The work is all the more rare as it accounts for only the second multi-figural composition from Drost's Italian sojourn, for which there are only fifteen accepted extant pictures.2 The first, and consequently the only other history painting, is his Mercury and Argus in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (fig. 2). Consequently, Roman Charity stands out as a touchstone in understanding Drost's working method from this incredibly brief but critical period in the arch of Dutch Golden Age painting. As with the aforementioned Flora, Roman Charity is a remarkable synthesis of the artist’s early training in Amsterdam under Rembrandt and the more mature style he developed in Venice, when he came under the direct spell of both Titian and the Italian tenebrist movement made popular by Jusepe di Ribera.
The rediscovery of the present work allow us to re-evaluate Drost’s stylistic development in Italy, for his Italian oeuvre reveals a strong affinity for this tenebrist style prevalent in Venice at the time. Indeed, his Italian paintings have at times been confused with the work of the German artist Johann Carl Loth, who was active in Venice and perhaps best exemplifies the Riberesque trend in Venetian tenebrism. Indeed, both the Dresden Mercury and Argus and Roman Charity recall Loth's painterly technique, but as Jonathan Bikker notes, the hair, beard and face of both male protagonists-Argus and Cimon-are similarly rendered in coarse impasto in a manner consistent with Drost's Italian style. Furthermore, the eyes of both Mercury and, here, Pero are distinctly outlined in thin lines, a distinguishing feature of Drost's Italian style.
Bikker correctly notes that it had been assumed, based on the extant paintings from the artist’s Italian sojourn, that Drost had lost interest in the 16th century Venetian prototypes which had so informed his style while he was still in Amsterdam. However, the present Roman Charity, which was almost certainly painted in Venice, directly contradicts that idea and confirms that native Italian paintings continued to be a crucial source of inspiration. This observation is made obvious here by the soft chiaroscuro framing the overall composition, Pero's soft flesh tones, and above all, her delicate oval facial features and red lips which immediately recall both Flora and Drost's undisputed masterpiece, Bathsheba with King David's Letter (fig. 3, Musée du Louvre).
We are grateful to Dr. Jonathan Bikker for endorsing the attribution following first-hand inspection and for his kind assistance in cataloguing the work.
1. Sotheby's New York, 25 January 2017, lot 20, for $4,625,000.
2. See J. Bikker, Willem Drost: A Rembrandt Pupil in Amsterdam and Venice, New Haven and London 2005, cat. nos. 25-38.
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