Lot 303
  • 303

LUCA PENNI | Susannah and the Elders

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
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  • Luca Penni
  • Susannah and the Elders
  • Pen and black ink and dark grey wash, heightened with white, on paper prepared brownish-grey, extensively pricked for transfer;bears attribution on the old mount in pen and brown ink: pelegrino tibaldi (twice)
  • 247 by 205 mm


Unidentified French collection, from the 18th Century mount;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 5 July 2006, lot 4 (as Netherlandish School, early 16th century);
Private collection


Urbino, Palazzo Ducale, Rinascimento segreto, 2017, pp. 122-3, no. 48, reproduced (entry by Dominique Cordellier)


Laid down on an old mount. There are abrasions to the surface of the prepared paper and the extensive priking has determined loss of colour of the lines in pen and ink. The white heighteneing remains in good condition. The image is strong. Sold in a carved and gilded wooden French frame, possibly 18th century.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The attribution to Luca Penni was first proposed by Dominique Cordellier, in the catalogue of the recent exhibition in Urbino (see Exhibited).  Cordellier stresses in his entry the combination of Southern and Northern traditions visible in the artistic language of Luca Penni, and clearly exemplified in the present sheet.  The rich and highly finished composition is characterized by a sophisticated use of the pen and dark washes combined with an elaborate and careful application of the white heightening, the latter often resulting in an intricate cross hatching.  This determines the light and creates the volumes, in contrast with the dark prepared paper.  Beautifully detailed, this sheet is dominated by the sculptural nude of Susannah in the middle of the composition, flanked by the bearded figures of the Elders, wearing elaborate garments with angular and voluminous folds.  In the foreground a marble fountain 'all’antica', is ornamented with the heads of a lion and a putto, the latter incorporated within a mannerist volute to the left.  In the background, an ancient ruined city completes and embellishes the scene.    

In his Urbino catalogue entry, Cordellier points out Penni’s strongly sculptural approach when drawing his ideal of female beauty, seen frontally, as here, or in profile, noting close similarities with other studies by the artist, such as Venus with Vulcan and Cupid (Christ Church, Oxford), The Toilet of Venus (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), and Mars and Venus (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes).1  The solidity of Penni’s female bodies – so different from the sinuous ones of Parmigianino or Primaticcio – combines strength and morality of character with sensuality.  Cordellier also noted that the strong and ‘fortment érotisé’ mannerist elements in the present sheet, which are close to Pellegrino Tibaldi (an attribution written on the old mount of the present sheet, and found on a number of Penni’s other drawings2), are combined here with a highly finished composition, ‘pittoresque et saturée’, characterized by the abundant white heightening, contrasting with the dark prepared paper.  These pictorial elements are much more in keeping with Northern traditions, and the technique is particularly reminiscent of certain works by Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse (circa 1478 -1532).  Although this combination of media is not often used by Penni, Cordellier draws attention to another sheet, Diana and Acteon (location unknown), executed in the very much the same technique.3    He also points out that Penni treated the subject of Susannah and the Elders on other occasions: a print by René Boyvin, after a lost drawing by Penni, is very similar in composition (fig. 1), and a further drawing, also executed in the same media and similar in size to the present sheet, was sold twice on the French art market (as 'Artist anonyme des Pays-Bas, du XVIe siècle').4

A native of Florence, Penni was an extraordinary artistic personality who had a fascinating and varied career.  He was the younger brother of Raphael’s leading assistant Giovanni Francesco Penni (1488/1496-1528), and must have been trained initially by his brother, in the milieu of Raphael’s workshop, sharing with his fellow artists the same sophisticated taste and passion for the antique.  Penni was employed in Genoa with Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), working in the 'cantieri' of Palazzo Doria (1529-1533).  Perino was in fact his brother in law, having married Giovanni Francesco’s and Luca's sister, Catarina Penni.  In 1530, Luca would be called to Fontainebleau to work alongside and collaborate with Rosso Fiorentino, the Florentine artistic impresario of the French King François 1er.  Penni’s move to Fontainebleau was clearly of great benefit to his career, and he worked there on various decorative projects, under Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio, until 1547.  After the death of François 1er, Penni stayed in Paris for the remainder of his career.

Penni’s corpus of surviving drawings, to which this is a very important addition, demonstrates a remarkable consistency.  Most of these drawings are full compositional studies, often, like this one, elaborate and highly finished, although it is possible that he did not preserve his sketches or his 'primi pensieri' (first ideas).  At first, his style was much influenced by Giulio Romano, but it evolved and matured as a result of his experiences in Fontainebleau, to which the present sheet is an excellent testimony.  Here, we see how Penni embraced the teachings of Rosso (1495-1540) and Primaticcio (1504-1570), and combined these influences also with a strong sculptural element, possibly deriving from his exposure to Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), who was active between Paris and Fontainebleau at very much the same time as Penni (1537 and 1540-1545).

For a newly discovered drawing by Rosso Fiorentino see lot 307.

1. Respectively: Oxford, Christ Church, inv. no. 1214; Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, inv. no. 1898.49; Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. 794.1.3019; see D. Cordellier, Luca Penni. Un disciple de Raphael à Fontainebleau, Paris, 2012, reproduced figs. 149, 153, 156

2.  See Cordellier, op. cit., p. 35

3.  See Cordellier, op. cit., p. 130, fig. 126; sale, London, Christie’s, 10 December 1991, lot 190 

4.  Paris, Hotel Drouot, 29 June 1929, lot 79, and 4 June 1947, lot 45, reproduced