On 21 December 1819, the artist Mauro Gandolfi (1764-1834) wrote a letter from Milan to Luigi Sedazzi, a friend in Bologna, instructing his correspondent to track down and purchase two red chalk preparatory drawings by his father, Gaetano Gandolfi, which he identified by their subject matter. The letter, now in the archives of Biblioteca Comunale, Bologna, reads in part: '...fare ogni diligente ricerca, se esistono tuttora e presso di chi si trovino, due disegni di mio Padre all'apis rosso e gesso, rappresentanti l'uno il bagno di Diana, l'altro la nascita di Venere e Amore posti in una conchiglia sostenuta da vari Tritoni, con sul davanti degli amoretti che scherzano coi delphini. Servirono cotesti disegni a due quadri che dipinse per un Moscovita'. ('...make every diligent inquiry as to whether there still exist, and with whom they might be found, two drawings by my father in red and white chalk, one depicting the bath of Diana, the other the birth of Venus and Cupid situated on a shell held up by various Tritons, with little cupids frolicking with dolphins. They had served as models for two paintings that he made for a Moscovite.')
In 1977, two exquisite, highly finished oil sketches of Diana and Callisto and The Triumph of Venus appeared on the London art market with Hazlitt (fig. 1 and 2); the association between these bozzetti and the two paintings that Mauro said his father had made for 'a Moscovite' was recognized by Carlo Volpe, who published them in 1979. (These splendid sketches were acquired by the British Rail Pension Fund in 1978, back on the market with Hazlitt by 1990, and offered for sale at Sotheby's New York, 24 January 2008, lots 112 & 113.) Some years after Volpe's publication of the bozzetti, Pierre Rosenberg came across old photographs of the finished paintings that had been made for the unnamed Russian collector in the photo archives of the Documentation du Louvre, where they were identified as having been in a collection in Kromar, Lithuania with a misattribution to the late 18th-century French history painter, Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1725-1805); Donatella Biagi Maino published the archival photographs of the paintings in 1990, listing the actual canvases as 'present location unknown'.
In 1993, one of the compositional drawings that Mauro Gandolfi had been searching for - Gaetano's design for The Triumph of Venus (fig. 3) -- was discovered in a Paris collection and included in the exhibition Bella Pittura: The Art of the Gandolfi at the National Gallery of Canada (no. 76; it was later sold at Sotheby's, London, 5 July 2006, lot 72). By 2002, the finished painting of The Triumph of Venus had migrated from Lithuania to a private collection in Brussels, and was unveiled to the public in Cento in an exhibition curated by Donatella Biagi Maino, Gaetano e Ubaldo Gandolfi: Opere scelte (no. 32), although its pendant remained missing.
Two years ago, Biagi Maino published a version of Diana and Callisto in the National Museum, Warsaw (op. cit., 2008, p. 117, ill.) that she proposed as the rediscovered original. However, the emergence in 2009 from an American private collection of the present, previously unpublished version of the subject challenges that assertion. The present painting is, indisputably, one of Gaetano's masterpieces: exquisitely drawn, imaginatively and complexly configured, masterfully and fluently painted; the Warsaw canvas is, by comparison, mechanical and heavy, and it must now be reassessed as a replica. (Dott. Biagi Maino has kindly confirmed the attribution and superior quality of the present lot, in private correspndance, 14 December 2009.) Furthermore, a close comparison of the present lot with the old Louvre photograph of the Kromar Diana and Callisto demonstrates that they are one and the same painting, as neither displays the added drapery concealing Callisto's lower torso that appears on the Warsaw version.
Gaetano's painting illustrates the tragic story of the chaste and vengeful goddess of the hunt, Diana, as she expels from her grotto the nymph, Callisto, daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia and one of her most devoted companions, after having discovered the nymph's secret pregnancy. As in Ovid's recounting of the tale in the Metamorphoses (2: 442-453), Callisto had been ravished by Jupiter and, deeply ashamed, had tried to conceal her defilement from the goddess. Following the day's hunting, and reluctant to disrobe and bathe, Callisto had her garments torn from her body by her companions, and at the sight of the nymph's swollen belly, Diana, in a fury, punished her with exile.
Although the present painting follows the design of Gaetano's limpid bozzetto exactly, it replaces the creamy handling and rococo charm of the sketch with a solidity of form, surface polish and gravity of emotion that is characteristic of neoclassical painting of the 1770s and 1780s. (Indeed, given the painting's suave execution, bright coloring and academic proficiency, its former misattribution to Lagrenée is understandable.) The elaborate and beautifully orchestrated composition of sixteen women (a black chalk drawing for two of them is in the Foundation Ratjen, Vaduz, Lichtenstein), two putti and three hunting dogs clearly finds its primary source in the celebrated poesie on the same subject that Titian made for Philip II in the 1560s (Dukes of Sutherland Collection; on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland and the National Gallery, London), but its influence came by way of Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), as Biagi Maino has observed. Gaetano could have seen several paintings on his travels to Venice by Ricci of various episodes from the story of Diana, but it is worth asking if he wasn't inspired instead by the pair of imposing, large-scale decorations depicting Diana and her Nymphs Bathing and The Triumph of Galatea that Ricci painted for Lord Burlington circa 1712-1716, and which he would certainly have seen in Burlington House on his visit to London in 1787. Although Gaetano's bozzetti have often been dated to the 1770s, Volpe believed them to be from the late 1780s, and the style of the finished canvases also suggests that time period.
A dating for the finished paintings to the later 1780s is also probable if, as Biagi Maino has ingeniously proposed, the mysterious Moscovite who commissioned (or purchased) the paintings was the Russian prince, Nicolay Borisovich Yusupov (1751-1831). In addition to being one of the biggest landowners in Russia and sole heir to an immense fortune, Yusupov was the preeminent collector of European art in his country at the end of the 18th century, and was well-disposed to the emerging neoclassical taste in both French and Italian painting. Following his Grand Tour in 1774-1777, Yusupov acquired paintings from Greuze, Vernet and Hubert Robert; his most famous commissions today, no doubt, were for a sculpture of Cupid and Psyche by Canova and a grand painting of Sappho, Phaon and Cupid from Jacques Louis David (both, the Hermitage, St. Petersburg). More pertinent in the present context, however, was the fact that Yusupov held a diplomatic post in Turin (Minister of State to the King of Sardinia) from 1784 to 1789, during which time he acquired numerous works of the contemporary Roman School from Pompeo Batoni, Anton von Maron and Angelika Kauffmann, among others. A trip to Bologna is not documented, but Yusapov was elected an Honorary member of the Accademia Clementina in Bologna in 1787, the august body where Gaetano had studied art and was still a revered member, making likely some sort of contact between the two men.
Our thanks to Donatella Biagi Maino for confirming from photographs the attribution of the present lot to Gaetano Gandolfi.