Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 22, 2013
Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line Exh. cat. St. Louis and New Haven: Saint Louis Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2012. 376 pp.; 214 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300174779)
Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master
Exhibition schedule: Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, October 21, 2012–January 20, 2013; National Gallery, London, February 27–May 19, 2013 (under the title Barocci: Brilliance and Grace)
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Federico Barocci. The Madonna of the Cat (La Madonna del Gatto) (probably about 1575). Oil on canvas. 112.7 x 92.7 cm. © The National Gallery, London.

To any student of art history for whom the painter Federico Barocci (ca. 1533–1612) had been relatively unknown—one of a shrinking demographic, perhaps, given the scholarly attention to post-Tridentine Italy and to Barocci specifically over the past twenty years—the Saint Louis Art Museum’s exhibition devoted to his artistic activity provided a thorough and visually splendid introduction. The exhibited works spanned almost his entire career, ranging from a compositional drawing (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart/Graphische Sammlung) for Barocci’s earliest extant painting, Saint Cecilia with Saints Mary Magdalen, John the Evangelist, Paul, and Catherine (ca. 1556) in the cathedral of Urbino, to late-career paintings of the 1590s, including Madonna of the Rosary (1589–93). The exhibition considered Barocci more in isolation than in context, but nevertheless the elegant figure types and refined details of the former situated his origin amid the Mannerist delicacies fashionable around the mid-sixteenth century, and the dramatic lighting and dynamic draperies of the latter adumbrated the energy and emotional magnetism of Baroque art in the early seventeenth century. Though Barocci made his living as a painter, an exhibition of just his paintings would have been an inadequate representation of his many skills, and curators Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn also perspicaciously designed the exhibition around his drawings, oil studies, and prints. A large text panel in the second gallery offered the visitor a primer on the various types of preparatory works on paper present in Barocci’s day, announcing the show’s focus on exploring and explicating the elaborate design process that preceded his final products. Every painting—except for a self-portrait—was accompanied by drawings, as were four absent paintings that were illustrated on wall text panels.

The curators hung two or three paintings in each gallery, which were generally grouped by chronological proximity, although two galleries were arranged thematically, with one devoted to portraits and the other to depictions of St. Francis. This distribution of the paintings accommodated a great many preparatory works hanging on the walls beside them, and encouraged prolonged attention to each painting and the story of its genesis, told by the studies. The centerpiece of the exhibition was undoubtedly the gallery dedicated to a single painting, the popular Entombment of Christ (1579–82), and a representative sampling of the wealth of preparatory materials connected to it. The assembled materials led from Barocci’s first thoughts, to a decision upon a vertically oriented composition, to figure studies, then to the reversal of the composition for the solution he ultimately employed. Barocci further studied body parts and heads in either pastels or oils to anticipate precisely the appearance of form and color on the canvas. The gallery also included three reduced versions of the work—two paintings (private collection; Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino) and a reduced cartoon (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)—about whose debated places in the design process and authorship the curators offered useful insights. The hanging took the visitor from the gestation and existence of the painting to its afterlife by including Compositional Drawing for an Engraving (Musée du Louvre, Paris), possibly by Aegidius Sadeler, which may have served as a model for Sadeler’s reproductive print. Surveying the various studies together in the same gallery reinforced observations made in the important article by John Marciari and Ian Verstegen on Barocci’s regular use of consistently scaled drawings throughout his design stages, as well as his dependence on color studies at full scale (“‘Grande quanto l’opera’: Size and Scale in Barocci’s Drawings,” Master Drawings 46, no. 3 (2008): 291–321).

Monographic shows frequently perform a service of great value to specialists by gathering works usually encountered individually at disparate locations, and this exhibition proved no exception. Six of the exhibited paintings were borrowed from Urbino, Barocci’s home for most of his life, and the surrounding Marches region, which ordinarily require true dedication to visit. It was uniquely possible to appreciate the spectacular color and virtuoso painting of the Entombment of Christ and the Last Supper (1590–99), two works normally experienced under less optimal conditions in situ. The details in the foregrounds of both paintings displayed impressive verisimilitude that delighted the eye, and must also have convinced the original audience to trust in the actuality of the depicted event.

The exhibition afforded a valuable opportunity to view a small number of drawings and paintings that have only relatively recently come to light, or that would be difficult to access even by an avid student of Barocci. A replica of Portrait of Francesco Maria II della Rovere (ca. 1571–72) conserved in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle hung near the original version, which enabled close comparison. The Alnwick Castle painting reproduces with exquisite fidelity every minute detail of the engraved decoration on the duke’s armor, helmet, and shield, and even more impressively the various grays that represent the polished metal surfaces reflecting the light source, the ambient space, and other objects within the painting. The technique is expert, and no doubt convinced the curators to designate the work an autograph copy. However, the painting of the flesh of the face is tighter than in other works by the artist, which casts doubt on his sole execution and makes an attribution to Barocci with workshop assistance more likely.

Barocci was a pioneer in the use of oil studies of heads on paper, and the exhibition presented several attributed works of this kind in private collections. Among the studies executed in preparation for the Entombment of Christ hung a recently discovered work, Head Study for Saint John the Evangelist, sold at Christie’s on January 28, 2009, and now in a private collection. The exhibition permitted comparison of the Christie’s study to the altarpiece and also to another oil study for the same head at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The hazy appearance of the skin and hair, the vivid local colors of the clothing, and the transparent bluish shadows of the National Gallery study were seen to match the saint’s appearance in the altarpiece and the technique of the other two oil studies for the Entombment of Christ: Head Study for Nicodemus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Head Study for Mary Magdalen (Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne), but they differed from the Christie’s study. The Christie’s study possesses an admirable plasticity, achieved through darker modeling and a muted palette, which endows the saint with an inner turmoil, but which is uncharacteristic of Barocci. A similarly heightened plasticity appears in Oil Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, made in preparation for the Visitation (1583–86), in the Hester Diamond collection. The saint’s head in the Diamond study possesses a weightiness not present in another Oil Study for the Head of Saint Joseph (private collection), nor in the altarpiece. The latter study, which came to market at Bonhams on July 7, 2010, displays Barocci’s handling and therefore appears to be autograph. The curators effectively underscored the utility of Barocci’s oil head studies as “auxiliary cartoons,” adding further doubt to the autograph status of the Christie’s and Diamond studies, which appear unrelated to the preparatory refinement process.

The least convincing attribution of all the oil studies is Head Study for Saint Francis (private collection), connected to the late Stigmatization of St. Francis (1594–95). The flatly applied flesh hues, the exaggerated red accents on the saint’s left eye and ear, and the indentation in the top of his head point to the work of a copyist, who had perhaps worked from a now-lost autograph oil study in Barocci’s studio.

The acquisition of Barocci’s Saint Francis in Prayer (ca. 1604–6) by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2003 was cause for celebration by North American fans of the painter, since it brought the first of his finished paintings to a permanent collection in the United States, and its welcome inclusion in the exhibition fostered its integration into Barocci’s oeuvre. It has also led to the reconsideration of a colored chalk and pastel study on blue paper of a man’s head at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which Harald Olsen did not attribute to Barocci (Federico Barocci, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1962, 289). The curators, however, have labeled it Study for the Head of Saint Francis by Barocci. The medium and paper, the soft shadows, and the gentleness of the man’s expression all resemble autograph sheets, and the open mouth and adoring gaze suggest a connection to the Metropolitan painting. Though it is a sensitively observed drawing, worthy of Barocci’s abilities, comparisons to analogous studies in the exhibition for roughly contemporary paintings, such as Study for the Head of Christ (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge) for the Last Supper, and Head of Anchises (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) for Aeneas Fleeing Troy (1598), reveal inconsistencies. The draftsman of the Ashmolean study used copious lines to give specificity to the man’s bushy locks and beard, and to model his neck with hatching, which is a technique atypical of Barocci. Olsen’s judgment was probably correct, though the sheet may be a copy of a lost original with a preparatory function relative to Saint Francis in Prayer.

Federico Barocci’s paintings deserve wider recognition for more than just their visual appeal, but a case for this aspect, at least, and for the innovation and experimentation of his preparatory process, was made to resounding success by the exhibition in St. Louis.

Jeffrey M. Fontana
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Austin College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.