Guido RENI (Bologna, 1575 – 1642)

Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist

15 x 14 cm. (5 78 x 5 ½ in.)
Circa 1600. Pen and brown ink, brown and grey wash, black chalk. Mounted on an album page with framing in red and black ink, number 56, and hand-written inscription: Caravaccio.

• Collection of Philippe V, King of Spain (1683-1746), Escurial (page 56 of the album numbered V and formerly bound in red gilt Morocco leather bearing the royal arms of Spain and Milan used by the king between 1700 and 1706)
• Probably the collections of the Orléans.
• Sold separately during the dispersion of the album at Christie’s, London, November 22, 1966, part of lot 126.
• France, Private Collection.

According to Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Guido Reni’s first biographer, the artist hardly took any care of his drawings which were scattered around his studio and visitors used to take them away. Malvasia further reports that after Reni’s death, a large number of sketches were dispersed in entire stacks and that the sheets were avidly sought by collectors and accepted in lieu of payment of debts. In fact, the Bolognese master’s graphic corpus today is surprisingly reduced, especially when compared to the number of known drawings by his contemporaries such as Domenichino and Guercino. Thanks to the work of Art Historians such as Catherine Johnston, Ann Sutherland Harris, and Nicholas Turner, it has fortunately been possible to reattribute certain works which were hitherto anonymous or given to other artists, and to define the evolution in Reni’s graphic style more precisely. Thus the rediscovery of other drawings, especially his premi pensieri or première pensées, his initial sketches, realized in pen and wash. These ideas rapidly set down on paper, these summary studies, these eminently personal unfinished compositions constitute unquestionably the most fascinating part of Guido Reni’s graphic works.

With its fine calligraphic line which defines details and brown wash laid in broad strokes to indicate chiaroscuro, our drawing is characteristic of the artist’s first Bolognese period after his training under Denys Calvaert and Ludovico Carracci, and his beginnings in Rome as of 1600 in the service of Cardinal Scipion Borghese and Pope Paul V. A very similar manner can be seen in the Birth of the Virgin conserved in the Teylers Museum in Haarlem datable to 1600-1601, as well as in the Virgin and Child Adored by Saint Andrew and a Holy Woman (pen and brown ink, brown wash, sanguine, 21.3 x 15.2 cm. (8 3/8 x 6 in.) related to the decoration of San Gregorio Magno finished in 1609, and the Crucifixion (pen and brown ink, brown wash, 11.7 x 6.4 cm. 4 5/8 x 2 ½ in.), both in private hands.

Our sheet fits in with a group of works executed in about 1600 which had the Holy Family for their subject, and specifically reflected artist’s thoughts on the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist as a Child which shows Saint John leaning to kiss the foot of Christ who blesses him in return. It first appeared as an etching done in about 1600. Oriented in the same direction as our drawing, the engraving replaces the background architecture by clouds, and it widens the frame so as to include Saint Joseph, Saint Elizabeth, and two cherubs. Although the Virgin’s pose differs, those of the two children are almost identical. The wooden table covered with a cloth on which Jesus is seated is found there as well.

The theme was also developed by Reni in several paintings known through engravings, as well as the little copper offered by the artist to Pope Paul V in about 1606-1607. This time, Mary holds her son on her lap and Saint John is accompanied by a similar lamb to the one in our drawing: in black ink and grey wash, it has manifestly been added to the sketch at a later stage and at the same time as the shadow cast by the Baptist’s cross, and a few strokes of grey wash in the Virgin’s face. The artist seems to remember our composition again as late as the 1640s: his large Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist conserved at the J. Paul Getty Museum reemploys the pyramidal organization of the group of figures, the drapery, and the idea of a dark interior opening to the right on to the figure of Joseph.

Our sheet thus appears to be an important contribution to Guido Reni’s œuvre and one of the artist’s first thoughts on the theme which he never ceased developing. It also constitutes a precious testament to his graphic talent, the virtuosity of his vibrant vigorous line, and his keen sense of light effects. Thus he doesn’t hesitate to plunge Mary’s and Jesus’ faces into shadow and to illuminate the table, floor, and exterior, in order to create a dramatic atmosphere marked by religious mystery.
Transl. chr

We would like to thank Mr. Nicholas Turner, former curator of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and at the J. Paul Getty Museum, for having confirmed the authenticity of our work after in person examination.

General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Ann SUTHERLAND HARRIS, “Guido Reni’s First Thoughts,” Master Drawings, vol. 37, no 1, 1999, pp. 3-34.
Catherine JOHNSTON, Guido Reni. Zeichnungen, exh. cat. Vienna, Albertina, 1981 (cat. 8).

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