Castiglione, who was born in Genoa, had a rather restless career largely due to his character. He had several artistic disputes with his enemies, resulting in the artist travelling to Rome, Naples, Parma, Florence and Mantua among other cities. Early biographers record that his masters were Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari, Giovanni Battista Paggi and Sinibaldo Scorza (A. Percy, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Master Draughstman of the Italian Baroque, exhib. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1971, p. 21). None of his paintings can be dated before the mid-1640s, but Ann Percy has argued that the artist started producing his trademark drawings, drawn with the brush and oil paint, from the 1630s (ibid., p. 24). These works are greatly indebted to drawings and oil sketches by Van Dyck and Rubens; the latter visited Genoa several times between 1606-1608. By the 1650s Castiglione had fully developed the highly-original drawing technique for which he is now so well-known.
The present drawing must have been made after 1645, the year in which Castiglione made a large painting showing The Nativity for the S. Luca in Genoa (ibid., fig. 3). This is among the artist’s first dated works and it established Castiglione as an important painter. In the fifteen years or so after he finished it, he produced a large number of drawings and etchings of the subject, among which is this characteristic and powerful example. The Holy Family, and the angels swirling down from above, are all drawn in very swift, loose brushwork and the scene is set against a subtle, but intense blue background. Characteristic, too, are the empty spaces that surround the composition which increase the emphasize on the central scene. Drawings like these were made for the market, and their large number and studio versions suggest that they were indeed in great demand. The present composition can be found in a studio work with variations in the Royal Collection, Windsor (inv. 3964; A. Blunt, The Drawings of G.B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, London, 1954, no. 238; N. Strasser, op. cit., p. 220, ill.). Another drawing by Castiglione of the subject is in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Percy, op. cit., no. 48, ill.).