After studying under Ribera in Naples, Luca Giordano went on to become one of the most eclectic and prolific Italian painters of his century, owing to a roving career that took him to all of Italy's major art centres and beyond. After an early naturalistic period influenced by Spagnoleto, Giordano left Naples in about 1652 and travelled north to discover the great masters of the previous century in Rome, Florence, Parma and Venice. He thus studied and assimilated Michelangelo, Raphael, the Carracci, Caravaggio and Correggio, but the most immediate stylistic impact came from Veronese and the Venetian school: his colour range broadened, his texture lightened and his shadows gained in transparency. In the 1670s the example of Pietro da Cortona sent him off in a new direction as he applied his inventiveness to the fertile field of decorative painting and made interesting discoveries about the chromatic possibilities of fresco: the vividness, the sense of light and spaciousness, and the compositional energy and variety of his ceilings in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1682), then of his Jesus Drives the Moneylenders from the Temple in the Church of the Girolamini in Naples (1684), brought him lasting international renown. In 1692 he accepted an invitation from Charles II of Spain to decorate the royal residences; the ten years that followed saw a striking succession of decors for the palace in Madrid, the Escorial, the Buen Retiro and Aranjuez, and for various religious orders. On his return to Naples in 1703, his last great work for the city he had served all his life was the ceiling of the treasury of the Carthusian monastery of San Martino. His prodigious output earned him the nickname of "Luca Fa presto" (Luca paints fast).
From the very beginning Giordano stood out as an original mind responsive to the Neapolitan intellectual avant-garde as manifested, in 1650, in the formation of the philosophical and scientific society known as the Accademia degli Investiganti. While he was never actually a member, several youthful self-portraits betray the society's influence in their claim to intellectual status for a subject portraying himself as alchemist, Cynic and Stoic. Displaying a precocious talent for self-promotion, Giordano also showed himself as Saint Luke painting the Virgin and her child in a prototype work now lost; tradition has it that he had used his wife and son as models. Known from a copy in the Museo de Arte in Ponce, Puerto Rico, this composition gave rise to a second version whose sole difference lies in the head of the venerable Evangelist. Revealed here for the first time, our small canvas is directly related to this work from the Farnese de Capodimonte collection, acquired by Dufourny for the Musée Napoléon in 1802, and held on loan by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon since 1911. The format and degree of finish are those of a presentation modello, the only difference being that the artist ultimately went on to increase the space between the saint and his model, resulting in a wider final picture. The spirited brushwork of the faces and hands of the two protagonists, and the gentle expression of the Virgin – more sensitive and less static than in the definitive work – are characteristic of the talent of "Fa presto".