Francesco Cairo, also known as Francesco del Cairo, is one of the last protagonists of the great flowering of Milanese baroque art at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He is best known for his series of tragic heroines, usually painted on an intimate scale, which depict an equivocal moment of extreme emotion and a morbid fascination with violence and death. Cairo was probably taught by Morazzone (1573–1626), whose rich palette of oranges, purples and greens and whose blend of mannerism and ecstatic baroque sentiment he adopted. In 1633 Cairo was summoned to Turin to work as court painter to Victor-Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy. It is in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin that one can see the greatest concentration of Cairo’s work including such famous compositions as Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Herodias with the Head of St John the Baptist and the Martyrdom of St Agnes. These were extremely popular and he painted several autograph versions and variants of each. Both the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York own versions of Herodias.
In the 1640s Cairo moved away from the idiosyncratic intensity of his earlier style. He spent time in Lombardy again and went to Rome. Looking at artists such as Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) and Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641), we see a new tendency for lighter color and his figures become more ample and Venetian, as is evident in works such as the Death of Lucretia in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. In 1648, Cairo returned to Milan where there continued to be a demand for his neo-Venetian style. He died a wealthy man with a significant collection of his own; the inventory made of his goods included paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens, Guido Reni and Salvator Rosa.
Top Auction Results for Francesco Cairo
Le Départ du fils prodigue
Sold for £409,500 ($442,846)
Paris, Christie’s, 30 March 2015, Tableaux 1400-1900, lot 28
Portrait of Marchese Giovan Francesco Serra di Cassano standing in armour
Sold for $164,800
New York, Sotheby’s, 23 January 2003, Important Old Master Paintings, lot 52
Head of a young woman in profile
Sold for $112,500
New York, Sotheby’s, 28 May 1999, Important Old Master Paintings, lot 80A