A famously precocious artist, Carlo Dolci entered the studio of Jacopo Vignali at the age of nine and grew to become one of the leading painters of seventeenth-century Florence, acquiring an international reputation during his lifetime. His biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, who was also his student, provides many of the engaging details known about his life. According to Baldinucci, Dolci was intensely religious, and this is reflected throughout his oeuvre, much of which is devotional; indeed, most of his paintings were specifically constructed 'to inspire Christian piety in those who beheld them' (Baldinucci). Dolci was also an excellent portraitist and the present picture, which is datable to the 1670s, represents a sythesis of these two strands, combining a carefully observed, graceful portrait his wife, Teresa Bucherelli, with a depiction of Saint Agnes, the saint after whom his daughter would be named. As Francesca Baldassari noted in her 1995 catalogue raisonné of the artist (op. cit., pp. 157-8), it is a highly significant recent addition to the oeuvre of the artist. Indeed, she considers it to be the only fully autograph painting of his wife, whom he married in 1654. Other, more generalized depictions of Saint Agnes by Dolci are in the National Gallery of Ireland (no. 1229) and the Corsini Collection, Florence (no. 2509). The present portrait directly corresponds to the arrestingly intimate and incisive drawings of Teresa by Dolci in the Foundation Custodia, Institut Néerlandais, Paris (inv. 7880) and in the Louvre, Paris (inv. 1140; figs. 1 and 2).
This beautifully preserved canvas is characteristic of Dolci's exquisite and meticulous technique. Slow, meditated, almost miniaturist brushwork skillfully renders the solidity of the smooth skin-tones, set against the slightly transparent blue wrap and wispy tendrils of her hair. The brilliant jewel-like colors are embellished with delicate flecks of gold, a technique for which Dolci was particularly celebrated. The overall effect is subtle and slightly melancholic, revealing great psychological acuity.
Carlo Dolci produced relatively few paintings each year due both to this painstaking technique and to his increasingly nervous disposition. His paintings were highly sought after amongst his sophisticated patrons, leading Giovanni Cinelli in his 1677 guide to Florence to describe the artist's work as 'pittura bellissima e rara'. Dolci's obsessive search for perfection apparently led to his final psychological decline when Luca Giordano ('Fa Presto') arrived in Florence in 1682; his criticism of Dolci's slow technique apparently destroyed the artist's fragile equilibrium. Teresa Bucherelli died in 1683, and there are reports that Dolci seldom left his bed from around this time, a statement that is apparently confirmed by the fact that his last dated works, two versions of an Ecce Homo, are dated 1681 (Corsini Collection, Florence; and private collection).