This painting and its pair (The Music Lesson, CVCSC:0269.1.S) both depict scenes of everyday life. The paintings represent a cross-section of eighteenth-century Neapolitan society and show the types of lively encounters that Grand Tourists visiting Naples might have enjoyed. Both paintings reveal Bonito's skill as a portraitist. The individual character of each of the figures is evident and they are arranged theatrically within a small space, with a contrast between bright and dark colours achieved through dramatic lighting.
In The Poet a grinning poet recites a poem in the centre of the composition. He is dressed in an unbuttoned, almost bohemian, shirt, and surrounded by admiring patrons, one of whom, at the right, engages the viewer with a sidelong glance as he rests his chin on his cane. This man holds a tricorne hat firmly held under his left arm, and his clothes as well as his curly long wig recall those worn by members of Neapolitan aristocracy. Other figures include a clergyman in his red moiré silk robe, and a young pupil on the right, who is enchanted by the poet's performance. In the dark background we see a woman, probably a servant, and an amused gentleman, who is holding a script in his left hand, ready to help the poet remember his lines. The clutter of objects on the table conveys a relaxed and festive atmosphere, from the wine flask to the empty glass, books, an inkwell and a quill.
This pair of canvases was once part of a set of four that were sent to Spain in Bonito's lifetime (the other two showed girls sewing and boys reading) and were displayed at the Feast of the Four Altars in Naples in 1738 and 1739, a popular celebration founded to promote the spread of the Corpus Christi, still celebrated today in Torre del Greco, a town near Naples. Traditionally given to Gaspare Traversi (c.1722–1770), an artist known for his genre scenes, the present painting and its pair are now attributed to Giuseppe Bonito, who studied with the influential Neapolitan artist Francesco Solimena (1657–1747). Bonito became court painter to the King of Naples in 1751, and in 1755 head of the Academy of Drawing and of the tapestry manufacturers in Naples.
Giuseppe Bonito The Poet 1738–1739 © Compton Verney