This vivid head is precisely the type of study from everyday life practised so passionately by the three Carracci in drawings and paintings in their early years in Bologna. A similar directness and looseness of handling is seen in Annibale’s early portraits and the extraordinary group of genre paintings: the Boy Drinking of c.1582-3 (Christ Church, Oxford); Bean Eater of 1583-4 (Galleria Colonna, Rome); Two Children Teasing a Cat of c.1588-90 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and The Butcher’s Shop of c.1582 (Christ Church, Oxford, and once in Charles I’s collection). These studies from nature, painted with such sympathy and with broad open brushwork, were in deliberate contrast to the dry, ‘statuesque’ style of the previous generation of Mannerist painters. The Carracci sometimes used the word ‘pastosità’ (‘pastiness’ or ‘impasto’) to describe their work. Venetian painting - particularly that of Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto - is clearly important for this revolution in paint application, but the directness and even awkwardness of pastosità is unique to Annibale. Not everyone appreciated the innovation: Annibale’s biographer, Malvasia, described a self-portrait by the artist as ‘in the careless manner, and vile’.
The head is probably one of the ‘two Carrachis by themselves’ seen by George Vertue in the collection of Prince Frederick in 1750 (boldly painted heads are often assumed to be self-portraits). It may have been recommended to the Prince by one of his artistic advisors, Major-General John Guise (1682/3-1765), whose collection included two of the early Carracci genre scenes mentioned above, the Boy Drinking and The Butcher’s Shop. Annibale’s reputation was high in eighteenth-century England, with these spontaneous paintings singled out for praise by critics such as Jonathan Richardson and Joshua Reynolds. Subsequent Royal Collection cataloguers lost sight of the attribution, listing the painting without an artist’s name, or giving it to Titian and even Sebastiano Ricci. R.Longhi was the first to restore the painting to Annibale in an unpublished letter in 1929 and a review in 1960, dating it to c.1585.
The attribution is not without complications. Most writers recognise Annibale’s quality and touch in this painting but find it difficult to match against any of his other portraits. Levey compared it to the Portrait of a Man (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), dating both to the late 1580s. Posner (and others) attributes the Munich portrait to Agostino Carracci and is cautious about accepting the Royal Collection portrait as by Annibale. He draws attention to many pictorial qualities - the strong colours, fluid treatment, the cool tonality of the green coat, the thin layer of blue over the background brown - which, he claims, cannot be found in secure Annibale portraits of this date: the Portrait of a Man (Pitti Palace, Florence); the so called Self-portrait (Uffizi) or the Portrait of an Old Man (Jean-Luc Baroni, London). One might argue against this that the Uffizi Self-portrait has the freely handled shirt, and that both it and the Baroni have something of the extraordinary touch of this portrait, which has very little pastositá.. Small, informal and private portraits of this type are notoriously difficult to date: it may be that it was painted as late as c.1595, when Annibale had developed a more translucent, spontaneous touch, though his official commissions of this date would have been given in a much more polished finish.
The portrait may have been painted in exchange of goods. According to Malvasia this was a habit of Annibale’s in Bologna: he acquired a new hat in exchange for a portrait of the hat makers wife, for ‘he was unable to turn down even the barber or the cobbler who patched his shoes when they asked him to do their portrait or make a little picture of the Madonna to keep by their bed’.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
ProvenanceProbably acquired by Frederick, Prince of Wales, by 1750; George III
Previously attributed to Sebastiano Ricci (Belluno 1659-Venice 1734) (artist)
- Physical properties
Portrait of a Gentleman