A painting that has rarely been seen in public will go on display next week as part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

The slightly larger than life painting of Saint Bartholomew is by Bernardo Cavallino and was painted around 1640-45, and is considered to be one of the largest and most splendid works Cavallino ever painted.

The painting shows a muscular Saint Bartholomew holding a knife that foreshadows his martyrdom when his skin was flayed from his body. He is often shown as a much older man, or even as a flayed man holding his skin as a robe. This more youthful image, and with his body intact is an unusual representation of the future saint.

Saint Bartholomew by Bernardo Cavallino about 1640-1645- Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Little is known about the artist, but it’s thought that Cavallino was a student of contemporary great masters working in Naples, and although little known today, the eighteenth-century biographer Bernardo de Dominici dubbed Cavallino the “Neapolitan Poussin” and considered him one of the most important Neapolitan painters of the seventeenth century.

This particular painting has spent most of its life in private collections as was little known by art experts. It has been traced through a number of early owners, but seemed to vanish from history until it reemerged in 1903 in a sale at Christie’s, where it vanished into a private collection again.

It came up for sale in 1988, and was labelled as of a Spanish school, but the attribution was recognised as likely wrong by the Colnaghi gallery, which paid roughly $280,000 to buy it. Two years of research later and it was confirmed as a painting by Bernardo Cavallino, and was exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993.

Bought by Mark Fisch and Rachel Davidson, it came up for sale earlier this year as the two are divorcing and selling off a lot of their art. The National Gallery, which has long wanted to have a large Cavallino in its collection was able to buy this painting at the auction for $3.9 million – with the funds coming from the American Friends of the National Gallery.

The painting of Saint Bartholomew will make its home in Room 32, amongst the Gallery’s 17th-century Italian pictures by artists such as Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, Reni and Ribera.

It will go on display from Tuesday 11th April 2023 and will be the first time it has been seen by the general public for 30 years.

Dr Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Acting Curator of Later Italian, Spanish and French Paintings said, “We have long wanted to strengthen our collection of 17th-century Neapolitan paintings with a major work by Cavallino. This life-size depiction of Saint Bartholomew, with its extraordinary emotional intensity and beautiful treatment of flesh and fabric, is a very exciting addition to our walls.”

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