The commission for the decoration of the cupola was originally entrusted to the Milanese artist Pierfrancesco Mazzuchelli, called il Morazzone (1573-1626), but he died suddenly in 1626, having completed just two of the large figures of prophets. Guercino took over the project, and by the end of the same year he had painted the remaining six prophets. The following year, Guercino executed the decoration of the eight arched lunettes, and underneath them, in the drum of the cupola, a continuous frieze of putti.
The present drawing is a study for the whole composition, including indications in the upper corners, relating to the lunette shape of the fresco. Although the three main central figures are close to their final frescoed counterparts, the position of the donkey and the two angels (which become one), are very different. It is executed with a secure handling of the red chalk, which testifies to the great mastery in the use of this versatile medium that is evident in Guercino’s work throughout his career, even at such an early stage.
Given the importance of this early commission it is not surprising that Guercino made a large number of preparatory studies, some of which have survived. Five of these, are compositional studies with a different degree of finish, executed in pen and ink some with wash. The first is in Washington, in the National Gallery1, the second in Florence, in the Uffizi,2 while two formerly in the collection of Sir Denis Mahon, one double sided, are now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.3 In addition there are two more quick pen and ink drawings, focusing on the three main figures of the Madonna and Child and St Joseph, both in private collection.4 These quick compositional studies in pen and ink, ‘primi pensieri’, seem to be Guercino's first step in his preparation of these scenes, in this case followed by the present rare compositional drawing in red chalk.
After making these preliminary compositional studies, Guercino moved on to more detailed studies of individual figures and motifs. Often in these studies he preferred to use red chalk, and there are two red chalk studies of draperies related to the figure of the seated Madonna, both in Schloss Fachsenfeld collection, and now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart: the first of the drapery over her legs, the second a study for the sleeve and her right hand, both from Casa Gennari.5 In addition, a study in red chalk for the seated Madonna was on the art market in 2004.6
In 1795 the present drawing was in the collection of Ulisse Aldovrandi (see inscription on the recto) a descendant of Guercino's friend, the Count Filippo Aldovrandi.
1. Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, inv. no. B 30-696.
Bentini, op. cit., p. 94, no. 14. 10, reproduced in colour
2. Florence, Uffizi, inv. no. 1677.
Ibid. p. 95, no. 14. 11, reproduced in colour
3. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, respectively inv. nos. WA 2012.70 and WA 2012.71;
Ibid. respectively, pp. 96-97, no. 14. 12; p. 98, no. 14.13 and p. 99, no. 14.14, all reproduced in colour
4. See P. Bagni, op. cit., Padua 1994, p. 130, no. 95, and p. 135, no. 100, both reproduced
5. Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, respectively inv. nos. II/73 and II/91;
Ibid. respectively, p. 101, nos. 14.16 and 14.17, reproduced in colour
6. Katrin Bellinger at Colnaghi, exhib. cat., Master Drawings, at J. Kilgore &Co., New York and London, 2004, no. 14, reproduced
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