The Repentant Magdalen

The final location of commissioned works may often impose constraints on both the artist and the viewer: figures in a painting may appear distorted unless the artist plans carefully. Study of The Repentant Magdalen and its ricordo demonstrates that Veronese was very aware of this problem. He chose to elongate the upper part of the Magdalene’s body, so that when the painting was seen from below and to the left – as it would be in its eventual location in the patron’s chapel – the proportions would appear normal. However, the ricordo shows no such distortion, as it was drawn from the intended vantage point. A drawing that recorded site-specific distortion would be less useful for future reference by the workshop. Essentially, Veronese has captured the experience of the painting rather than the actual painting itself.

Technical study of the painting reveals no evidence of transfer of the design from a carefully worked drawing. The form of the Magdalene, and the more salient internal features, was initially marked by a schematic incised outline. This may indicate the use of a cartoon in which the perspectival distortions had already been incorporated. The figure was then elaborated in assertive and loosely handled black oil paint applied with a brush. Once dry, layers of oil paint follow. At every stage of the work, Veronese felt free to modify and adjust the design. This is typical of Veronese’s work, and a key indicator that the painting is by the artist himself, and has little or no workshop participation.

To better understand Veronese’s creative process, click on each image to obtain a short description.

The Repentant Magdalen
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Paolo Veronese
The Repentant Magdalen
c. 1560-1575
oil on canvas
169.6 x 134.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada

The Repentant Magdalen

The proportions of The Repentant Magdalen, when seen from centre front, appear strange. Her torso and, in particular, her neck, seem elongated, especially in relation to her foreshortened lower body.

Ricordo of The Magdalen in Ottawa
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Ricordo of The Magdalen in Ottawa
Pen, Wash and Chalk on tinted paper
32.5 x 21 cm
Hamburg, Galerie Hans.

Ricordo

This ricordo of the Repentant Magdalen was drawn by a member of Paolo’s workshop from the completed painting. The ricordo does not include the viewpoint-specific distortions observable in the painting. This tells us that Veronese deliberately built distortion into the painting itself, in order to accommodate how it would be seen in its final destination.

Composite of the painting and ricordo of The Repentant Magdalen
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Composite of the painting and ricordo of The Repentant Magdalen

Composite of the painting and ricordo of The Repentant Magdalen

This image shows the ricordo superimposed on the painting. In order for the key features in both to line up exactly, the painting is seen at an angle and the ricordo head-on. This illustrates that Veronese understood that distortion in the final painting was necessary in order for it to appear in proportion when viewed in situ, from an angle, on the wall of a church. The only element that does not line up is the angel, which appears higher in the ricordo. The draughtsman placed him in the upper left corner of the sheet of paper, which was slightly different in proportion to the canvas.