The continued efforts to identify the name behind the corpus of pictures given to The Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds comes not solely from an attempt to satisfy scholarly curiosity, but also stem from a desire to discover more about an artist of the very highest calibre. Operating in Naples in the second quarter of the 17th century, his hand has been linked to a strong and select body of work, comprising several figure studies, some mythological subjects, and a number of versions of The Annunciation to the Shepherds, of which the present lot is an outstanding example, arguably his masterpiece.
The artist was first identified in the eponymous picture in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a work that was once given to Velázquez, but whose attribution was questioned by August Mayer in 1923. It was not until 1958 that Ferdinando Bologna suggested naming the anonymous master after the Birmingham picture and, in the years since, the artist’s oeuvre has grown substantially, with several hypotheses being put forward for his identity. He has been recognised in the past as Bartolomeo Passante, or Bassante (1618-1648), a documented artist who is the author of a signed picture in the Prado, a work that has since been distanced from the style of the present artist. And in more recent times the theory has been advanced that he should be identified with Juan (or Giovanni) Dò, originally from Valencia, but known to be working in Naples in the 1620s. The association of Juan Dò with The Master of the Annunciation has gained a greater degree of approval and prompted triumphant claims that the mystery has been resolved. But the hypothesis has not gained universal support. Others have instead seen Genoese influence in his handling of paint, with an association made with Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and his treatment of animals. It remains uncertain though, despite his work in Naples, whether he was of Spanish or Italian origin (for the most recent summary of the intricate debates surrounding the artist’s identity see N. Spinosa, Pittura del seicento a Napoli: da Caravaggio a Massimo Stanzione, Naples, 2010, pp. 326-8).
His exceptional qualities as an artist, which demonstrate an affinity with both Ribera and Velázquez, are evident here: the poised arrangement of the composition, the pools of light falling around the figures, and the rich but delicately applied impasto. It is a magnificent staging of the subject, which finds its closest comparisons in the pictures in Birmingham and the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples (fig. 1), all of which can be dated to circa 1630. According to the Matthiesen catalogue entry (op. cit.) there are two known copies of the present lot: one in a Neapolitan private collection, and another sold at Galleria Navarra, Naples, 1956, now in the collection of the Banco di Napoli. Whilst the Birmingham picture differs in being of vertical format, all three canvases share the same key compositional elements: at least one sleeping shepherd, an angel (or angels) upper centre, and the group of grazing sheep. The present lot, though, introduces two variations: first, the shepherd in the left foreground is also asleep where in the other versions the analogous figure is awoken by angels. And second, there is an exquisite still life composition lower right, absent from other stagings, showing the embers of an extinguished fire. The sheep, nestled in the middle of the composition, are not only wonderfully rendered but also serve to bring together the lines of the work, and guide the viewer’s eye to separate parts of the composition. One looks towards the sleeping shepherd, another toward the awoken younger boy, and the third at the still life: each taking a quite deliberate interest in different moments of the scene. Stage right, the heads of two other sheep are discernible, one looking up at the angel.
The biblical story of the annunciation to the shepherds juxtaposes the heavenly and the earthly: the message of divine revelation is delivered to a group of ordinary shepherds - the sublime meets with the everyday. Here that juxtaposition is expressed through the powerfully realistic portraits of the shepherds in their ragged, torn clothes and the contrastingly divine, silvery light that pervades the composition. It creates a sense of magic and wonder emerging from the darkness, recreating the revelation at the moment of the annunciation.