The infant Christ stands on the lap of the Virgin Mary, reaching forward to give her a kiss. She turns her cheek to receive her son’s embrace, supporting him as he seems to be a little unsteady on his feet. Strong lighting emphasises the smooth, pale skin of both figures as well as Christ’s golden hair, though it leaves much of his face in shadow. Sassoferrato has given great attention to the folds of drapery, both in the Virgin’s blue cloak and in the deep green curtain behind the two figures. Through an archway, we see Saint Joseph coming towards the house and, behind him, a view of distant mountains.
This composition is based on an etching by the seventeenth-century painter Guido Reni. Sassoferrato was influenced by Reni, as well as by earlier artists such as Raphael and Perugino, both of whom adopted a similarly smooth finish.
Sassoferrato was born Giovanni Battista Salvi and took his nickname from the town of his birth, but he spent the majority of his career working in Rome, where his immaculately polished paintings were consciously anachronistic. This composition is based on an etching by Guido Reni, a seventeenth-century painter from Bologna whose work deeply influenced Sassoferrato. However, Sassoferrato’s style, with its intense colours, soft modelling of form, and highly finished, enamel-like quality, is most deeply indebted to earlier artists such as Raphael and Perugino. We know that he produced copies after these masters' works (the National Gallery owns a copy after Perugino that is probably by Sassoferrato: The Baptism of Christ), and used elements from their paintings and drawings in his own compositions. Sassoferrato was so closely linked to these artists that his popularity in the nineteenth century was in part thanks to a renewed interest in the work of Raphael. He in turn may have influenced the Pre-Raphaelites.
Like his contemporary Dolci, Sassoferrato produced multiple versions of his smaller paintings, which could be sold to private patrons. The relatively small size of this picture, the tender relationship between mother and child and the intimate, somewhat domestic nature of the setting suggest that it was intended for private devotion. It may never have been delivered to its patron, however, since it was probably one of a group of late works left in Sassoferrato’s studio at his death in 1685. The painting is thought to have passed to his son, Alessio Salvi, and then to Salvi’s granddaughter, remaining in the family until the early nineteenth century.
This picture and The Virgin in Prayer were both acquired by the National Gallery in the mid-nineteenth century, when Sassoferrato’s star was high in the London art world. The bright colours of both pictures were initially toned down by the Gallery using tinted varnish and overpainted with cobalt blue to better align with the Victorian taste for more subdued colouring. When this picture was cleaned in 1986, these layers were removed, and the Virgin’s dazzling ultramarine robe and the vivid green curtain can now be appreciated as the artist originally intended.
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