Annibale Carracci’s ‘Boy Drinking,’ at the Cleveland Museum of Art, helped to usher in genre paintings

Today, when we are used to seeing images of every conceivable kind in every medium and at every scale, it is hard to imagine the impact on 16th-century eyes of a small painting like this one at the Cleveland Museum of Art. A little less than two feet high, it shows not a man-god dying on a cross or a beheaded saint or a heroic battle or heaven or hell, but — very simply and without fuss — a boy draining a wine glass.

Images of such subjects barely existed before Annibale Carracci, who painted “Boy Drinking” around 1582-1583. Carracci (c. 1560-1609) was an important artist from Bologna, a landlocked city between Florence, Venice and Genoa. When it was purchased in 1994, the Cleveland museum’s then director, Robert P. Bergman, called it “arguably the most spontaneously painted picture of the 16th century.”

It does seem incredibly fresh. You don’t feel the painter following any existing schema. It feels instead like a depiction of something he has observed directly with his own eyes and done his best to reproduce with the brush in his hand.

The impression of freshness and immediacy is reinforced by the paint’s facture. Get up close and you can see the brushstrokes — not just the thicker marks that capture the light glinting off the glass carafe, but also those that describe the folds of the boy’s white shirt and even his skin. Notice the change in skin tone from his leading forearm to his redder wrist and hand. In front of the painting itself you can see not only where this shift occurs, but also how the textures of the paint mimic the textures of actual skin. (A recent exhibition in London paired Carracci with Lucian Freud, and you can see why.) Marvel, too, at how the light refracted through the wine leaves a rust-colored patch of light on his shirt.

Described as “one of the earliest true genre paintings” (genre painting is the term that art historians use for images of ordinary people engaging in common activities) “Boy Drinking” exists in three versions. One of the three was stolen last year from Oxford University’s Christ Church Picture Gallery and is yet to be recovered.

Carracci had an older cousin, Ludovico, and an older brother, Agostino, who were both successful artists. They collaborated closely, but of the three, Annibale was the most accomplished and the most revolutionary.

Before Carracci, Italian art had been dominated by a style that art historians later came to call “mannerism.” Mannerism had many fascinations, but the Bolognese scholar Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia set the general tone when he dismissed the style a century later as “far from verisimilitude, not to mention from the truth itself.” Mannerism, he went on, was advanced by artists guilty not only of weak drawing and “flaccid and washed-out coloring,” but also of “abandoning the imitation of antique statuary, as well as of nature” and founding their art “wholly in their imaginations.”

Carracci — not unlike the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who died when Carracci was 8 — wanted to return art to reality and to lived experience. By ridding his work of idealization and rhetoric and coolly confronting the truth, he provided an antidote to the excesses of mannerism and, along with Caravaggio, helped to usher in the Baroque.

When we look at “Boy Drinking,” with its unfamiliar view of a boy’s exposed neck and dark nostrils, it’s easy to see how the turn in art brought about by Carracci might have been connected not only to interesting new forms of self-consciousness, but also to a renewed investment in the pleasures of the here-and-now. A toast to that! Saluti!

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.