IMPORTANT OLD MASTER PAINTINGS FROM THE FORBES COLLECTION FORMERLY AT FETTERCAIRN HOUSE
Acquired from the above by James Irvine on behalf of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo (1773–1828), of Fettercairn, Kincardineshire, 27 June 1827, in Milan, for 215 Louis (the seal of the Accademia di Milano affixed to the reverse);
By descent to his son Sir John Stuart Hepburn-Forbes, 8th Baronet of Pitsligo (1804–1866);
By whom offered in the sale of pictures purchased by the late Mr Irvine for the late Sir William Forbes, Bart., London, Rainy, 2 June 1842, lot 26, bought in (as Andrea del Sarto, after Raphael);
By inheritance to his son-in-law Charles Trefusis, 20th Baron Clinton (1834–1904);
Thence by descent to the present owner.
Represented life-size and full-length, the Baptist strikes an imposing figure, the most important precedent for which was Leonardo’s much-copied painting of the subject, datable to circa 1512 (now attributed to his workshop).3 Unlike the rather more languid pose of that representation however, the saint here is portrayed as a vigorous young man, partway between sitting and standing, directly addressing the spectator with his intense gaze and the emphatic gesture of his raised right arm, vividly communicating the rhetoric of a 'muscular Christianity.'4
It is by no means surprising that Del Sarto should have been regarded as the possible author of this work. The face of the Baptist in particular is reminiscent of the Florentine artist's style, with the half-open mouth, somewhere between speaking and smiling, filled with emotional intensity. Such an expression, though it is not treated with the same smokiness of Del Sarto's technique, recalls that of figures such as the young boy in the background of Charity, complete with a crop of dark red, curly hair,5 and the preparatory head study of the infant Baptist for the lost Porta Pinti Madonna.6 Indeed, the physical features of the Baptist's head in the present painting are not dissimilar to the likeness of the adolescent model used by Del Sarto in his own depiction of Saint John the Baptist, which incidentally includes a comparable cane cross, bound with twine.7
Such comparisons suggest that the artist who painted the figure in the present work may have been a Florentine, though this is by no means certain, particularly in view of the composition's perennial popularity and widespread reproduction.8 The attribution of the prime version in the Uffizi has itself been the subject of much scholarly debate. The fact that it is on canvas, and not discernibly transferred from panel as might be expected, identifies it as the painting described by Vasari in 1550 as the 'San Giovanni in tela' commissioned by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna (made a cardinal by Pope Leo X in 1517), which is documented in the collection of the Medici by 1589, though it may have entered it in as early as 1568.9 And the work is certainly considered the model for the large number of other extant copies, due to a significant pentimento in the scroll: this was clearly originally longer, but was reduced so as to end after the word 'DEI', with a small tear, and this truncation is found consistently in all the copies. In the present work, emphasis has been given to the 'A' tucked into the Baptist's left hand, a detail that is only faintly visible in the Uffizi painting.
Johann David Passavant, in 1860, was the first to give the work to a member of Raphael’s school, namely Giulio Romano, an attribution that has been variously upheld and refuted since the 19th century.10 Recent scholarship generally shares the opinion that the Uffizi painting is the work of Raphael's studio, although the design appears likely to have originated with the master himself. A preparatory drawing in red chalk of the lower half of the figure, in which the foreshortening of the right thigh is more assured than in the painting, has been ascribed at different times to Raphael himself, his school and Giulio.11
Another significant, near contemporary copy is the painting on panel (as the majority of the copies are) in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, also of slightly larger dimensions than the Uffizi painting.12 The figure and face of the Baptist in that work certainly emulates that of the Uffizi picture, with the serious frown of concentration that is not as accentuated in the present painting. The foreground surroundings and distant landscape of the Bologna copy however, although very close to the Uffizi version, deviate in certain details which are notably picked up in the present painting. The leaves springing from the tendrils attaching the cross to the partially cut tree, left, for instance, are identifiably oak leaves in the Bologna painting, as they are here. The far landscape in the Bologna version is also slightly more defined than in the Uffizi work, with the inclusion of an additional waterfall that is reproduced in the present copy, alongside the rather ill-conceived bridge. On the other hand, the foliage in the foreground, lower left and on the right, which is depicted in great detail in both the Bologna and Uffizi paintings, is barely suggested in the present work.
Indeed, the background surrounding the figure in this painting elicits questions over the number of hands involved in its execution. It seems unlikely that the artist who painted the fine details of the face was the same as the author of the landscape which is, by comparison, rendered much more broadly. Furthermore, infrared reflectography (fig. 1) reveals a contrasting working method whereby the body of the saint has been reserved for luminosity, while the background has been worked up from dark to light tones, and appears almost opaque around the figure. The image also makes visible the underdrawing in the figure which, though not unreservedly free, is certainly free-hand and not a slavish copy or tracing. The somewhat discontinuous lines defining the saint’s anatomy speak of an artist making his own reproduction from the original (or a version), or a careful drawing, and many of the lines appear to repeat themselves, as if the artist was reassuring himself of their position. While the spots of the leopard skin have clearly been conceived in conjunction with the execution of the figure, in the finished painting the rather metallic highlights accentuating the fur may quite possibly have been applied by the author of the comparably-treated details in the landscape, such as the waterfall at left, and the highlights on the bark of the tree and leaves.
What seems clear is that the artist (or artists) of the present painting, which itself dates to the first half of the 16th century, had knowledge of at least one early version of the composition. In acquiring the picture for Sir William, Irvine was adding to his benefactor’s collection one of the most famous and enduring images of the Renaissance, its directness and energy as commanding today as it was 500 years before.
1. Dated list of Irvine’s expenses in the Fettercairn papers.
2. Oil on canvas, 163 x 147 cm.; inv. no. 1890; see T. Henry and P. Joannides, Late Raphael, exh. cat., Madrid 2012, pp. 124–28, cat. no. 12, reproduced in colour p. 125.
3. Inv. no. 780, Musée du Louvre, Paris; see V. Pomarède (ed.), The Louvre: All the paintings, Paris 2011, p. 69, reproduced in colour.
4. Henry and and Joannides 2012, p. 126.
5. Inv. no. 1483, Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington; see Shearman 1965, vol. I, p. 278, cat. no. 91, reproduced vol. II, plates 164b and 163a.
6. Inv. no. 350/4, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; see Shearman 1965, vol. I, p. 364, reproduced vol. II, plate 91a.
7. Inv. no. 272, Uffizi, Florence; see Shearman 1965, vol. I, p. 259, cat. no. 67, reproduced vol. II, plate 124a.
8. For a comprehensive list of copyists and copies, comprising paintings, drawings and prints, see G. Chiarini, in M. Gregori et al., Raffaello a Firenze: Dipinti e disegni delle collezioni fiorentine, exh. cat., Florence 1984, pp. 224–28, under cat. no. 19, p. 222 ff.
9. G. Vasari, Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori: nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568, R. Bettarini and P. Barocchi (eds), Florence 1966–87, IV, p. 202.
10. J.D. Passavant, Raphael d’Urbin et son père Giovanni Santi, Paris 1860, cat. no. 240, pp. 287–90; for a discussion of varying views on the attribution, see J. Meyer zur Capellen, Raphael. A critical catalogue of his paintings, vol. II, The Roman Religious paintings, ca. 1508–1520, Landshut 2005, pp. 235–39, cat. no. A4; and Henry and Joannides 2012, pp. 124–28, cat. no. 12.
11. Inv. no. 545E, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Uffizi, Florence; see Henry and Joannides 2012, p. 128, reproduced fig. 72.
12. See Henry and Joannides 2012, p. 126, reproduced fig. 71.
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