Emiliani, who has studied this pastel in the original, believes it to be a study for the head of the woman kneeling to the left foreground of the altarpiece, pointing to the left towards the Virgin in glory, while encouraging a young child to look at the vision above. He also stresses close similarities with another pastel of a young lady looking down, a study for the head of the same figure, formerly in the Skippe collection;1 two quick sketches for this head, in black chalk, are in the Uffizi.2 Barocci seems to have executed all the drawings related to the Madonna del Popolo and almost completed the cartoon (formerly at Chatsworth, now in a private collection in Chicago3), in February 1576, a terminus ante quem for the present study.
Also perhaps in some way related to this fine pastel head study is another in the Galleria Estense, Modena,4 which is generally associated with a slightly later painting, the Martyrdom of St. Vitale (1583), commissioned for the high altar of San Vitale, Ravenna, and today in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.5 That drawing is believed to relate to the mother and children to the left of the San Vitale altarpiece, which can be closely compared with the similar group in the Madonna del Popolo. It is very possible that the Modena pastel is another study drawn from life, showing the same sitter as the present drawing, obviously a model that Barocci used on more than one occasion.
An alternative suggestion has, however, recently been made by another scholar who has seen the pastel in the original, which is that the present drawing could instead be related to the head of the Virgin in The Madonna of the Cat, datable to 1576-77, now in the National Gallery, London. It is striking that the woman's gaze here is down and to the right, and that the light in this drawing is, as in the National Gallery painting, coming from the right.
As Babette Bohn observed in her very informative essay on Barocci’s drawings in the catalogue of the recent monographic exhibition on the artist's works, Barocci's oeuvre of some fifteen hundred surviving drawings distinguishes him as one of the most prolific and original draftsmen in the history of Italian art.6 Bohn also informs us that in the inventory of Barocci’s studio, the most numerous of all his drawings were the pastels. She writes: ‘Many of Barocci’s preliminary studies employ pastel, colored chalks, oil paint, or gouache, and he incorporated color into pictorial preparation to a greater degree than any earlier Italian artist.’7 Barocci is simply the most versatile and extraordinary draftsman of his time. In his restless pursuit of perfection he produced an enormous quantity of studies that give us an incredible insight into the elaborate working method through which he prepared his paintings, and also shed light on his indefatigable mind, never satisfied and always in search of the next and better solution. He redrew the same motifs over and over again, never neglecting the opportunity for a handsome mise en page and often, in deference to his coloristic palette, drawing on blue paper. His understanding of the use and subtlety of colors has left us with an astonishingly rich corpus of studies, many, like this, in a remarkable and unprecedented combination of media, including black, red, and white chalk, together with brilliantly refined pastel colors.
1 Private collection, formerly in the Jeffrey E. Horvitz Collection, sale, New York, Sotheby's 23 January 2008, lot 19; A. Emiliani, Federico Barocci, 2nd. ed, Ancona 2008, vol. I, p. 334, no. 38.61, reproduced fig. 38.61
2 Inv. no. 11334 F; idem, p. 335, no. 38.62, reproduced fig. 38.62 (recto)
3 Ibid., p. 315, no. 38.1, reproduced fig. 38.1 (formerly Chatsworth, Devonshire Collection, inv. no. 357)
4 Inv. 1301, idem, pp. 377-379, no. 40, reproduced fig. 40
5 Ibid., p. 388, no. 40.24, reproduced fig. 40.24
6 J.W. Mann and B. Bohn, Federico Barocci, exh. cat., Saint Louis Art Museum, and London, The National Gallery, 2012, pp. 33-69
7 Ibid., p. 33
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