Joli, one of the most widely-travelled of the great Italian view painters, spent almost four years from 1-1754 at the court of King Ferdinand VI in Madrid. He had been invited there at the suggestion of the celebrated catrato singer Carlo Broschi 'Farinelli' (1702-1782), following the death in Spain of the Bolognese painter Giacomo Pavia in circa 1749. Required to paint theatrical scenery at Aranjuez and in the Teatro del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Joli remained in Spain until 1754 and whilst there executed a small group of views of both cities (see J. Urrea Fernández, La Pintura Italiana del Siglo XVIII in Esnpaña, Valladolid, 1977, pp. 151-3 and 156, figs. XXXII-III).
This view, depicting the Calle de Alcalá, Madrid, is a previously unrecorded composition depicting the reverse view of the street as depicted in three known works: that in the collection of the Dukes of Alba, Madrid; that formerly in the collection of Sir Richard Cotterell, Bt., sold in these Rooms, 24 May 1991, lot 93; and that sold, Sotheby's, London, 20 April 1994, lot 89. The latter two correspond approximately in size with the present work, whereas the first is of slightly larger proportions (81 x 139 cm.). A fragment of another version of the Alba view, corresponding with the lower left quarter of the present painting and with largely similar figures, is in a private collection, Madrid (ibid., p. 153 and fig. XXXIII.2).
The Alba picture has a pendant, a view of The Paseo de Atocha, another version of which was with Dennis Vanderkar, London, 1967 (the latter also having a pendant depicting The Plaza de Toros, Madrid). Whether or not the present work had a companion view is as yet unknown; it does, however, correspond very closely in measurements with the Cotterell painting, and it would seem plausible that they may have been pendants. Such a hypothesis is made particularly interesting by the fact that the latter is inscribed on the reverse: 'JOSEPH HENRY MADRID 6 ANTo JOLI PINXIT 1754, No 3'.
Joseph Henry of Straffan, Co. Kildare (1727-1796) was the second son of Hugh Henry, of Lodge Park, Straffan, a Dublin merchant and banker, and his wife Anne Leeson, sister of Joseph Leeson (1711-1783), later 1st Earl of Milltown. He inherited the estate of Straffan in 1743 and was Member of Parliament for Longford (1761-1768), for Kildare borough (1770-1776), and High Sheriff for Kildare in 1771. He was also a considerable connoisseur and patron of the arts and one of the most erudite Irishmen to set out on the Grand Tour in the middle of the 18th Century.
Henry joined Lord Milltown on the second of his Grand Tours together with his uncle's elder son, Joseph (1730-1801), later 2nd Earl of Milltown. He seems, however, already to have acquired a reputation in Ireland before his departure, as an enquiry of him in a letter from Richard Marlay, in Dublin, to his friend Lord Charlemont in Rome, dated February 1750, makes clear: 'is Jo:Henry at Rome now? Is he as fine a gentleman as ever ... or is he more affected since he has trod on classic ground, seen every court, heard every King declare his royal sense of Operas and the fair'. While in Rome, Henry seems to have lived up to his reputation and proved himself both an informed patron, perhaps most noticeably of Reynolds, and a sophisticated collector. He was portrayed by Pompeo Batoni, as well as by Pier Leone Ghezzi in a pen and ink caricature inscribed 'Giuseppe Henry Inglese, huomo assai erudite nella anticita e en Lettera' (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Another caricature by Ghezzi of Henry, with Lord Middleton, John Martin, and Lord Bruce of Tottenham, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
After the departure of his uncle and cousin for home, Joseph Henry continued his own Grand Tour until 1761. Unfortunately little is known of his exact movements as none of his letters or papers have so far come to light and this is particularly true of the period between his departure from Rome in 1752 and his appearance at Pisa in 1755. According to Dr. James Tyrell, who seems to have acted as Henry's agent in Florence, Henry spent the summer following the departure of his uncle and cousin in Marseilles 'being afraid of the heats of Spain'. He then seems to have set out for Spain in early October. That he went to Spain is confirmed by a lengthy essay that he later wrote for a Spanish Travel book published by Don Pedro de La Puente in 1773 (which mostly deals with the Escorial and its treasures) on Raphael's Madonna del Pesce, which as Don Pedro informs us in his introduction, Henry had seen while in Spain in 1754.
While in Spain it is known that Henry commissioned a group of paintings by Joli, including a view of Aranjuez and Madrid and of the Plaza de Toros, of which Joli engraved a plate for him, as well as of views in and around Naples. The inscription on the reverse of the Cotterell painting implies that the series comprised six works, of which that was the third (it would appear quite likely that the series comprised Spanish views, and that the Neapolitan works were separate). As noted above the Cotterell picture is of almost exactly (76 x 118.5 cm.) the same proportions as the present work - especially noteworthy given the general discrepancies in size between the various versions of each of Joli's Madrid views - and one might therefore convincingly hypothesize that this is another of Joseph Henry's series. What the other views represented is not at this point known, although if the series were of Spanish views alone, one might conjecture that they were a Paseo de Atocha and a Palazzo Reale, Madrid, from the right bank of the Manzanares.
With regard to the topography of the present view, the Calle de Alcalà was the principal street of the old city of Madrid. The viewer here looks away from the Plaza Major and the Puerta del Sol. Few of the buildings still exist, but of those that can be identified, on the right hand side, with in front of it the stairs and balustrade, is the Iglesia de San José (refaced in the 19th Century). The large church beyond is the Iglesia de los Calatravas, built by Fray Lorenzo de San Nicolás in the 17th Century (the façade was altered from 1856 by Juan de Madrazo y Kuntz on the instructions of Queen Isabel II). The imposing white building beyond that is presumably the Palacio de la Torrecilla, belonging to the Marqués de la Torrecilla, and home to an important art collection (the building was pulled down in the early 20th Century). To the far right, partly faced with scaffolding, is the Convento de las Salesas, since demolished and replaced with a square of the same name.