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The Madonna and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist

The Madonna and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist
tempera and oil on panel
21 3/8 x 16 3/8 in. (54.4 x 41.6 cm.)
Brauer, by 1905.
Maurice Sigismund Sulzbach (1853-1922), Paris or Château du Chesnay, until circa 1923.
Art market, Paris, 1930s, where acquired by the family of the present owner.
B. Berenson, ‘Un possibile Antonello da Messina ed uno impossibile’, Dedalo, IV, no. I, 1923, pp. 27 and 32, illustrated, as 'Studio of Botticelli'.

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Lot Essay

In the 1470s, Florence was a center of remarkable creativity in a defining moment for the Renaissance. The cross currents of artistic and intellectual ideas in the city at that time produced a unique cultural milieu, with extraordinary, innovative commissions executed by artists of unrivalled talent. In that decade Florence was home to Leonardo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, and it was at this time that Sandro Botticelli emerged as an independent artist of significant stature, flourishing under the patronage of the powerful Medici family and building his reputation as one of the most renowned and recognizable artists of the Renaissance.

Botticelli, from early in his career, was ‘embedded in a network of politically powerful Florentine clients’, his first major public commission coming in 1470 when he painted two panels as part of a series of the Virtues, the others being executed by Antonio Pollaiuolo, for the Mercanzia in Florence (M. O’Malley, ‘Finding fame: painting and the making of careers in Renaissance Italy’, Renaissance Studies, XXIV, no. 1, 2010, p. 11). In preceding years he is thought to have worked mainly on devotional pictures for private clients, in a city where artistic patronage was undertaken by many leading families, led of course by Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, who fostered an incomparable climate for the visual arts in Florence. The re-emergence of this panel, then, which was last recorded in Paris in the 1920s in the collection of Maurice Sulzbach, allows for new considerations on the very early stages of Botticelli’s career in Medici Florence.

It can be compared to a group of representations of the Madonna and Child by Botticelli, each striking for its intimacy and tenderness, invariably showing the Madonna with downcast eyes and the Christ Child often standing, looking upwards. These pictures, dating to the late 1460s and early 1470s show his debt to Fra Filippo Lippi, and reflect his great master’s ‘precious linear style’ (E. Fahy, ‘A Tondo by Sandro Botticelli’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, IV, 1969, p. 17). Of particular relevance is the former Corsini Madonna and Child (now National Gallery of Art, Washington, inv. no. 137.1.21; fig. 1). Although the latter is painted on a slightly larger panel, there are obvious similarities. The faceted, linear folds of the draperies fall over the Madonna’s arm and lap in comparable fashion in both pictures, and they both make inventive use of an architectural device behind to lend depth and perspective, cleverly framing the figures and drawing the viewer’s eye effectively into and around the picture. Equally instructive comparison can be made with the panel in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena (inv. no. M.1987.2.P; fig. 2), which shows a near identical positioning of the figures, with the Madonna’s left hand supporting the Child in the same manner in both works, and Christ nestled against his mother. The rediscovery of the present lot is particularly fascinating for its proximity in style and technique to Filippino Lippi who is documented as Botticelli’s assistant in 1472. Two of the most gifted artists of their time, they worked in collaboration on a number of pictures, including the Adoration of the Kings (National Gallery, London), before Filippino became an independent artist. Both artists shared a keen sensibility to their subject matter, and there is a clear convergence in their work at this moment. This can be seen especially in the similarity of Filippino’s Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist (National Gallery, London) to the present lot: both strike the same notes of cool sentiment, serenity and poise, pictures that testify to this special decade in the Florentine Renaissance.

The underdrawing revealed by an infrared reflectogram shows a typically freely executed design, tellingly displaying a series of alterations and pentiments made by the artist during the build up of the composition. For example, the Madonna’s left hand has been moved down, while the profile of Saint John was originally tilted further back and his neck line higher; such compositional changes were a mark of Botticelli’s working practice in the course of his career.

The picture was once in the collection of Maurice Sigismund Sulzbach (1853-1922), an academic and eclectic collector, who was born in Frankfurt am Main to a banking family. He moved to Paris in December 1882, when he married Marguerite Ida Premsel. They bought Islamic and Asian art as well as great Dutch and Italian old masters, becoming friends, too, with artists such as Maurice Denis and Jean Louis Forain. Before Maurice died in 1922, several items were donated to the Museé du Louvre, Paris.

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