Orazio Gentileschi, although older than Caravaggio by six years, was deeply influenced by his example, using this to express a wholly personal, and deeply lyrical, artistic taste. The most compelling account of this Madonna, which he dates to circa 1607, is that of Keith Christiansen in the 2002 exhibition catalogue (New York edition, pp. 67-70):
This touching, intimate depiction of the Madonna and Child must have been destined for a special patron. Its refined execution and rich use of colour single it out as much as the panel support.
As Christiansen comments, the yellow of the Child's robe may be connected with the yellow dress stated to have been worn by the Madonna in a lost picture of 1609 painted for Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua: in view of the respective chronology of the pictures, the use of yellow in the Gonzaga Madonna would thus have been a spin off from the Child's robe in this picture. The types of both mother and child are similar to those of Gentileschi's great altarpiece of the Circumcision installed in the Gesù at Ancona in 1607, and as Christiansen notes, 'it is worth considering whether the same models were used'. His analysis of the relationship between the two pictures is persuasive:
As in that work, the bulk of the figures is thwarted by an emphasis on surface pattern and by the minimal space that surrounds them. Orazio was never a painter of space, and his
understanding of perspective seems to have been rudimentary;
even in his most ambitious compositions, the figures are placed against a rocky mass, a clump of trees, a curtain, or a
nondescript, dark background. Only through the study of artfully posed models viewed in a raking light was he able, like Caravaggio, to give his pictures what contemporaries would have called a sense of relief or relievo. The most significant
difference from the figures in the Circumcision is in the
handling of light, which in the Madonna and Child is
luminous and plays on the forms with a delicacy that more
closely approximates observed reality. Indeed, the transparency of the shadows looks forward to Orazio's work of the next decade.
Gentileschi was a relatively late developer as a painter, and, as Christiansen commented, in the first decade of the new century:
Orazio's work shows a persistent conflict between his ingrained habits of painting di maniera -- falling back on conventions of representation and composition -- and the new, Caravaggesque practice of working from posed models dal naturale.
Inevitably, it was in his more informal easel paintings that
Orazio best resolved this dilemma. But if we compare the
Johnson Madonna and Child with the work in Bucharest, it will be seen how much the painting owes to pictorial conventions as opposed to observed reality. The delicate placement of the
Virgin's dimpled hands, her pensive lowered eyelids, the artful arrangement of the child's drapery so as to expose his genitals (a reference to Christ's human nature), and his wide-eyed stare -- these are devices intended as devotional cues for the viewer and are far removed from the everyday world so successfully
counterfeited in the Bucharest Madonna. The close cropping of the figures at once avoids any awkwardness Orazio may have
encountered in elaborating their poses and enhances the effect
of intimacy and informality.
Bissell suggested that for this picture 'nostalgia' for 'a less complicated, more sincere age' might have led Gentileschi to turn to quattrocento Florentine models. Christiansen sees this less as a result of the artist's Tuscan roots, as Bissell proposed, than as a reaction to the views of certain Counter-Reformation writers -- naming Giovanni Andrea Gilio da Fabriano (a town for which the artist had worked) and Gabriele Paleotti -- who 'considered simplicity and purity more important than a demonstration of style and even went so far as to laud the purity of art from before the time of Michelangelo' (p. 68). As Christiansen observes, Scipione Pulzone da Gaeta had previously expressed similar preoccupations in Madonna groups, and Domenichino would do so, as would the rather younger Sassoferrato, who is likely to have known Orazio's earlier works at Fabriano. He notes that the 'degree to which this kind of image was fostered by Jesuit teachers remains ambiguous, but it is an important issue since the Johnson painting is so closely related to Orazio's Circumcision, destined for a Jesuit church'. Thus, as with for example the most intimate Madonnas of both Bellini and Raphael who drew in their differing ways on the inspiration of the past, so did Gentileschi in this picture. But if Gentileschi reveals a profound sympathy with one strand of contemporary religious thought, he unquestionably drew upon his direct knowledge of the art of the most dynamic Italian artist of the age, Caravaggio. The beauty of the Johnson picture is owed to the wonderful distillation of the complementary strands of the artist's intellectual and artistic experience.
As Christiansen stated the fact that only two other works by Gentileschi are on panel, the Executioner with the Head of Saint John the Baptist in the Prado and the late Head of a Woman in the Snider collection, Bryn Mawr (respectively exhibited in 2001-2, nos. 20 and 50), is one of the reasons why the picture 'may have been destined for a special patron'. Madonnas by the artist are recorded in the Olgiati and Savelli collections, but neither is stated to have been on panel, as is that in the Anna Maria Sannesi inventory of 1724:
Altro quadro simile [in tavola] di p mi tre, e mezzo, e tre con cornice nera filettata d'oro rapprasentante la Madonna, ed il
Bambino opera del Gentileschi (op. cit, p. 70, note 5, the
reference supplied by Erich Schleier).
Anna Maria Sannesi was the eventual heiress of Cardinal Giacomo Sannesi and his brother, Marchese Clemente Sannesi (1551-1621): both were collectors, the inheritance including in addition to the Madonna and Child, a David with the Head of Goliath and a Saint George, which was on copper, again an uncharacteristic support for the artist.
The success of the composition is suggested by the existence of two early copies, one formerly in the collection of Vincenzo Bonello, La Valletta, the other with Finarte, Milan in 1983. Both were incorrectly attributed to Gentileschi's remarkable daughter Artemisia, to whom Garrard mistakenly attributed the Johnson panel.