Acquired by the present owner from an Austrian private collection about fifteen years ago.
Probably M. Oretti, Notizie de' professori del disegno cioè pittori, scultori e architetti bolognesi e forestieri di sua scuola, Ms. B.127, c. 1769, Biblioteca Communale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, fols 460–461;
E. Van Schaak, Francesco Albani, Ph.D. Diss. Columbia University, New York 1969, Appendix D, no. 60 (under missing works);
C.R. Puglisi, Francesco Albani, New Haven and London 1999, pp. 64, 210, cat. no. 145, reproduced plate XXII.
The present painting on a substantial copper plate is the only known extant version of a famous composition by Albani recorded in the early sources. It is very probably that mentioned by Malvasia in his Lives of the Bolognese painters in 1678 as in the collection of Prince Maffeo Barberini in his palace on the Monte di Pietà in Rome. Malvasia describes the panel in the most glowing terms:
'Il tremendissimo rame della Madonna che lava i panni, che porti loro da S. Gioseffo, vengono dagli angeli stesi, per asciuttarsi, su' rami degli arbori' ('The most tremendous copper panel of the Madonna who washes linens that St. Joseph gives to the angels to hang up to dry on the tree branches')
The painting appears twice in the inventories of the collection of Prince Maffeo Barberini, the first dating to after 1672 and the second (and more complete) drawn up the year after his death in 1686, and in both it is twice described as a 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt': Due Paese In Rame p longo in uno un Riposo di Egitto... longhi p.mi 2 e alti p.mi 1 1/2 In Circa con Cornice liscie Indorate con Api mano dell'Albano and Un Paese in Rame con figurine, cioè un reposo d' Egitto della Vergine lungo p.i 1 1/2 largo p.i 1 1/4 in circa, con cornice liscia dorata mano dell'Albano' respectively. The measurements are given as 2 x 1 1/2 palmi (c. 45 x 33.7 cm.) and as 2 1/2 x 1 1/4 palmi (c. 57.2 x 28.1 cm.).2 Prince Maffeo Barberini died in 1685, leaving as heir to his estate and titles his eldest son Urbano. The Albani does not, however, appear in the list of fifty-eight pictures in his collection made by the painter Carlo Maratta in or after 1686, and thereafter seems to disappear from view in the Barberini collections.3 The presupposition must be therefore that the original was either sold or given away at some point, probably very soon after Prince Maffeo's death, but where and when is not known. The brushed and stencilled inventory numbers that remain on the reverse of the copper plate (fig. 1) do not accord with either of Prince Maffeo's inventories nor any subsequent Barberini inventory and remain unrecognised.
But if the trail goes cold in Italy, as Puglisi has noted, at least one and possibly two versions of this composition are recorded in early French inventories of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. The first of these is as early as 1685, the very year of Prince Maffeo's death, when a painting is recorded in the possession of the Parisian collector Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay (1651–1690), described as '...une Vierge communément appellée la petite Laveuse', one of six works by the artist that he possessed.4 This appellation is significant, for it seems to be the first time that the Albani was known by the name which would make it one of the most celebrated of his works in France. The possibility that the picture is that from the Barberini collections is ruled out by the Prince's late death on 28 November of that same year, and the fact that the original was still in Rome and inventoried the following year. This, or a second Parisian version, was then probably subsequently acquired by the Abbé François de Camps (1643–1723). At an unknown date it was purchased by Philippe II, Duc d'Orléans (1674–1723), and appears first in the inventory of Louis Duc d'Orléans (1703–1752) drawn up in 1727, where it is recorded as Une Sainte Famille, Connue sous le nom de la Laveuse.5 The painting remained in the Orléans collection at the Palais Royal until its dispersal after the Revolution by Louis Philippe Duc d'Orléans (1747–1793).6 The seventeenth-century presence of the picture in France is confirmed by an undated engraving (fig. 2) by Guillaume Vallet (1632–1704) and Couché's later engraving (fig. 3) confirms the De Camps provenance. As Schnapper has proposed, it is likely that this and the picture in the de Seignelay collection are one and the same.7
In 1798 the Orléans version was included among the pictures sold in London at Bryan's Gallery, as lot 65.8 Here it was one of three paintings by Albani bought by John Maitland (?1754–1831) of Woodford Hall, Essex, and cost 400 guineas.9 But while the other two, a St John preaching in the desert and a Christ appearing to the Magdalene were included in Maitland's posthumous sale at Christie's on 30 July 1831, the copper of La Laveuse had already gone from his collection.10 The Orléans version thereafter seems to disappear from sight, for it is not listed in any records of art sales in England in the early nineteenth century despite its fame. By the latter half of the century, by which time the critical fortunes of Albani and others of the Bolognese school were in precipitous decline, its former fame would likely have passed unnoticed. Again, the inventory marks on the back of the copper panel are not matched by any of those in the French collections, nor by any record of subsequent auction sales in England.
In our present state of knowledge, therefore, it is not currently possible to identify this copper with any certainty with that in either the Barberini or Maitland collections. This is strange, given the fame that the painting (or at least, the Orléans version) enjoyed in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the fact that the iconography of its subject matter was unique. It is not hard, however, to see from the present copper why Albani's works were so widely admired and sought after for a century and a half. The decorative and charming format combined with a suitably sacred but very tender subject matter clearly proved highly desirable when in a cabinet format such as this. As Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, the Marquis d'Argens remarked of the Orléans version, here 'one realises how much Albani knew how to imbue the most simple subjects with grace'.11
We are grateful to Catherine R. Puglisi for confirming the attribution to Francesco Albani, following first-hand inspection of the original. She dates the painting among Albani's mature works of the 1640s. Copies are recorded in the Cathedral at Coutances and in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.
1. R. de Piles, Abregé de la vie des peintres, avec des reflexions sur leurs ouvrages, Paris 1699, p. 333.
2. M.A. Lavin, Seventeenth-century Barberini documents and Inventories of Art, New York, 1975, p. 377, VII. Alpha.72+.344 (dimensions as 2 x 1 1/2 palmi) and also p. 404, VII.inv.86. fol. 193 left, no. 235 (dimensions given as 2 1/2 by 1 1/4 palmi).
3. Lavin 1975, pp. 421–22.
4. C. Le Maire, Paris ancien et nouveau, Paris 1685, III, pp. 265–66. The Marquis was the son and heir of Louis XIV's great minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683).
5. Louis-François Dubois de Saint-Gelais, 1727. Description des tableaux du Palais Royal avec la vie des peintres à la tête de leurs ouvrages, f.132, no: 134: Une Sainte Famille, Connue sous le nom de la Laveuse. Peint sur cuivre haut d'un pied six pouces & demi, large d'un pied trois pouces. Fig. de dix pouces. La Vierge lave du linge dans un ruisseau, L'Enfant jesus le donne à S. Joseph, deux petits Anges sont en air tenant chacun un linge. Le fond du tableau est un paysage.
6. C. Stryienski, La Galerie du Régent Philippe Duc d'Orléans, Paris 1913, p. 172, no. 274.
7. A. Schnapper, Curieux du Grand Siècle: Collections et collectioneurs dans la France du XVIIe siècle, Paris 1994, p. 369.
8. Bryan's Gallery, A Catalogue of the Orleans' Italian Pictures... 26 December 1798 and days following, London 1798, no. 65.
9. Buchanan lists him as 'T. Maitland Esq' and this is followed by Puglisi (1999) but the 1831 catalogue indicates it was John Maitland.
10. Puglisi 1999, cat. nos 94.v.e and 106.v.b. The subsequent history of the Noli me Tangere is unknown until its re-appearance in the Busiri Vici collection in the twentieth-century. The Saint John preaching was apparently purchased by a family member, and passed by descent until sold London, Christie's, 10 July 1992, lot 62. Another version (which also claims the Orléans provenance) is at Bowood. The 1831 sale included eight other paintings from the Orléans collection, including other Bolognese pictures by or attributed to Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci and Domenichino.
11. Examen critique des différentes écoles de peinture, Berlin 1768, p. 325.
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