Domenico Fetti was probably born in Rome, where he trained with the Florentine Ludovico Cigoli in the early years of the 17th century and studied the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and his followers. Through Cigoli, Fetti was introduced to Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, who returned to Mantua in 1613 to become Duke Ferdinando II, inviting Fetti to come with him and serve as Court Painter. In Mantua, Fetti saw the works of Peter Paul Rubens, whose transparent red and blue fleshtones he adopted, as well as the art of Giulio Romano and that of the great Venetian painters of the 16th century, Titian and Tintoretto, whose rich colors and rapid, painterly brushtrokes greatly informed his mature style.
Around 1620, during his tenure as Court Painter in Mantua, Fetti created this striking composition, which he painted in two versions and which was greatly admired and reproduced by members of his workshop and followers. The figure of the young shepherd boy David rises monumentally at center, looking out triumphantly at the viewer with unmistakable confidence. A gust of wind animates his feathered cap and the sky behind him yet his bold and unyielding stance remains unshaken, powerfully embodying David's newfound identity as champion of the Israelites. The gigantic head of the defeated Philistine warrior Goliath, still sneering, lies motionless at right, his huge sword now in the firm grasp of the boy hero. In the background at left, the headless corpse of the giant lies on the battlefield as the Philistines flee the scene.
In his catalogue raisonné of Fetti's works, published in 1990, Professor Eduard Safarik recorded fifteen versions of this composition, one of Fetti's most popular, and still others have subsequently come to light. At the time, in accordance with his firmly held view that the artist never personally repeated himself, Safarik judged the canvas now in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, to be the prime version of this composition, and ascribed all others to the workshop or followers. This includes the picture in the Royal Collection that was almost certainly among the purchases made by Charles I in the Gonzaga sale of 1627. However, the present work was in 1990 singled out by Safarik as "another example" of the composition instead of as a "copy", under which heading he listed all other versions he knew. Safarik wrote at the time that the present canvas was certainly executed in Fetti's studio under his guidance, and that the master himself may have had a hand in its execution. Since then, scholarship on Fetti's art has developed, catalyzed by the emergence of new versions of the composition. Having had the opportunity to examine the present canvas in person, Professor Safarik now judges it to be one of two fully autograph versions of the composition by Fetti:
Domenico Fetti ha presentato ai suoi committenti due redazioni del Davide con la testa di Golia. Una, in una collezione privata statunitense, riapparsa solo nel 2012 (tela, cm. 157,5x108,6), l'altra qui presentata in catalogo. Le due opere coeve sono autografe e distinguibili da piccole variazioni pittoriche. Si riconoscono la caratteristica pennellata di Fetti, mossa e tortuosa, dal tocco nervoso, dalle finissime linee ondulate, dai piccoli tocchi di luce, dalla pasta pittorica a rilievo, in specie nei minuziosi rifiniti particolari."["Domenico Fetti presented his patrons with two versions of David with the head of Goliath. One, in a private United States collection, only reappeared in 2012 (canvas, 157.5 x 108.6 cm.); the other is the present picture. The two paintings are both autograph, and distinguishable from each other by small pictorial variations. Here, one recognizes Fetti's characteristic brushwork: his fluid and nervous touch; extremely fine, undulating lines; subtle flecks of light; and painterly, thick impasto, which is especially apparent in the meticulously refined details"] (written communication, 22 April 2014).
Indeed, Fetti's hand is clearly manifest in the execution of this magnificent canvas. The effect of vibrating light is rendered in the artist's bravura use of complementary colors and swift, self-assured brushstrokes heavy with paint. The spontanaeity of invention, evident in the rapidly blocked-in forms and smooth, painterly handling, is underscored by the presence of numerous pentimenti, such as in the feather of David's hat and in the head of Goliath, which reveal the master's changing ideas as he worked out the structure and details of the composition. Not offered at auction since the 1930s, this superlative work represents an important and exciting rediscovery.
We are grateful to Professor Eduard Safarik for his assistance cataloguing this lot.