Little-Known Italian Painter's Art Shows an Empathy With Women

Luxury and privilege drip from Mario Cavaglieri's paintings. But far from being mere documentaries of wealth and refinement, they tell something of the artist's identification with women and their environment.

Cavaglieri was born to a wealthy Jewish land-owning family in 1887 near Venice. He grew up among antiques, lavish furnishings, and imported textiles. But although his works reflect the middle-class ease in which he lived, they have no discernable religious content.

The Jewish Museum in New York is hosting a small but rewarding exhibition on Cavaglieri, subtitled ``The Glittering Years 1912-1922.'' This refers to the most engaging period in the painter's career. It continues through Jan. 29.

A paradox exists within Cavaglieri's paintings. On the one hand, his portraits treat women deferentially and with dignity, neither idolizing them nor turning them into seductresses as a number of male artists were doing at the time (Gustav Klimt, for one). On the other, Cavaglieri's works could be seen as superficial and passionless, as if he buried the messy question of sexual identity under layers of room decor and chic clothing. But strangely enough, the absence of emotion doesn't detract from a viewer's enjoyment of the paintings.

Cavaglieri's life was not without passion. He fell in love with a 17-year-old Roman Catholic girl named Giulietta Catellini, but abandoned his suit because their parents disapproved. Eventually the couple reunited, married, and Giulietta became his primary model.

On a purely visual level, the paintings offer views of a lifestyle and opulence that no longer exist. Even Cavaglieri's reverence is almost like nostalgia, so he must have known how fragile his era was. In it, women were collectibles as much as the priceless porcelain in their parlors. They existed as dolls to be dressed and admired. Cavaglieri makes no social comment on their status, but viewers today will notice an absence of malice in his depiction of women. While his works show a corresponding lack of enlightenment about women's struggles, it's still worth remarking that Cavaglieri entered the traditional feminine domain and left it intact and gracious on canvas.

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