Richard Buckle, London;
His sale, London, Sotheby's, 31 January 1951, lot 144, for £150, to J. Weyman;
By whom sold, London, Sotheby's, 27 November 1963, lot 54, for £700, to
Dr Hans A. Wetzlar, Amsterdam (d. 1970);
Thence by descent to the present owner.
J. Daniels, Sebastiano Ricci, Hove 1976, p. 64, cat. no. 198;
J. Daniels, L'opera completa di Sebastiano Ricci, Milan 1976, p. 133, cat. no. 489, reproduced p. 132;
P. Bagni, I Gandolfi: affreschi, dipinti, bozzetti, disegni, Bologna 1992, pp. 338–39, under nos 318–19 and p. 340, cat. no. 320, reproduced;
A. Scarpa, Sebastiano Ricci, Milan 2006, p. 166, cat. no. 64, reproduced p. 568, fig. 456.
In her monograph Annalisa Scarpa suggested that the subject – unusual for Sebastiano – may have been chosen in response to images of bears by his nephew Marco Ricci (1676–1730). A similar bear appears in a tempera painting by Marco in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle,1 and in an etching by him;2 and the motif recurs in another work in tempera, also at the Royal Collection, as well as in an oil painting recorded in the Morandotti collection, Rome.3 In Sebastiano’s production, on the other hand, this bear constitutes an isolated instance.4 Sebastiano may have painted his subject in a spirit of friendly rivalry with his nephew, as Scarpa suggests but in conception and energy they are poles apart. Marco’s bears are shown chasing peasants in wooded settings and serve as a pretext for painting landscapes, whereas Sebastiano’s invention is altogether more heroic.
The scene differs markedly from the bloody violence of hunting imagery. Here man and beast do not engage in gruesome combat; on the contrary, the focus of the picture is on the arrested moment when the hero takes aim at his prey and although it resonates as an image of strength and daring, the picture’s lively characterisation of the bear – the best clue to its true subject – arouses the suspicion that it draws on a literary source rather than a genre subject or historical episode. Indeed, Sebastiano’s painting is inspired by an episode from the many sensuous and witty tales of love and lust recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, specifically the aftermath of the nymph Callisto’s seduction (Book II, 409–530). Callisto, one of the goddess Diana’s favourites, was transformed into a bear as punishment for falling prey to Jupiter’s sexual exploits. Arcas, the son they conceived, now grown up and unaware of his mother’s plight, is out hunting one day when he chances upon her. On seeing him, the she-bear stops in her tracks, and, recognizing him, fixes him with her gaze (Sebastiano paints her eyes with deliberate emphasis). The poem goes on to describe how, as she lumbers closer, Arcas is frozen by her stare and is about to kill her with his javelin, were it not for the timely intervention of Jupiter, who transports them both into the heavens, transforming them into constellations: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Sebastiano’s relish for painting Ovidian themes is well attested and best demonstrated by his splendid decorative scheme executed sometime between 1712 and 1716 for Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl Burlington, at Burlington House, now the home of the Royal Academy. Diana and her nymphs bathing is the subject of one of the magnificent canvases there and Ricci was to revisit the theme of Diana's discovery of Callisto's pregnancy in one of his most beautiful mythological paintings at the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, also datable to his English period.5 Callisto’s seduction and her banishment are frequently depicted in art but there are very few treatments of Callisto and her son Arcas and those that are more readily found are prints. One notable example, which Sebastiano may well have known, is the elegant engraving of Arcas preparing to shoot Callisto, after a design by Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617); and another is Johann Wilhelm Baur’s etching of 1641, which may have served as the prototype for Sebastiano's beast; plate 19 of his illustrations to Ovid’s Metamorphoses shows Calisto changed into a remarkably similar bear (fig. 1). If this unusual painting once had a counterpart – perhaps Callisto’s seduction by Jupiter in the guise of Diana, a far more common subject – it has yet to come to light.
Ricci’s rider has many glorious antecedents and his legacy is no less formidable. It is impossible to admire this spirited invention without calling to mind the rearing horses of Rubens’s magnificent hunting scenes, powerful images disseminated in prints and celebrated throughout Europe. This painting also evokes the imagery of monumental equestrian statuary. Prisco Bagni, in his monograph on the Gandolfi – the influential Bolognese family of outstanding draughtsmen, painters and teachers – has pointed out the debt to Ricci for two equestrian compositions by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734–1802) that rely on this design by the Venetian master. In one the rider fires a gun at a sculpture and in the other he throws a lance at a statue (both are in private collections).6 And nowhere does Ricci’s chosen idiom, that of the rider on a rearing horse, resonate more forcibly than in the grandiose composition by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon crossing the Alps, 1800–01 (fig. 2). That memorable pose encapsulates the young man’s power; and so, as here, the rider on a rearing horse becomes the ultimate action hero.
1 Inv. no. 3107; M. Levey, The later Italian pictures in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen, 2nd ed. London 1991, p. 130, cat. no. 591, pl. 244.
2 B. Passamani in Marco Ricci e gli incisori bellunesi del ’700 e ’800, exh. cat., Belluno 1968, pp. 18–19, cat. no. 19, reproduced.
3 Levey 1991, p. 134, cat. no. 610, pl. 264; and Marco Ricci, exh. cat., Bassano 1963, no. 27, reproduced.
4 According to Daniels, an inferior copy of the lower part of the composition (oil on canvas, 57.8 x 61.9 cm.) was sold in these Rooms, 27 June 1962, lot 77; Daniels 1976, p. 64. A third version, also inferior, is recorded in the Huppert collection, Wiesbaden, December 1983.
5 51 x 72 cm.; Daniels 1976, p. 29, no. 93, reproduced; for colour reproduction see Sebastiano Ricci, G. Bergamini (ed.), exh. cat., Udine 1989, pp. 118–19, no. 33.
6 Bagni 1992, pp. 338–39, nos 318 and 319, reproduced.
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