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Madonna of the Magnificat

Madonna of the Magnificat
tempera, oil and gold on panel, tondo
Diameter: 24 3/4 in. (62.9 cm.)
Rev. J.M. Rhodes, Florence (acquired in Florence in the late 19th century).
Ayerst Hooker Buttery, London.
Julius Böhler, Munich (1926).
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London (acquired from the above, 16 November 1951).
Mount Trust Collection (Captain and Mrs. Vivian F. Bulkeley-Johnson) (acquired from the above, 31 December 1951); sale, Christie's, London, 1 December 1978, lot 113 (as Botticelli and Workshop).
The Matthiesen Gallery, London; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London and Rosenberg & Stiebel, New York (by 1978).
Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection (acquired from the above, 1980).
Acquired from the above through Matthiesen Fine Art by the late owner, 1999.
M. Hauptmann, Der Tondo: Ursprung, Bedeutung und Geschichte des Italienischen Rundbildes in Relief und Malerei, Frankfurt am Main, 1936, p. 190, no. 3 (under note 2, as a ‘Wiederholung’).
D. Sutton, "The Mount Trust Collection" in The Connoisseur, October 1960, vol. CXLVI, no. 588, p. 103 (illustrated, p. 104, fig. 5; as Botticelli).
St. J. Gore, "In Memoriam: Horace Buttery" in Apollo, vol. LXXVII, June 1963, p. 495 (illustrated, fig. 2, p. 495; as Botticelli).
"The Early Renaissance in Tuscany" in The Burlington Magazine, March 1965, vol. CVII, no. 744, p. 109 (as Botticelli).
R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: Complete Catalogue, London, 1978, vol. II, p. 44 (under the entry for the Uffizi Madonna of the Magnificat, no. B29, as a reduced version).
D. Sutton, "I. Early Italian Painting Reconsidered" in Apollo, vol. CXXV, p. 6 (illustrated, p. 6, fig. 5; as Botticelli).
B.L. Brown, ed., 2001: An Art Odyssey 1500-1720, Classicism, Mannerism, Caravaggism & Baroque, exh. cat., London, 2001, p. 30 (illustrated in color, p. 31; as Botticelli).
A. Cecchi, Botticelli, Milan, 2005, p. 279, note 70 (as Workshop of Botticelli).
F. Zöllner, Sandro Botticelli, Munich and New York, 2005, p. 210 (under no. 36, as a contemporary copy or replica).
P. Matthiesen, Visions & Ecstasy: G.B. Castiglione’s St Francis, exh. cat., London, 2013, p. 16 (illustrated, p. 17, fig. 2; as Botticelli).
R.J.M. Olson, "Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat: New Discoveries about its Iconography, Patron and Serial Repetition" in Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510): Artist and Entrepreneur in Renaissance Florence, Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Dutch University for Art History, Florence, 20-21 June 2014, Florence, 2015, pp. 140-145 (illustrated, p. 141, fig. 7; as Botticelli and Workshop).
M. Gianeselli in Botticelli: Artiste & Designer, A. Debenedetti, ed., Paris and Brussells, 2021, exh. cat., p. 190 (under no. 43, as a variant).
London, The National Gallery, 1960-1978 (on extended loan).
London, Agnews, Horace Buttery, 1902-1962: A Memorial Exhibition, June-June 1963, p. 8, no. 13 (as Botticelli).
London, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., The Art of Painting in Florence and Siena from 1250-1500, February-April 1965, no. 60 (illustrated, fig. 54; as Botticelli).
Warsaw, Royal Castle, Opus Sacrum: The Collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, April-July 1990, pp. 88 and 90-93, no. 13 (illustrated in color, p. 89; entry by L. Puppi; as Botticelli and workshop).
London, The National Gallery, Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470’s, October 1999-January 2000, p. 328, no. 84 (illustrated in color, p. 329; entry by N. Penny; as Botticelli).
Seattle Art Museum, April 2007-January 2008 (on loan, as Botticelli).
San Francisco, Legion of Honor, Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites & The Old Masters, June-September 2018, p. 152 (illustrated in color, pl. 71; as Botticelli).
Seattle Art Museum, A Cultural Legacy: A Series of Paintings from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, November 2019-March 2020 (as Botticelli).
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

This sublime depiction of the Madonna and Child with three angels by Sandro Botticelli, with its serene, languid figures, luminous palette and rich, mordant gilding, is a variant of the artist’s celebrated tondo in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, known today as the Madonna of the Magnificat. Most likely commissioned by a wealthy patron and intended to hang within a domestic setting for private devotion and contemplation, this painting has been little known outside of the UK where it was exhibited at the National Gallery on two occasions, on long term loan from 1960-1978 and subsequently as part of the 1999-2000 Renaissance Florence exhibition. It has spent the last forty years in two of the greatest private collections of the modern era.
The composition’s tondo format was a particular specialty of Botticelli, the most successful and inventive painter of these circular panels. Botticelli must have found particular excitement in the pictorial challenges created by the format. A painting such as this would have been hung high, above eye level and was intended to mimic a convex mirror, the composition inflating slightly at the center and receding at its edges. Few artists so understood the tondo’s constraints and were able to create such compositional harmony imbued with profound symbolism.
Of all Botticelli’s tondi, the Madonna of the Magnificat is perhaps the most remarkable. Herbert Horne, writing in 1908, enthused that "more than any other painting by Botticelli, [the Madonna of the Magnificat] has in our own days gone to fix the popular notion of him as an artist" (op. cit.). In the present variant, Botticelli has adjusted the composition to a more intimate scale, presumably at the request of his patron, to about half the diameter of the Uffizi panel and rethought the configuration, omitting the two outermost angels holding aloft the crown. He also gave wings to the angels which do not appear in the Uffizi panel and has made other more minor adjustments throughout. In the Allen tondo, as in the Uffizi painting, the Virgin holds the Christ Child in her lap and taps her quill against an inkwell while gazing downward at the book before her. The text is clearly legible and can be identified as the Song of Zacharias from the Gospel of Luke (1:72-79) on the left-hand page, where Zacharias gives praise to God for the birth of his son John, the precursor of Christ and on the right-hand page the Magnificat, based on the Gospel of Luke (1:46-49). The text in the present painting, however, is more elaborate and the book itself is of a superior level of quality. The Virgin’s face, which is beautifully preserved, has a more relaxed expression and the artist changed his treatment of her veil, altering the position of its layers and trimming it in gold. A small damage in the face of the Christ Child, though sensitively restored, has resulted in a loss of the shadow which would have provided a contour to his jaw line and modelling in his upturned face.
Scholars have universally regarded the Uffizi painting as a work from Botticelli’s early maturity, though there has been no unanimity as to its specific dating. Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, among the painting’s earliest commentators, placed it in the 1470s, while the artist was still under the influence of Filippo Lippi (1864, p. 416). Horne (1908, pp. 120-122) dated the painting to 1481, immediately before the artist departed for Rome. Hermann Ulmann, meanwhile placed it after the artist’s Roman sojourn, shortly after 1482 (1893, pp. 120-121), a view shared by August Schmarsow (1923, p. 68), Adolfo Venturi (1925, pp. 46-47, 110), Carlo Gamba (1936, pp. 147-148), Giulio Carlo Argan (1957, pp. 95-98) and Roberto Salvini (1958, II, p. 39, tav. 1). Yukio Yashiro (1929, pp. 160-161, 241), Raimond van Marle (1931, pp. 93-95) and Ronald Lightbown (1978, p. 43) agreed with Horne’s initial hypothesis, with Lightbown citing the painting’s close relationship with both the San Martino and Sistine frescoes. Zöllner (2005, p. 209) has broadly agreed with the traditional dating of the painting to circa 1480-82. Moritz Hauptmann (1936, p. 190) suggested the yet later date of circa 1485, a dating with which Lionello Venturi (1937, pl. 70) and Sergio Bettini (1942, pp. 32-33, 48) concurred. Today, it is somewhat unanimously considered to date from the early 1480s.
There is little doubt, however, that the present tondo was painted at a separate moment from that of the Madonna of the Magnificat, in the second half of the decade closer to 1490. In terms of the artist’s handling, the Allen tondo is more akin to works like the, albeit much larger, San Barnaba altarpiece of 1488, also in the Uffizi and currently hanging in the same gallery as the Madonna of the Magnificat. There are notable parallels in its linear treatment of Christ’s drapery, as compared to the softer treatment in the Uffizi tondo, and in the crisp deliberation of the outlined forms, particularly in the case of the angels. Olson draws specific comparison between the present painting and Botticelli’s similarly small-scaled Madonna del Libro of circa 1480-81 (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan) though suggests a slightly later date of circa 1483-87 for the Allen tondo (op. cit.). The small scale and subtle rendering evident in the present panel serve to bridge Botticelli’s early works with those of his artistic maturity in the 1490s. Indeed, in scale the present painting is nearly identical to the artist’s Madonna del Padiglione of circa 1490-93 (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan). This latter period is characterized by the stylistic delicacy seen in other small-scale works like Saint Augustine in His Study, the Calumny of Apelles (both in the Uffizi) and The Last Communion of Saint Jerome (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Six contemporary copies, replicas and variants of the Madonna of the Magnificat are known or documented today. Of these related works, only the Allen tondo, exceptional in its quality, is considered to be largely by the master himself. Surviving examples from Botticelli’s workshop are in the Musée Fabre, Montpelier (circa 1485), the Morgan Library, New York (circa 1490) and two fragmentary ovals in the Kunstmuseum, Bern. Two further panels are recorded, one in the Palazzo Canigiani, Florence (see W. Bode, in Der Cicerone, II, 1879, p. 544) and another, seemingly poor, example which was sold at Kunsthaus Heinrich Hahn, Frankfurt am Main, 17 April 1934, lot 34.
By the late 1480s Botticelli was running a thriving, successful and extremely busy workshop such that the majority of works he produced were, inevitably, executed with a degree of collaboration. Such is likely the case with this painting: Nicholas Penny, Laurence Kanter and Christopher Daly who know the painting first hand, and Carl Strehlke who has studied photographs and technical imaging, consider the principal parts, such as the figures of the Madonna and Child, to have been executed by Botticelli himself, and certain lesser passages, such as the angels’ drapery, to have been worked on with assistance. Previously Federico Zeri and Ronald Lightbown had concurred with the attribution to Botticelli, the latter confirming his view when consulted prior to the sale of the painting to Paul G. Allen in 1999 (verbal communication with Patrick Matthiesen). The superior quality of the Allen panel puts it amongst the best of all such variants produced by Botticelli in his workshop from the 1480s onward.
Botticelli’s desire for invention is still evident in this closely related variant. Even those elements that most conform to the Uffizi painting are not mechanically copied from the earlier work, as is revealed by infrared reflectography and x-radiography (available by request). The technical imagery reveals underdrawing in two media: fluid, freehand brushstrokes, mapping out the contours of the Virgin’s drapery, and then finer line drawing, outlining the forms though with various pentimenti. There are notable adjustments to the position of several fingers, further changes in the hair of the two angels nearest the Virgin and to the contours of the leftmost angel’s face. The images also suggest the pietra serena arch, made of a single piece of stone, was executed in two campaigns. In the first, the shadowed interior was much thinner so the Madonna’s head did not touch it. Later, the width of this area was increased so the two forms overlapped one another. This served two purposes: to integrate these two elements of the composition and to create a heightened sense of illusionistic recession into depth.
Though its early history is unknown, the present painting has a particularly distinguished provenance since its acquisition by the Reverend J.M. Rhodes in Florence at the end of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the twentieth century the painting formed part of two distinguished collections. It was acquired from Agnews in 1951 for the Mount Trust Collection, which, in addition to British and European works, included an important selection of Chinese art that was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1970. While in the Mount Trust Collection, the painting was placed on long-term loan to the National Gallery, London, between 1960 and 1978. Funds from its sale in the latter year benefited the Gallery. The painting then entered the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, one on the most voracious collectors of Old Masters of the 1980s and 1990s, before being acquired by Paul G. Allen in 1999.

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