CARLO FRANCESCO NUVOLONE
The Death of Dido,
Queen of Carthage
Oil on canvas
56 ⅞ x 47 ⅜ (144.5 x 120.3 cm)
Sale, Sotheby's, Monaco, June 17, 1988, no. 828
Sale, Sotheby's, New York, April 5,1990, no. 273
With Galerie Alain Tarica, Paris; by whom sold to:
Collection of Yves-Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Paris, 1999-2009; their sale, Christie's, Paris, February 23-25,2009, no. 74; sold to:
Private Collection; their sale:
Christie’s, December 8, 2010, lot 210; sold to:
David Benrimon, New York; by whom sold to:
Private Collection, Texas, 2011-2018
Filippo Maria Ferro, I Nuvolone: una famiglia di pittori nella Milano del '600 (Soncino, 2003), pp. 190-91, cf 87, and 357, no. 39b.
Filippo Maria Ferro, "Carlo Francesco Nuvolone e la ferita d’amore” in Studi di Storia dell'arte (Cinisello Balsamo, 1994), p. 200, no. 3.
The son of Panfilo Nuvolone of Milan, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone studied under his father and then under Cerano at the Accademia in Milan. He was a prolific artist with a number of portraits and ecclesiastical commissions.
The story of Dido, the founding queen of Carthage, is told by Virgil (Aeneid, IV). Though married to King Iarbas, Dido falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas. The scorned king prays to Mercury, who dispatches Aeneas and his fleet to Italy. Dido is distraught by her lover's impending departure and has her sister build a pyre on which the queen says she will burn everything that reminds her of Aeneas. But as the Trojan ships depart, Dido climbs the pyre and in blinding grief she falls on Aeneas’ sword. Virgil describes the mournful cries from the city and how Dido’s sister Anna climbed the pyre in anger and tears, lamenting that she could not die with her sister: “[Anna] clasped her dying sister to her breast/, sighing, and stemming the dark blood with her dress./ Dido tried to lift her heavy eyelids again, but failed:/ and the deep wound hissed in her breast./ Lifting herself three times, she struggled to rise on her elbow:/ three times she fell back onto the bed, searching for light in the depths of heaven, with wandering eyes, and, finding it, sighed.”
Nuvolone’s canvas is a dramatic portrayal of the subject, depicting Dido as she struggles upward from her elbow, her left arm thrown upwards in a gesture of despair and resignation. The fatal wound from the sword of Aeneas is prominently visible on her chest, her robes disheveled and her breasts exposed. She is held, almost confronted, by her sister Anna, who is both horrified and disbelieving of what she sees, her left hand a gesture of confused questioning. The contrast of Anna’s aged face, positioned so close to Dido’s, further enhances the tragic beauty of the dying queen. Swirling about the periphery are various figures, each reacting to the scene that unfolds before them: shocked soldiers at the upper left, a compassionate woman with hands clasped in prayer at the upper right, a child fleeing at the lower right. The agitated drapery of Dido’s garments, brilliantly painted by Nuvolone, serve as abstract counterparts to the emotional states of the figures. Nuvolone painted the subject on several occasions, each time varying the composition. The present canvas is closest to one sold at Sotheby’s in 1988 and a larger panel in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie.
Ferro does not posit dates for these compositions, but speculates that Nuvolone may have been influenced by the story following the success of Francesco Cavalli’s 1640 opera La Didone. The opera, however, replaces Dido's tragic suicide with a happy rescue and marriage to Iarbas. Nonetheless, based on Nuvolone’s other treatments of this subject, a date in the 1640s or 1650s seems likely. The attribution of the present painting to Nuvolone has been confirmed by Prof. Robert Randolf Coleman.