Until 1585 Annibale Carracci had diligently worked in the family workshop, adhering to the style dictated by his cousin, Ludovico, who was head of the workshop, and by his elder brother, Agostino. From that date on, however, Annibale became ever more independent, accepting commissions beyond his native city of Bologna and experimenting with his own style, to great success. It was precisely within this early moment of experimentation and rapid ascendance, around 1587-88, that Annibale painted this extraordinary Madonna and Child with Saint Lucy and the Young Saint John the Baptist, his earliest work on panel.
The beautiful Saint Lucy kneels before the Virgin and Child, holding in her left hand a martyr’s palm and in her right the eyes that are her identifying attribute. Having promised to consecrate her virginity to God, Saint Lucy is said have been tortured and her eyes gouged when she refused a suitor. When her family came to prepare her body for burial, the saint’s eyes are said to have been miraculously restored. With a steady and determined gaze, Saint Lucy here presents her eyes on a golden platter to the Virgin and Child. With an encouraging hand on her shoulder, the angel points toward the platter, as does Saint John, who looks directly toward the viewer, as if affirming her sacrifice and asking us to bear witness.
In 1585, Annibale produced his superb Pietà for the Capuchin church in Parma (fig. 1). It was perhaps during this stay in the city, while completing that commission, that the young artist immersed himself in the work of Correggio, whose style would markedly inform his own in the following years. The serene figures in the Feigen Madonna and the tenderness of their interaction is reminiscent of Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 2). Yet Annibale’s composition is more intimate and the figures are arranged closely within the picture plain. Treated by a lesser artist, this tangle of hands and limbs at the center of the composition might have become busy and confused, but Annibale’s design is effortlessly and gracefully resolved. Correggio's influence is plainly visible in Annibale’s own Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, painted around 1586 for Ranuccio Farnese and now in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, and equally so in his Madonna of Saint Matthew of 1587-88 in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (fig. 3). So evident, in fact, is the Parmese influence on Annibale’s work during this period, that when the Feigen Madonna last appeared on the art market in 1987, it was offered with an attribution to Sisto Badalocchio, a native of Parma (see Provenance). Richard Feigen was not alone in recognizing the painting as the work of the youthful Annibale; Donald Posner, Denis Mahon, Mina Gregori, Charles Dempsey and Erich Schleier all attested to its authorship (Brogi 2007, op. cit.).
Initially, the Feigen Madonna was thought to date slightly earlier in his career, around 1584-85, but its marked relationship to the aforementioned pictures from later in the decade has led to scholarly consensus on a dating of 1587-88 (Marciari 2010, op. cit.). As John Marciari notes, the infant Saint John at lower left, his head tilted and blond hair curling back from his forehead and temples, instantly recalls the angel in the foreground of the Madonna of Saint Matthew (loc. cit.). While the angel seems to hover between adult- and childhood, with his combination of muscular physicality and supple flesh, those same soft features – the rounded cheeks, pointed chin, and wide, dark eyes – in the Saint John signify his infancy. There are similarities, too, between the features of the Christ Child here and the faces of the putti in the Dresden picture.
Paintings on panel are rare in Annibale’s oeuvre, and this Madonna is the earliest known among them. The choice of support may again have been inspired by the works of Parmigiano and Correggio that Annibale had the opportunity to study in Parma and other Emilian cities (ibid.). Correggio’s Mystic Marriage, for example, was in Modena until the end of the 16th century (ibid.). Since examples for comparison on this medium are so few, the brushwork employed in the present painting is perhaps best compared to that in his Venus with a Satyr and two Putti in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (fig. 4), and the Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints, known as the San Ludovico Altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna (fig. 5), both of circa 1589.
Despite its strong stylistic connection to Parmese and Reggian painting, this Madonna was most likely produced for a Bolognese patron. At least four early copies are known today, suggesting the painting must have hung in a location sufficiently prominent for it to be admired and desired by multiple patrons. According to the 1824 catalogue, where it was offered as by Ludovico Carracci, the painting was said to have been acquired from the 'Zampieri' (Sampieri) collection by the Scottish painter and dealer, Gavin Hamilton (see Provenance). Many of the Sampieri paintings were acquired by the French Viceroy, Eugène de Beauharnais, in 1811 and are now in the Pinacoteca di Brera. While it is not known when the painting entered the Sampieri collection, Marciari asserts it is 'hardly implausible to suggest' that it was commissioned by the Carracci’s great Bolognese patron, Abbate Astorre di Vincenzo Sampieri (ibid.). This painting’s presence within Bologna’s most celebrated and enviable collection at Palazzo Sampieri would explain the existence of numerous copies. Annibale’s Burial of Christ, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Ludovico Carracci’s Saint Jerome, formerly in the Feigen collection, both formed part of the Sampieri collection and similarly exist in multiple copies.
The painting was acquired by Francis Basset, 1st Baron de Dunstanville and Basset who began amassing his collection while on his Grand Tour in 1777-78. The artworks acquired on that trip were sent home on the ship Westmorland, which was infamously seized by privateers en route and sold to Spain (Marciari, op. cit.). He bought more pictures on his return to Italy a decade later and acquired more from dealers in London. The misattribution to Ludovico in the 1824 sale was presumably adopted by Hamilton when he acquired the painting from the Sampieri collection. If this is indeed the case, the Feigen panel could well be the half-length Madonna and Child with figures by Ludovico recorded in Palazzo Sampieri in the 1760s or ’70s by Marcello Oretti (loc. cit.; Marciari, op. cit.). Ludovico’s Madonna is likewise listed in a 1795 inventory of Palazzo Sampieri and again in a guide by Giacomo Gatti in 1803, but has long been considered lost (loc. cit.). Gatti’s guide was published after Hamilton’s death in 1798, when the painting would long since have left the Sampieri collection, so it is possible he was merely citing earlier listings of the collection. Hamilton was known, however, to commission copies of paintings he planned to buy as replacements for their owners. It is possible, then, that the painting Gatti described was a copy of the 'Ludovico' (Marciari, op. cit.).