This extraordinary painting, unusual in format and theme, depicts the artist’s father, Paolo, playing the violin, lulling a boy to sleep. Highly whimsical and quite different to Mancini’s usually realist subject matter, the work is probably an allegory of music. Although the narrative is far from evident, the composition exudes a sense of reverie and nostalgia, harking back to Mancini’s early childhood, which he evoked more literally in his earlier pictures of child street musicians and entertainers.
The painting is remarkably similar to The Statue Seller (Il piccolo antiquario) (fig.1), executed five years earlier for Mancini’s great patron, the Dutch artist and collector Hendrik Willem Mesdag, and probably represents the same boy, the artist’s young cousin, Telemaco Ruggeri, who appears in many of his other compositions.
The pronounced horizontal format stresses the boy’s elongated features, and compresses the musician’s head and violin tightly into the picture plane, emphasising the proximity of the two figures to each other. They are delineated against a setting that is a strange juxtaposition of shapes, textures and colours – the highly wrought relief of the console table, some fruit, a mirror and various unidentifiable objects in the background.
The density of the composition is underscored by the materiality of the picture’s thick paint surface, and the obvious patchwork of grid lines embedded within it, both characteristic features of the artist’s technique, which he developed in the early 1880s. The lines result from the artist’s use of a device which Mancini referred to as a “graticola” (gridiron), and which shows that this work was painted from life. As Ulrich Hiesinger writes:
“It [the graticola] consisted of a wooden frame with strings stretched across it in vertical, horizontal, even diagonal directions. One such frame was placed in front of the subject, while a second identical one was placed against the canvas in use…Mancini’s device had a purpose, which he described variously as a means to obtain the exact size and perspective of his painted objects or to capture the important elements of tone.
Mancini explained the device in a long letter addressed to Daniel Curtis in October 1890, and elsewhere provided a few sketches. Despite these clues, however, the workings of the graticola remained rather inscrutable to everyone but Mancini. However, he relied absolutely on its mysterious workings and would never paint without it. Very often the marks of the graticola strings were allowed to show in the finished painting [as here], sometimes as mere suggestion, but at other times quite aggressively. In extreme cases these grid marks impart a texture, almost quilted decorative quality to the painted surface. This unexpected effect, having little to do with the genesis of the painting, was clearly chosen and promoted by the artist, becoming a distinctive personal mannerism that delighted some viewers while puzzling others.” (exh. cat., Antonio Mancini, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2007, p. 67).