This painting, rediscovered only in 2006, is one of two known variations on copper of the Virgin sewing by Guido Reni. Although there is some confusion over the early provenances of these works -- one is said to have belonged to Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France from 1642-1661, while the other was in the collection of the Marquis de Fontenay -- the present work precisely matches the description of a painting by Guido Reni that was in the French Royal Collections later during the 18th century. In his 1754 catalogue of King Louis XV's collection, Nicolas Lépicié recorded the painting's appearance in great detail: "La Vierge, assise et vêtue d'une robe blanche, travaille à une draperie jaune, posée en partie sur une table couverte d'un tapis vert; deux anges sont appuyés dessus, leur expression est aussi respectueuses qu'attentive; un autre ange, placé sur un nuage tient une couronne de fleurs, tandis qu'un quatrième, en soulevent un rideau, regarde avec admiration la mère du Sauveur. La Vierge est drapée admirablement; son caractère est si marqué par la grâce et la douceur, qu'il serait difficile d'imaginer une beauté et une modestie plus conforme à celles qu'on doit peindre sur la visage de la mère du Dieu."2
There can be little doubt that this description refers to the present painting, especially given that in the other version of La Couseuse (recently on the art market with Dickinson Roundell), the Virgin is dressed in a red robe and is attended by only three angels (see fig. 1). The present picture is recorded as having hung in the Surintendence in 1760, but by 1775 it had been stolen and smuggled into England where it entered the collection of Sir John Purling. In fact, when the painting was sold by Purling in 1801, it was apparently accompanied by a letter that chronicled the story of its theft from France and clandestine journey to England (see footnote 1). The work was purchased in that sale by William Nathan Wright Hewett and is last recorded in his sales in 1819 and 1826, where it went unsold (see Provenance). After 1826, the work disappeared from the records for 180 years, until it resurfaced in a French collection in 2006. A careful cleaning, which removed layers of discolored varnish and dirt, revealed a remarkably well preserved copper, signed in the lower right by Guido Reni.
In attempting to unravel the earlier provenance of this work, the inventory of Cardinal Mazarin's collection is only marginally helpful. Although the 1661 inventory does record a composition matching this description by Guido Reni, no mention is made of color of the Virgin's robes and the number of angels is listed only imprecisely as "plusieurs."3 This reference could thus be interpreted as referring to either of the known versions of La Couseuse. More descriptive is the account of the paintings given in André Félibien's 1685 work, Entretiens sur les views et les ouvrages des plus excellents peintres anciens et modernes. Félibien (1619-1695), who served as the official court historian under Louis XIV, mentions both paintings, describing them in greater detail: "Je me représente toujours ces deux petit tableaux où il a peint la Vierge qui coud, dont l'une qui est au palais Mazarin, est vêtue de blanc et l'autre que le marquis de Fontenay apporta de Rome, est vêtue de rouge. On voit dans l'une et dans l'autre tant de grâce et de douceur, qui est mal aisé de rien imaginer, qui représente mieux une beauté et une modestie conforme à celle qu'on doit peindre sur le visage de la Sainte Vierge."4 Félibien would seem to be a more than reliable source, especially given Mazarin's prominence at Louis XIV's court as successor to Cardinal Richelieu. Given Félibien's testimony, it is almost certain that this is the version that was owned by Mazarin. Further securing this work's provenance, Bonnaffé described the Virgin in the Princesse de Conti's collection as being dressed in white, and stated that it was given to the Princesse by the Duc de Mazarin.5 The work then passed from the Conti family to the Prince du Carignan, whose collection was purchased in its entirety by King Louis XV in the early 1740s.
Before the reappearance of this work in 2006, and the version with the Madonna in red robes in 2001, the compositions were known only from engravings and from numerous inferior copies. The engraving that most closely follows the present composition is by Guillaume Vallet, although it includes the addition of a checkerboard floor and a loincloth on the angel to the left who is pulling back the curtain (see fig. 2). Another engraving by Gerard Edelinck is also quite similar, although it includes the addition of a sleeping Christ Child in a cradle on the right and a veil covering the Virgin's hair. Engravings also exist of the Fontenay painting, including one by Simon Vouillemont that omits one of the three putti and also depicts a checkerboard floor pattern.6
The sophistication of the composition, virtuosity in the rendering of the drapery and yellow garment that the Virgin is sewing; elegant handling of the still life elements in the lower left corner; and the delicate pentimenti that are evident in the downturned head of the angel to the right, all speak to Guido's authorship. Dated to the early part of his career, the influence of the Cavaliere d'Arpino is still evident in this work, as is the artist's interest in Correggio's pre-Mannerist style. Although perhaps not as powerful as some of his later compositions, the present work has a quiet, contemplative quality that is perfectly in tune with the subject of the composition. According to some sources, the garment that the Virgin is sewing is the veil of the temple. This subject must have held a certain interest for the artist and his patrons because in addition to the two versions of La Couseuse, Reni treated the subject in 1610 in his frescoes of The Life of the Virgin in the Capella dell'Annunziata in the Palazzo Quirinale and again in a painting known as the Youth of the Virgin, now in The Hermitage, where the young Madonna is surrounded by eight female attendants, all sewing.
When still in the possession of the present owner, this painting was viewed by Dawson Carr, David Jaffé, Sir Denis Mahon, Scott Schaefer, Dr. Erich Schleier and Aidan Weston-Lewis, all of whom have confirmed the attribution to Guido Reni.
We are grateful to Keith Christiansen for confirming the attribution to Reni on the basis of firsthand inspection.
1. An annotated copy of this sale catalogue, recorded on the Getty website, notes that the picture was accompanied by a letter that detailed its theft from the French Royal Collections and how it was subsequently smuggled into England. Unfortunately, this letter appears to have been lost as no mention is made of it in the later auction catalogues.
2. N. Lépicié, op. cit.
3. J.G. de Cosnac, op. cit.
4. A. Félibien, op. cit.
5. E. Bonnaffé, op. cit.
6. The engraving by Vouillemont is reproduced in D. Pepper, op. cit., fig. 22.
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