An etching reproducing this drawing was made by Jean de Jullienne, Watteau's great champion; an impression of the etching in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, carries an 18th Century inscription explaining the source for the drawing: 'Le dessein original est du Schidone il est deux tiers plus petit et on le voit dans la Collection de Mr Mariette. Watteau qui le trouvait Charmant la dessiné tel que le voici et c'est Mr de Julienne qui l'a gravé.' (The original drawing is by Schidone, it is two-thirds smaller and it can be seen in M. Mariette's collection. Watteau, who found it charming, drew it, as can be seen here, and it is M. de Jullienne who engraved it).
The drawing that Watteau copied, by the Emilian painter Bartolomeo Schidone (1578-1615), is today lost, but, as the inscription on Jullienne's print notes, it belonged to the celebrated drawings connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774), and it later figured in the posthumous sale of his collection in 1775 as lot 712. Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat speculate that the Schedone drawing might have once belonged to Pierre Crozat (1665-1740), whose vast drawings collection Watteau is known to have studied, and at whose posthumous sale in 1741 Mariette made significant purchases.
Watteau drew numerous copies after paintings and drawings by the Old Masters, and more than seventy of these are known today. As Pierre Rosenberg has observed, Watteau's copies of the Old Masters are faithful and yet invariably transfigured by the artist's distinctive personality and touch. (On this subject, see P. Rosenberg, 'Watteau's Copies after the Old Masters' in A. Wintermute, et al., Watteau and His World: French Drawing from 1700 to 1750, London and New York, 1999, pp. 50-55). Watteau's biographer, the Comte de Caylus, noted in 1748 that his friend copied the old masters with an eye 'to their possible usefulness', attending to the aspects of their work that were most in keeping with his own. It is probable that his copy of Schedone's Virgin and Child provided Watteau with inspiration when he came to paint the Holy Family (purchased by Catherine the Great in 1769 for The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg).
Judging from its style, with its spatial clarity and sharply accented modeling, Rosenberg and Prat date the drawing to circa 1715-16. Alan Wintermute suggests the slightly earlier dating of circa 1714.