PROPERTY FROM A EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTION, SOLD TO BENEFIT OPERAZIONE MATO GROSSO
With Dowdeswell, London;
Acquired from the above by Eduard Simon, Berlin, by 1914;
His sale, Berlin, Cassirer and Helbing, 10 and 11 October 1929, lot 5;
Purchased at the above by Martin Schwersenz;
Bruno Spiro (d. 1936), Hamburg;
By inheritance to his wife Ellen Spiro (d. 1977), later Ellen Austin, Hamburg and London;
Acquired from the above by P. & D. Colnaghi, London, 1955;
Acquired from the above by Sir Thomas Barlow CBE, 1955;
With Simon Dickinson, London;
With Moretti Gallery;
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007.
Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museums Verein, 1914, no. 11;
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Italian Art from the 13th Century to the 17th Century, 1955, no. 21 (as Botticelli).
H.P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London 1908, p. 140, Italian ed., Florence 1986, pp. 209 and 460 (as an admirable studio copy);
Langton Douglas, 1911, p. 270
Possibly J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in Italy, vol. IV, London 1911, p. 269 (as 'A Madonna and Child' by Botticelli in the Eduard Simon collection);
Y. Yashiro, Sandro Botticelli, London and Boston 1925, vol. I, p. 236 (as studio of Botticelli);
A. Venturi, Botticelli, Rome, 1925, pp. 58–59, pl. XCII (as Botticelli?);
R. Van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. XII, The Hague 1931, pp. 232–33 and 236 (as workshop of Botticelli);
C. Gamba, Botticelli, Milan 1936, pp. 149–50 (as a good studio replica);
R. Salvini, Tutta la pittura del Botticelli, Milan 1958, vol. II, p. 73, reproduced plate 133a (as studio of Botticelli).
Italian Art from the 13th Century to the 17th Century, exh. cat., Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham and London 1955, p. 14, no. 21 (as Botticelli);
E.K. Waterhouse, ‘The Italian Exhibition at Birmingham’, in The Burlington Magazine, XCVII, 630, 1955, p. 295, reproduced p. 294, fig. 33 (the heads of the Virgin and child as Botticelli, the child's legs to an assistant);
R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, London 1978, vol. II, p. 120, no. C9 (under workshop and school pieces);
G. Mandel, Botticelli. L’opera completa del Botticelli, Milan 1978, p. 99, no. 88, reproduced p. 98 (as studio of Botticelli);
H.P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi detto Sandro Botticelli pittore in Firenze, Florence 1987, p. 179, n. 466;
N. Pons, Botticelli. Catalogo completo, Milan 1989, p. 73, no. 67;
N. Pons, Dagli eredi di Giotto al primo Cinquecento, Florence 2007, pp. 138–47 (as Botticelli and studio).
By the late 1480s Botticelli was running something of a commercial enterprise from his studio on Via Nuova (now Via Ognissanti), producing works ‘on spec’ for sale directly from the bottega. Paintings of the Madonna and Child made up the majority of these, painted on a scale suited to middle class abodes for the purpose of private devotion. The designs for the majority of these Madonnas were usually taken directly from existing cartoons done for earlier illustrious altarpieces. While Botticelli would have overseen everything that left the bottega for sale, there were clearly, in each work done for this purpose, differing levels of involvement from the master and assistant. The execution of some appears largely to be by a studio assistant, whilst in others the principal parts were painted by Botticelli himself and the background and drapery, for example, filled in by an assistant. As Cook noted over a hundred years ago this particular depiction of the Madonna and Child before a classical, arched window appears to be one such collaborative effort, with Botticelli being responsible for the principal parts of the Madonna, especially her head, veil and right hand, and possibly, as Waterhouse later hypothesised, the head of the Christ Child, with an assistant executing the rest. It is one of the more accomplished works of this type.
The design follows that of the Madonna and Child in the centre of Botticelli’s Bardi altarpiece, a major commission depicting the Madonna and Child enthroned between the two Saint Johns, painted by the artist in 1485 for the Bardi chapel in the church of Santo Spirito, Florence, and since 1829 at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (fig. 1). It may have been the presence of the altarpiece in Berlin that led the Berliner Eduard Simon, one of the richest men in the world at the time, to acquire the present painting in 1914. At the sale of his estate in 1929, and possibly before, it was seen by the great Willem von Bode, the man who, having been the custodian of the Bardi altarpiece for the past several decades as general director of the Gemäldegalerie, perhaps knew it best, and he unequivocally accepted this painting as a Botticelli.
Botticelli’s workshop practice has only quite recently been re-examined. Throughout much of the 20th century an exclusive view of attribution was taken, with respected scholars such as Ronald Lightbown accepting only the finest, mostly public, works as bona fide Botticellis, and all related works relegated to the studio. Thus, a large number of paintings that today are accepted as works by Botticelli himself, or by Botticelli with assistance from his workshop, were for a long time considered and published as purely workshop replicas and derivations. Today Dr Laurence Kanter likens the Botticelli bottega during the late 1480s and '90s to something of an assembly line with 'nearly all [works] having a certain amount of mechanical intervention and a surprising number having greater or lesser degrees of personal involvement plainly visible'. The old paradigm, favoured by Lightbown and others, of one prime version and lots of workshop copies, he says, does not match Botticelli’s working procedure.1 Thus today the recycling of successful compositions into smaller works is deemed common practice in Botticelli’s studio. A similar operation may be seen in the multiple autograph reductions of the Saint Barnabas altarpiece, painted for the church of the doctors’ and apothecaries’ guild in Florence (now Uffizi, Florence):2 one is at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge;3 another at the Galleria Sabauda, Turin; and a third sold (as Botticelli and studio) New York, Sotheby’s, 28 January 2016, lot 10.
The advent of infra-red reflectography, that allows today's scholars to study the preparatory underdrawing of a painting, has in some instances been revelatory in the assessment of attribution. However, Botticelli seems to have used more than one system of underdrawing such that studying infra-red imaging of works by or associated with him and his studio is often not as helpful in determining attribution as it is with many other painters: in some cases the most mechanical underdrawing gives rise to a thrilling paint surface and vice versa, a dull, pedestrian paint surface can cover surprisingly inventive or experimental underdrawing. In the present case we see what appears to be a careful tracing of a cartoon, very likely the actual cartoon used for the Bardi altarpiece, with a very steady and firm hand, heightened here and there with freehand accents.4 Tellingly, the more awkward parts, such as poorly-defined right knee of the Christ Child are common to both, further arguing in favour of the same cartoon having been used for both. Notwithstanding the above, it is worth pointing out several pentimenti where the artist has changed his mind: in the lower left corner on the ledge there is some freehand drawing that may have denoted the original profile of the drapery, subsequently ignored; and the Child’s left thumb was conceived bent further back but subsequently brought back into line with the Bardi thumb, to name but two instances.
The transition of a composition from large altarpiece to a smaller work for the purpose of private devotion necessitated an element of reinvention in the background which had to be adapted or completely reinvented to work within the confines of the new smaller, rectangular or circular picture plane. Indeed, it is here in the present painting, in the newly conceived architecture, that we note the most creative aspect of the process. In several areas the original line differs from the subsequent painting, most obviously in the position of the arch above the Madonna’s head which was originally conceived to be much lower and flatter. With the naked eye it is easy to pick out a technique common to many Botticellis of this date whereby the architectural elements are carefully drawn in using a stylus in wet gesso. Beyond the architecture one further notable difference with the Bardi altarpiece is in the delicately painted veil and headdress, which here covers more of the Madonna's forehead than in the Bardi altarpiece in a more complex and stratified arrangement. In the Bardi altarpiece we see the parting of her hair which here is covered by the headdress.
The particularly fine condition of the paint surface of this panel was noted by the great connoisseur Herbert Percy Horne (1864–1916) who saw it in the collection of James Mann in Glasgow in 1908. Horne stressed that the Madonna and Child were undoubtedly executed using the same cartoon as the corresponding figures in the Bardi altarpiece. He stopped short however, like some other twentieth-century scholars, of attributing the figures to Botticelli himself, recognising them instead as an outstanding example of Botticelli’s bottega. As mentioned above, modern scholarship has assessed the workings of the bottega rather differently and Nicoletta Pons, to whom we are grateful, has recognised the particularly high quality of, especially, the head of the Madonna, considering it very likely executed by the master himself. Certainly, both the head and raised hand, together with the delicately painted veil and red drapery, are on a different level of quality compared with the execution of the Child and blue drapery, strongly suggesting two different artists at work: master and assistant. Often the patron would explicitly request that some or all of the most important parts be painted exclusively by the master, and this panel would seem quite clearly a case in point. The delicacy of the female head, the exquisiteness of its modelling, and its qualitative closeness to the head of the Virgin in the Bardi altarpiece are, Pons has said, 'sufficient grounds for assuming that Sandro may have directly used his brush to paint the head of the Madonna'.
1 Private communication.
2 Lightbown 1978, vol. II, pp. 66–69, cat. no. B49, reproduced vol. I, plate 31.
3 B.B. Fredericksen and F. Zeri, Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections, Cambridge, MA, 1972, p. 33.
4 Though an exact scale comparison has not been undertaken, they do appear to be on the same scale.
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