The lush, creamy handling of this exquisite picture gives it the highly finished surface of an independent painting, while its intimate size preserves all the virtuoso brushwork and freshness of Gandolfi's ravishing modelli. As no larger version of the composition is recorded, it is likely that the present work was conceived as a finished work in its own right, a carefully calculated balance of brio and elegance. When it was rediscovered in 1999 and sold at Christie's, the bright coloring and delicate drawing of this Saint Cecilia were obscured by a layer of yellowed varnish. This has since been removed, allowing the viewer to properly appreciate the beautifully preserved impasto and vivid palette: the salmon-pink of the saint's skirt, for example, is exquisitely reflected in the leg of her instrument, the angel's blue robe, and in the underside his wing, making it appear to practically glow with warmth.
At the time of the 1999 sale, this Saint Cecilia was unpublished, but Donatella Biagi Maino and Mimi Cazort both confirmed the attribution on the basis of photographs. The unlined canvas is also signed on the reverse and dated 1791, the same year Gaetano's son Mauro became a student at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna and began collaborating with his father, who was entering the last decade of his life. As Biagi Maino has pointed out, Mauro employed this painting as the basis of an etching which was considered among his most prized (fig. 1), and whose inscription reads 'Il pensiero e di Gaetano Gandolfi / Eseguito ed inciso da Mauro Gandolfi'.
At the time the present work was painted, Gandolfi was the leading artist in Bologna. He had recently returned from London , where he had spent six months at the invitation of Robert Dalton, librarian of King George III, and was receiving a wealth of commissions from the Church. Given its modest size, it seems most plausible that the present work was made for a lay patron particularly devoted to Cecilia, patroness of music, for his or her private worship.