Cigoli and by the example of Rubens and Annibale Carracci, Domenico initiated his abiding interest in sixteenth-century Venetian painting.
By 1611, or perhaps a year or two earlier, Domenico had established a close relationship with his most important patron, Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, who became Duke of Mantua in 1613. Domenico, accompanied by his father, brothers, and sisters, went to Mantua as court painter in 1613 or 1614. In the extensive Gonzaga collections Domenico continued his study of the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century, thereby continuing a clear and consistent development of his initial Venetianism.
At first, Domenico's Mantuan commissions were largely outside the court, consisting of small devotional works and some altarpieces. Eventually the Duke engaged him in extensive decorative cycles for the Palazzo Ducale. By 1618 Domenico seems to have established a considerable workshop in which his assistants and students made many copies of his works. His family was active in the shop, including his sister Giustina (active c. 1614-1651?), whom he had trained and who took the name Lucrina upon entering the convent of Sant'Orsola.
Domenico's first documented trip to Venice, a buying expedition for Duke Ferdinando, occurred in 1621, but he may have gone earlier. He is reported to have visited Bologna in 1618-1619 and probably spent a few productive months in Verona in 1622, either before or after his flight from Mantua to Venice in August of that year. This precipitous departure was occasioned by an argument between Domenico and a cleric from an important Mantuan family at a soccer match. Although an initial break with the Duke was resolved, Domenico seems to have been reluctant to return to Mantua for a variety of reasons. He expressed dismay at the constant hostility of the Mantuan artists, but had also cultivated a lucrative clientele among the Venetian patriciate, most notably Giorgio Contarini dagli Scrigni, and had obtained a commission to paint a large canvas for the Palazzo Ducale (not executed). Domenico's death in Venice in April 1623 cut short this promising new stage of his career. His works of these last months show continued observation of the sixteenth-century Venetian masters, to the point that he is often considered to have become a member of the Venetian school.
Indeed, the lessons of Domenico Fetti's style were much more influential in Venice than in Mantua, where the members of his studio never established significant careers of their own. Throughout the seventeenth century, painters in Venice, such as the German ex-patriot Johann Liss (c. 1597-before 1630), and the Venetians Pietro della Vecchia (1602 or 1603-1676) and Sebastiano Mazzone (1611?-1678), drew inspiration from Domenico's loose, liquid brushwork, rich chromatism and shimmering light effects. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Michelini, Paola. "Domenico Fetti a Venezia." Arte Veneta 9 (1955): 123-137.
Lehmann, Jürgen. Domenico Fetti. Leben und Werk des römischen Malers. PhD. diss., Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, 1967.
Safarik, Eduard. Fetti. Milan, 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: 84.