The work of Giorgio Morandi (b. 1890; d. 1964), one of the most innovative still-life painters of the twentieth century, is not easy to classify. His enigmatic compositions of bottles, vases, and boxes continue to seduce viewers with their deceptive simplicity and subjective depiction of reality.

Morandi lived in his native city of Bologna, Italy, his entire life, spending summers in the mountains of Grizzana in the Emilia-Romagna region. He resided and worked in his studio-bedroom, a quirky setting rather like a still life in itself, where he was surrounded by his favorite objects. He would configure them again and again in subtly differing arrangements, concentrating on the infinite possibilities offered by the representation of common household items.

Although Morandi left Bologna only on rare occasions, he was an accomplished time traveler. A perspicacious student of art history, he looked to a great many sources for his own formation as an artist. A Backward Glance examines a specific aspect of Morandi’s work: the role of Old Master painting in his own production. Through an analysis of the still lifes he produced from the 1920s to the 1960s, the exhibition traces the connections between these images and those by the artists Morandi appreciated and studied. This exploration reveals mechanisms related less to influence or appropriation and more to elective affinities with the artists who came before him.

A Backward Glance investigates three precedents from three European countries, focusing on premodernist, pre-nineteenth-century references. These are Spanish seventeenth-century painting and the still-life tradition, the Bolognese painters from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, and the still-life and genre works of the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Morandi imbued his images of vases, bottles, and boxes with all the theatricality of the Spanish Golden Age, the naturalism of the Italian Seicento, and the intimacy that Chardin brought to the world of everyday objects.