The present work, which depicts the moment when Tobias meets his future wife, Sarah (Apocrypha, Tobit 7), is a suberb example of Maratta's fluent classical style at its most refined. It can be dated to circa 1654-1656, a crucial period of transition for the artist, as he moved away from the influence of his teacher, Andrea Sacchi, and emerged as a master in his own right. As such it may be compared to two other works from this time, Alpheus and Arethusa and Saint Andrew led to the Cross of Martyrdom (both sold Christie's, New York; the first, 27 January 2000 ($662,500), the second, 26 May 2000 ($281,000)). However, of the three paintings, it is the Tobias and the Angel that is the most ambitious and important, a fact attested to by the large number of known copies, including those in a private collection, Rome, in the Museé des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, and formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire (sold Christie's, London, 28 November 1975). All are now thought to be studio works, although the latter was once believed to be autograph. However, it lacks the carefully constructed landscape that can be seen in the present canvas.
Maratta's classicism represents the culmination of a long stylistic tradition that had begun with Raphael and was then reinvigorated by the expressive naturalism of Annibale Carracci, the compositional and dramatic clarity of Domenichino, and the refined understatement of Andrea Sacchi. The influence of the latter can still be felt in the slightly static figures of the present composition, evident when compared to the two above mentioned works, whose greater narrative dynamism dates them to just after the Tobias. However it is clear that in the present work Maratta was already moving beyond his master and looking at his contemporaries: the rendering of Tobias' drapery, for example, recalls the sculpture of Bernini, while the influence of Lanfranco can be detected in the seated figure of Sarah.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable of the three protagonists in the painting is the angel. A figure of exceptional elegance, it is a notable example of Maratta's interest in the classical tradition of sculpture. The head is inspired ultimately by the Apollo Belvedere, a study for which can be found on a sheet of drawings in the Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, which also includes studies for the left hand of the angel's outstretched arm (fig.1; see M. Mena Marqués, loc. cit.). Maratta's drawing is in the same sense as the sculpture, but he subsequently reversed it in the painting. This figure is, however, much more than a straighforward quotation from a classical sculpture, for Maratta has imbued the features with a sense of grace and beauty that sets it apart from the more worldly and expressive figures of Tobias and Sarah. However, lest this distinction appear too obvious, the artist has taken care to unite the figures through a sophisticated choreography of linked poses and gestures.
The Apollo Belvedere was also to serve as a source of inspiration for the figure of Apollo in a later work by Maratta, the celebrated Apollo and Daphne painted for Louis XIV in 1681. The famous art critic and theorist, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, dedicated a eulogistic pamphlet to this work, in which he notes that the artist sought in the figure of Daphne to express the affetti, or affective gestures, while in the Apollo, his aim was to represent the idea of beauty. A similar subtle contrast and double intent can also be seen in the Tobias and the Angel. It is not known whether Bellori was familiar with the present work. The fact that he does not mention it in the planned (but never published) sequel to his 1672 Vite may be explained by his tendency not to discuss paintings in private collections and to concentrate on more recent works, i.e. from the 1670s onwards. However, had he known it, one can only imagine that its gentle classicism would have been very much to his taste.
We are grateful to Stella Rudolph for her assistance in cataloguing the present lot. She will include it in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of works by the artist.