We are grateful to Professor Daniele Benati for suggesting the attribution to Francesco Gessi, on the basis of photographs. Born in Bologna, Francesco Gessi studied under Giovan Battista Cremonini and Denys Calvaert, before entering the workshop of Guido Reni in circa 1615.
The present work was formerly owned by Welbore Ellis Agar (1735-1805), the younger brother of the 1st Viscount Clifden and the elder brother of the the 1st Earl of Normanton. Agar assembled a prodigious collection of Old Masters, largely acquired abroad, for the most part under the aegis of Gavin Hamilton. Among the highlights of the collection, which numbered around 130 pictures, were Raphael's Madonna of the Veil (New Jersey, University Art Museum, Princeton); three pictures by Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (the collection of Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur), and a pair of landscapes Evening and Morning (the collection of the Duke of Westminster); Poussin's Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Boston Museum of Fine Arts); and Van Dyck's Virgin and Child with St. Catherine of Alexandria (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). On his death, having no direct heir, he bequeathed the collection to his two illegitimate sons Emmanuel Felix and Welbore Felix, who decided to put the collection up for sale at Christie's. The auction was scheduled for 2nd-3rd May 1806, with the present work appearing as lot 38 on the second day, as 'Le Guide', and described as 'Charmant petit bijou d'un pinçeau delicat et d'un fini le plus précieux'. But, before even the English copies of the catalogue were printed, the brothers were approached by Lord Grosvenor with a view to an en bloc purchase. An initial price of £40,000 was suggested but was negotiated down to the final figure of 30,000 guineas, which was agreed by mid-April, marking one of the largest single purchases of a picture collection transacted in this period.
The 2nd Earl Grosvenor, who in 1831 was created 1st Marquess of Westminster, was heir to a substantial property in Cheshire and to the Grosvenor Estate in London. He had already inherited his father's picture collection, which included the forty-two Old Masters purchased for him in Italy between 1758-9 by Richard Dalton, the librarian to the Prince of Wales, as well as commissions from the likes of Stubbs, West, Gainsborough and Hogarth, when in 1805 he acquired a new town house in London on Upper Grosvenor Street. This proved the catalyst for an extraordinary campaign of acquisition of works of art, the most conspicuous being the Ellis Agar collection. Much time and effort was put into devising the decorative schemes for the new Grosvenor House, which would provide a suitable setting for Lord Grosvenor's rapidly expanding collection. The walls were covered in red damask that had been salvaged from the old Eaton Hall, and the redecoration was finally completed by 1808.