Those familiar with my Art for the Month of June are probably aware that I’m a huge admirer of genre painting, especially those scenes portraying everyday life in interior settings. Guardsmen playing poker, maids performing housework, drinkers in the tavern, sellers at the market—I love seeing an artist’s unique approach to these commonplace activities. I feel such scenes operate as a nice counter to history and religious painting, calling attention to the mundane and transforming it into something intriguing and perhaps even significant to the artist.
One genre which never really took off in popularity was The Flea, represented here today in Giuseppe Crespi’s painting of the same name. In what appears to be an urban squalor, a young woman is seen at her bedside with her most intimate articles dispersed throughout the room as she performs the unglamorous task of seeking out a flea on her person. Before modern housing and pest control, such hygienic duties were probably a routine necessity. One would think this an unlikely subject for the canvas, and perhaps might even question the artist’s motivation for depicting such a scene, yet there’s something elegant, even classical, in the woman’s pose, which, despite the activity taking place, grants her a certain grace and dignity. If one were to replace her grim quarters with an idyllic scene by the lake, she could probably make a good Venus. I guess that’s the least Crespi could do for her.
A quick Google shows me that Crespi painted several other versions of this subject, yet this is the only one in which the woman is knowingly accompanied by other people in the room. I prefer this one, as their presence makes the viewer feel less intrusive and voyeuristic, especially compared to the version at the Beige Gallery which includes two characters spying on her from a window above. Weird.
Though the quality of her quarters leaves much to be desired, obviously testament to the living conditions experienced by those in densely populated areas, the scene is nonetheless all very delicately rendered by Crespi. Look at the assortment of items on the small table at her feet, the careful row of plates on the two shelves, and the large wooden cabinet over her bed. Oh, and I can’t overlook the little dog at her pillow, probably her pet which was no doubt aid to her new insect companion.