Acquired by Professor Friedrich Sarre, Berlin, in the late 19th Century;
Thence by descent to his wife Maria Sarre, Ascona, by 1967;
Thence by gift to Marie-Louise Sarre, Ascona, by 1993;
Thence by gift to the present owners.
Despite its publication in the 1930s as an autograph work by Andrea Mantegna, this painting of the Madonna and Child has been ignored in all the literature on the artist ever since.1 This is probably due to the fact that its whereabouts were unknown until recently and scholars only knew the painting from an old photograph published by Fiocco, in which it appears with considerable overpaint (since removed). In spite of the painting's rather worn appearance - in itself not uncommon among Mantegna's works on canvas - the sophistication of the design, the delicacy of form and the colourful palette all lend credence to Mantegna's authorship. Recent careful examination and restoration of the Madonna and Child also argue in favour of an attribution to the great Renaissance painter, on technical as well as stylistic grounds.2
The painting is almost certainly a late work by the artist, datable to the last decade of his life (circa 1495-1505). After a two-year sojourn in Rome, having been summoned there in 1488 by Pope Innocent VIII, Mantegna returned to the Gonzaga court in Mantua and continued to work there until his death in 1506. It was during this time that he executed some of the greatest works of his entire career, the paintings for Isabella d'Este's Studiolo and the Triumphs of Caesar amongst them, and his reputation was such that in 1499 the powerful Cardinal Georges d'Amboise described Mantegna as 'the first painter in the world' and stated that 'he would rather have a devotional picture by Mantegna than earn two thousand ducats'.3
Unlike Giovanni Bellini who popularised the 'Madonna and Child' painting, Mantegna is known to have painted the theme only six times in his career (as well as six others with Joseph or other saints).4 Of his other known representations of the subject, this painting comes closest in type and conception to Mantegna's other late Madonna and Child in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan.5 There too the Madonna is shown half-length, holding the Christ Child almost frontally, and both are set before a trompe l'œil window frame. This illusionistic framing element is a motif used elsewhere in Mantegna's late works and most closely resembles the window casement framing Christ the Redeemer in the Congregazione della Carità, Correggio, which is dated 1493.6 It has been argued that this illusionistic setting ultimately derives from the more elaborate window-arch used for the St. Mark in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, which dates from the late 1440s.7 The complex architectural setting of the St. Mark is quite different, however: it is inspired by the works of Francesco Squarcione, with whom Mantegna trained in Padua between 1442 and 1448, whilst the simple casement window used here and in Christ the Redeemer are Mantegna's own invention, and were also adopted by his brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini in Venice. The simplicity of the frame serves to heighten the emotional impact of the scene: our attention is not diverted from the figures being represented and Mantegna introduces the spatial illusion with remarkable subtlety. The Madonna and Child are lit from the left and slightly from above: the modelling of the figures and a lighter edge running along the lower border of the window frame both indicate a single light source. The same is true for Christ the Redeemer, although the illuminated edge is visible along the right as well as the lower frame. Technical examination has revealed that the lighter edge along the lower border lies over the blue of the Madonna's cloak and was therefore painted in at a later stage. That the Madonna's robe would have been blocked in before such a line were painted makes sense, particularly bearing in mind that there are areas in which her drapery seems to run over the border (such as her green sleeve on the lower part of the left edge).
The canvas support of this Madonna and Child, whilst being a significant factor behind the painting's compromised condition, is also characteristic of Mantegna. As Christiansen has observed, 'one of the most singular factors of Mantegna's devotional paintings - and, indeed, of so much of his work after his move to Mantua - is his apparent preference for canvas over panel supports'.8 Although sometimes determined by the patron, the existence of numerous works on canvas suggests that it was Mantegna's preferred support. This may have been due to technical reasons as canvas was both cheaper than panel and more easily transported: indeed Christiansen observes that 'canvas was an inevitable choice for devotional pictures commissioned outside Mantua or sent as diplomatic gifts'.9 Although this Madonna and Child's early provenance and history are not known, such an argument might apply to the patron who commissioned it. The small dimensions of the canvas and intimacy of the scene suggest that it was painted for an individual, almost certainly for private devotion.
The canvas, which is relined, has been cut down to the original tack margins around which primary cusping or 'scalloping' is still evident. This is also consistent with Mantegna's technique since the canvas was often stretched and nailed to the front of a strainer rather than folded over the edges of a stretcher: another excellent example of this within Mantegna's own œuvre is his Presentation in the Temple in Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.10
The medium of the Madonna and Child is most likely to be egg tempera, although traces of animal glue and drying oil were also found: the presence of the first may be due to the sized canvas.11 The oil that was detected may be from an oil-based varnish applied to the paint surface, but it should not be ruled out that the artist himself may have mixed the oil in to produce an egg-oil emulsion medium: this has been found on other paintings by Mantegna on canvas, namely those he produced for Isabella d'Este's Studiolo.12
Many of the pigments found in the Madonna and Child - azurite and natural ultramarine, malachite, lead-tin yellow - are entirely consistent with those present in other works by Mantegna, and their use within this composition also find numerous parallels. The Madonna in his Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene (The Altman Madonna) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, displays a similar colour palette: her under-dress is red, with a yellow scarf or piece of drapery across her chest, and her over-dress is made of a thicker cloth, dark blue on one side and green on the reverse, which has been folded back over her forehead.13 The Metropolitan picture is datable to 1495-1505 and is therefore likely to be contemporary with the present painting. Although both canvases have suffered considerably, the artist's handling of the yellow drapery is extremely similar: using careful strokes, the artist has applied the lead-tin yellow pigment more thickly to denote the folds in the cloth. In both examples the Madonna's dark blue robe has suffered from severe abrasion and was much repainted in the past, thereby reducing some of the forms (particularly where the drapery 'bunches' into folds around the kink in her elbows). The plain dark background, which analysis has shown to be bone black, was applied prior to the Madonna's cloak as it seems to underlie the azurite of her robe. The figures were thus placed against a uniform black background, rather like those in Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.14
Technical examination of the painting before restoration found traces of shell gold in certain areas of the Madonna's sleeve cuffs, along her neckline, halo and headdress. Although it was difficult at the time to ascertain how much of this gold was original, cleaning has since revealed that the gold which is now visible on the haloes of the Madonna and Child is indeed original. The haloes almost certainly resembled the 'discs' such as those that can be found in the Getty Adoration and the Madonna and Child in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.15 Small residues of original gold can still be detected in the blue drapery of the Madonna, although these are now only visible under a microsope, and it seems likely that her robe was decorated in a similar manner to that of Christ in the painting of Christ the Redeemer mentioned above.
Infra-red reflectography of the Madonna and Child revealed a series of outlines emphasising, for example, the Madonna's hands, cuff and sleeve, but no other significant underdrawing was found. Although Mantegna's work characteristically shows a considerable amount of underdrawing, whether as elaborate freehand drawings or cartoons transferred by pouncing or using a stylus and carbon paper, this is normally more evident in paintings with a panel rather than canvas support. An X-radiograph of the painting, however, did reveal pentimenti which are entirely consistent with Mantegna's working practice: one occurs on the Madonna's sleeve lower left and another affects the positioning of Christ's left leg and bent knee (see Fig. 1).16 Similar pentiments can be found in the poses of the Madonna and Child in the Poldi Pezzoli painting; in the figures of the Madonna and the High Priest in the Berlin Presentation in the Temple; and in the faces of the Virgin and Christ Child in the Getty Adoration of the Magi.17 Such alterations in design once the painting process had begun illustrate, as Christiansen eloquently describes, the 'exploratory character' of Mantegna's brushwork.
Even in its compromised state, this painting of the Madonna and Child demonstrates a sophistication of design and nobility of spirit which none of Mantegna's pupils or assistants would have been capable of, making an attribution to Mantegna himself all the more convincing.
Much of the technical information in this catalogue entry is taken from a report compiled by Libby Sheldon, a copy of which is available for consultation on request.
1. Fiocco lists the painting as being in a private collection, Paris. This is because Maria Sarre, the grandmother of the present owners, had sent the painting for safe-keeping to her close acquaintance Armand Loewengard, manager of the Paris branch of Duveen Brothers Inc., in circa 1936. The painting was returned to the family some time before the Nazi invasion of Paris on 14th June 1940.
2. The cleaning was undertaken over an 18-month period by Alison Smith and Simon Howell of Robert Shepherd Associates, and technical examination was conducted by Libby Sheldon Painting Analysis. The painting had previously been restored in the late 1950s.
3. Cited by K. Christiansen, "Devotional Works: Mantua", in Andrea Mantegna, exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 17 January - 5 April 1992; and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9 May - 12 July 1992, p. 152.
4. These are listed by Christiansen, op. cit., p. 157, footnotes 17 and 18.
5. Ibid., p. 154, reproduced fig. 72. Carbon dating of the Poldi Pezzoli painting has confirmed that the canvas dates from 1495 +/- 35 years; see A. Rothe, "Mantegna's paintings in distemper", in op. cit., p. 86, no. 27, and p. 88, footnote 36.
6. See Christiansen, ibid., pp. 231-32, cat. no. 54, reproduced in colour.
7. Idem, pp. 119-21, cat. no. 5, reproduced in colour.
8. See Christiansen, "Some observations on Mantegna's painting technique", in op. cit., p. 68.
9. Idem, p. 69.
10. See Rothe, op. cit., pp. 82-83, no. 2, reproduced fig. 39, and a detail of the canvas edge reproduced fig. 42. The stretchmarks or 'scalloping' in the canvas is obvious in both these works.
11. Mantegna painted on a sized canvas with either no or only a thin gesso preparation layer present: for a fuller discussion see Christiansen, "Some observations on Mantegna's painting technique", op. cit., pp. 68-79.
12. Analyses of Mantegna's paintings for Isabella d'Este's Studiolo show that these were painted in egg tempera, possibly with the slight addition of oil (giving an egg-oil emulsion) on a gesso preparation. Examples where Mantegna used the egg medium, on canvas and without a preparation layer, include The Battle of Love and Chastity (Louvre, Paris) and The Infant Redeemer (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). The St. Sebastian (Louvre, Paris), also painted on canvas in an egg medium, has a thick gesso ground.
13. Christiansen, ibid., pp. 233-34, cat. no. 55, reproduced in colour.
14. See A. Rothe, ibid., p. 85, no. 22, and Christiansen, idem, pp. 237-38, cat. no. 56, reproduced in colour.
15. See Rothe, ibid., p. 82, no. 1, and Christiansen, idem, p. 149, fig. 69. The Bergamo painting is datable to circa 1470-80.
16. The cause behind the rather large disc-like shape around Christ's head, which is so apparent in the X-ray, is not entirely clear.
17. In the Poldi Pezzoli painting Mantegna altered the Madonna's left hand and Christ's left foot: see Christiansen, op. cit., p. 77, reproduced on p. 76, fig. 36. In the Berlin Presentation the Madonna's face was originally higher and further to the left, with the halo painted in perspective, the High Priest's head was uncovered and his robe had a higher collar: see Rothe, idem, pp. 82-83, no. 2, reproduced on p. 82, fig. 40. For the Getty Adoration see Rothe, idem, p. 85, no. 22, reproduced fig. 44.
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