This previously unpublished work by Gaetano Gandolfi, which was recently discovered in a central European family collection, where it had remained hidden and unrecognised for generations, has never before been publicly exhibited. Its attribution has been confirmed by Donatella Biagi Maino after inspection of the original, who commented that it is '...di bella qualità e in buono stato di conservazione', and who regards it as the most significant addition to the artist's oeuvre in recent years (private correspondence).
Gaetano Gandolfi, along with his elder brother Ubaldo, were the pre-eminent painters working in Bologna in the second half of the 18th century. They were extremely versatile artists, executing large-scale fresco cycles and altarpieces, as well as etchings, drawings, paintings of both Biblical and mythological subjects, genre scenes and portraits, and even sculptures in terracotta. Gaetano was enrolled at the Accademia Clementina at the age of 17, where he excelled as a student, winning a number of awards, and by the mid-1750s he was already benefitting from several private commissions. His artistic horizons were widened by a year of study in Venice in 1760, made possible by the generous financial support of the Bolognese merchant Antonio Buratti (1736-1806). This marked a major turning point in Gaetano's career and the impact of contemporary Venetian masters was seen immediately in his work. His emerging style combined the rigours of Bolognese academic training with the lustrous colour and lively, fluid brushstrokes that he would have encountered in the work of Tiepolo, Ricci and Pittoni. He was also aware of French Rococo developments and was a friend of Jean Honoré Fragonard. Gaetano's style continued to evolve even late in his career, and from as early as the 1780s his work shows signs of Neo-Classical influence, despite being an ardent critic of Jacques-Louis David. In this period he continued his varied output, executing both religious and mythological works of great originality and refinement, up until his untimely death in 1802 while playing a game of bocce.
The myth of Diana and Endymion was increasingly popular with artists and poets of the 18th century, reaching its height in the Romantic period. It received perhaps its fullest treatment in Keats's poem Endymion, written in 1817. Taken from Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods, ch. xix, it lent itself to a meditation on timeless beauty and chaste love. The beautiful youth Endymion, a shepherd on Mount Latmos, was sent into an eternal sleep by Jupiter in return for perpetual youth. He was discovered by the moon goddess Luna or Selene, who later became identified with the chaste Diana, who fell in love with the youth and visited him every night, embracing him while he slept. Here Gaetano employs a two-tier diagonal composition that he used on a number of occasions. Endymion sleeps while seated on a rocky outcrop, his head resting on his hand, his staff and flauto dolce lie at his feet, while his sheep dog waits patiently beside him. In the upper half Diana appears, supported on a cloud with a crescent-shaped moon, with cupid and her attendants visible behind her. The goddess looks down tenderly on the sleeping shepherd, reaching out to him with a graceful gesture, but although she places the palm of her outstretched hand in front of Endymion's face, she cannot awaken him.
Gaetano employed a very similar diagonal composition in The Judgement of Paris (Pradelli collection, Bologna, see fig. 1). Although reversed, the composition is remarkably close, with the goddess Venus bending down from a cloud to accept the golden apple from Paris, dressed similarly to Endymion, seated on the lower right. This work dates from 1788, and the present work probably dates from the same period. The restrained palette and confident handling of the paint, which lends a power and solidity to the figures, is typical of his later work. Evidently this two-tier diagonal composition was a favourite device, employed by Gaetano in both his mythological as well as some religious works. A partially naked goddess appearing in the clouds and reaching downwards to figures on the earth can be seen for example in such works of the 1760s and 70s as Venus receiving the Arms of Aeneas from Vulcan (The Detroit Institute of Arts), and Venus and Vulcan (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie). Joseph's Dream, probably dating from the late 1780s is similarly orientated and the pose of Joseph, sleeping with his head resting on his hand, finds a close parallel with that of Endymion in the present picture. It is interesting to note that his brother, Ubaldo, also turned to the subject of Diana and Endymion, in a picture of 1770, of horizontal format, which was paired with Perseus and Andromeda (both Communali d'Arte Collezioni, Bologna; see P. Bagni, I Gandolfi. Affreschi, Dipinti, Bozzetti, Disegni, Bologna, 1992, pp. 115-21, nos. 102-9), and it is possible that the present picture also had a pendant, although this has not yet been identified.