A significant addition to his œuvre, this unpublished painting of the Virgin in prayer by the most important Florentine artist of the Seicento captures the spiritual intensity of the Mater Dolorosa. The success of Dolci’s composition is attested by the existence of at least two autograph variants and numerous copies. The painting’s rich tonality and the refinement of the Virgin’s self-contained pose distinguish it as arguably the finest of the known versions. According to Francesca Baldassari, the leading Dolci scholar and author of the first catalogue raisonné on the artist, "the high pictorial quality of this painting justifies its inclusion among Dolci’s autograph versions of the subject."1 The work, which relates to several other images focused on single figures for private devotion, is datable to the 1650s and belongs to a high point in Dolci’s career, when his technique is at its most polished.

Dolci depicts the Virgin with her hands clasped and her eyes lowered in sorrow; she is portrayed almost in profile and shrouded in a richly painted mantle of ultramarine blue. Her outline is brought into relief by subtle gradations of gold dust used to render the radiating light of her halo. The minimal red accents of her sleeves and lips introduce a vibrant contrast to the blue, which is of a subtly different tonality in the lining. The three-quarter-length design of this painting is found in an autograph variant of oval format, housed today at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.2 In the latter, the Virgin appears more troubled, her face clouded, the shadows under her eyes more pronounced. Another version on a smaller canvas, recently sold at Sotheby’s and now in a private collection, adopts a more closely cropped format.3 The Virgin’s figure is truncated just below the hands, while her expression and the use of stronger lighting is closer to the more collected, contemplative mood of this painting, in which she is less visibly distressed than in the canvas in Tokyo.

Fig. 1. Carlo Dolci, Clasped hands, a study for hands clasped in prayer for a painting of Saint Francis, black and red chalk, British Museum, London

Dolci’s rendering of the Virgin’s features is closely comparable to the Virgin of Soriano (private collection, England), one of only two fragments known to have survived from an altarpiece dated 1656 commissioned by Giovanni del Nobolo for the family chapel at Sant’Andrea a Cennano, near Montevarchi.4 This, together with a beautiful drawing by Dolci executed in red and black chalk conserved at the British Museum, London, provides an important point of reference for the dating of the Mater Dolorosa (fig. 1).5 Inscribed with the date ‘9 GN 1653’ – which could refer to gennaio or giugno: January or June 1653 – the sheet serves as a highly finished study of hands clasped in a gesture of fervent prayer. It relates to the painting and is translated onto canvas with great subtlety and some modifications. Dolci adopted this positioning of the hands for other devotional works. As Baldassari notes, the same drawing was also used for the hands of the male saint in the painting on copper of Saint Francis praying (private collection, New York);6 for the Virgin Annunciate at the Louvre;7 as well as for the other images of the Mater Dolorosa, such as the autograph version in Tokyo.

Several copies and derivations of Dolci’s composition are known. These include paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest; The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; the Galleria Sabauda, Turin; and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota.8 In his discussion of the version at Cleveland,9 Charles McCorquodale has pointed out that the iconography of the Mater Dolorosa derives from that of the Virgin of Solitude, known in Spanish as ‘La Soledad’, in which the Madonna is depicted alone, sometimes accompanied by the instruments of the Passion. The type met with great success in Italy; perhaps the most illustrious example is that painted by Titian in 1554 for the Emperor Charles V, the Mater Dolorosa with clasped hands, now at the Prado, Madrid.

The painting belonged to Wynne Ellis (1790–1875), a prosperous silk merchant, Liberal MP and free trade supporter, whose extensive collection described by Dr Gustav Waagen in Treasures of Art grew from modest beginnings into a wide representation of different schools with significant holdings by the great masters.10 His posthumous gift of paintings to the National Gallery, London – The Wynn Ellis Bequest – comprises 94 pictures, and is particularly strong in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, as well as important works by Canaletto. The rest of his collection, including the present work, as well as furniture and decorative arts, was dispersed at auction at Christie’s over five days in May, June and July 1876.

1 Francesca Baldassari, translation of expertise dated 17 February 2020, Florence.

2 Inv. P. 1998-0002; oil on canvas, 32 ½ x 26 3/8 in.; 82.5 x 67 cm.; F. Baldassari, Carlo Dolci, Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Florence 2015, no. 116, reproduced in color p. 220.

3 Oil on canvas, 22 x 17 1/8 in.; 56 x 43.5 cm.; sold Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 2014, lot 22; Baldassari 2015, no. 117, reproduced in color.

4 For a reproduction see Baldassari 2015, no. 120a.

5 Inv. 1859,0806.65; 5 1/16 x 5 1/8 in.; 128 x 131 mm.; reproduced in F. Baldassari, Carlo Dolci, Turin 1995, under no. 96, p. 123, fig. 96a.

6 Baldassari 2015, no. 113, reproduced in color p. 217.

7 Baldassari 2015, no. 115, reproduced in color p. 219.

8 For reproductions see Baldassari 2015, under no. 99, figs 37w–41w.

9 29 ½ x 24 3/8 in.; 75 x 62 cm.; reproduced in color in F. Baldassari, Carlo Dolci, Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Florence 2015, under no. 116, p. 220, fig. 116a; see also C. McCorquodale in Il Seicento Fiorentino. Arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III, exh. cat. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 1986, vol. I, p. 446, no. 1.251.

10 G. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. II, pp. 293–98.