This well-preserved panel is to be counted among the masterpieces of the full maturity of the Milanese artist, Bernardino Luini. Acquired by the Scottish agent, James Irvine for one major Scottish collector, Sir William Forbes, 7th Bt., it was subsequently sold to another, Sir Archibald Campbell, 2nd Bt. of Succoth.
Bernardino Luini was the most influential indigenous painter of cinquecento Lombardy. Trained like his future associate, the Piedmontese Gaudenzio Ferrari, under the obscure Gian Stefano Scotto, presumably in Milan, he was strongly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and may well have owned his cartoon, the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (London, National Gallery), of which he painted a direct copy (Milan, Ambrosiana), as this is first recorded, with other drawings by the Florentine master, in the possession of Luini’s son, Aurelio, also a painter. Many works by Luini were considered to be by Leonardo himself until well into the nineteenth century. But Luini’s interest in Leonardo was never slavish. He was aware of Raphael’s mature style, but would remain true to the traditions of his Milanese and Lombard predecessors. Partly because of its popularity from the late eighteenth century onwards, much of Luini’s work has suffered: numerous frescoes have been detached and some panels have been transferred to canvas. The Campbell Nativity is one of finest and the best preserved of Luini’s panels intended for private devotion.
The chronology of Luini’s work has only been more fully understood in recent years. The first serious endeavour to explain his development was that of Ottino della Chiesa, who dated the panel to about 1525. She placed it after the larger Nativity in the Plymouth collection (Quattrini, op. cit., no. 152, as of c. 1526-9, which she may not have seen as she was uncertain of its location), which may come from the Abbey of Chiaravalle outside Milan, comparing it in character with this, but considering it finer (‘di spirito affine al precedente ma più alto’, op. cit., p. 39). As she noted, the Flight into Egypt in the background is related to (but in reverse) that similarly placed in the fresco of the Presentation (Quattrini, no. 118c), which is dated 1525, in the Santuario at Saronno, Luini’s work which represents a high point not only of his development as a painter of frescoes, but also of Lombard High Renaissance painting. Although the ox and ass imply that the panel represents the Nativity, the inclusion of the saddle and of the water bottle, neither of which appear in other pictures of that subject by the artist, would be more normal in a Rest on the Flight: the background scene suggests that Luini intended to combine both episodes.
Several scholars collaborated to work on the artist in preparation for the 2014 Milan exhibition, for which the loan of the Nativity was agreed, although in the event the organisers were unable to afford the necessary costs of foreign loans. In the exhibition catalogue Renzi and Romero suggested that the Campbell picture was the prototype of a group of small devotional pictures of the Nativity, including panels at Berlin (no. 219) and in the Borromeo collection at Isola Bella (Ottino della Chiesa, op. cit., no.11, fig. 126, ‘autografia controversa’, and no. 62, fig. 127, ‘forse non interamente autografa’; Quattrini, nos. 35 and 34), as well as that in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo (no. 302; Ottino della Chiesa, op. cit., no. 8, ‘da mani di bottega’; exhibited at Milan, 2014, no. 30, as from the bottega; Quattrini, no. 36), and a picture formerly in the Rittmann-Urech and His Veillon collections with the addition of a shepherd (Quattrini, no. 98). They convincingly advanced a date of about 1517-8 for the Campbell picture, by comparison with the signed Trivulzio altarpiece, The Madonna and Child with Saints with the kneeling Cardinal Scaramuccia Trivulzio, in the Cathedral at Como (Quattrini, no. 50): this can be precisely dated as it shows the donor, who was appointed a cardinal in 1517 and resigned as Bishop of Como in favour of his brother Antonio in the following year, as a cardinal. The two pictures are stylistically absolutely compatible; and it may not be wholly coincidental that the Child in Luini’s later Adoration of the Shepherds (Quattrini, no. 141e), supplied to the church of Sant’ Abbondio at Como and now also in the Cathedral there, is more closely related to that in the Campbell picture than to the corresponding figures in any of the Nativities that derive from this, although the legs are differently disposed. That the outsize altarpiece from which that much larger work on canvas comes was a joint project on which both Luini and Gaudenzio Ferrari contributed may explain Dr. Waagen’s uncharacteristic error in attributing the Campbell Nativity to the latter.
The picture has a distinguished place in the history of collecting in Scotland. James Irvine, a painter who had more success as an agent, who had made significant purchases in Italy for William Buchanan in 1802-5 and acted for other dealers and collectors, formed a notable collection in 1826-7 for Sir William Forbes, 7th Bt. of Pitsligo. A prominent banker, Forbes acted as executor to James Boswell and in 1797 married the heiress Williamina Belsches, with whom the young Walter Scott had been in love: on Scott’s bankruptcy Forbes assumed the key role in the arrangements that led, after his own death, to the settlement of the novelist’s debts. Among the pictures Irvine acquired for Sir William were Veronese’s Last Communion of Saint Lucy (Washington, National Gallery of Art), Lotto’s Lady as Lucretia (London, National Gallery), portraits attributed to Titian, devotional works by Garofalo and Mazzolino, as well as two major canvases by Ludovico Carracci from the Tanari collection, Bologna. The high esteem in which Luini’s Nativity was held is implied by the sum, £800, for which Sir John Stuart Hepburn Forbes, 8th. Bt.- himself as a boy the subject of a fine portrait by Raeburn recently acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland - sold it to Sir Archibald Campbell, 2nd Bt. of Succoth.
Sir Archibald Campbell, whose collection has been studied by Professor Humfrey, was the heir of a family that had held land in Dunbartonshire since the seventeenth century, and, like his father, Sir Ilay Campbell, Ist. Bt. of Succoth, Lord Succoth (1734-1823), had a successful legal career. Marriage to an heiress, Elizabeth Balfour, enabled him to employ the architect William Burn - who rebuilt Fettercairn for Sir William Forbes in 1826 - to reconstruct Garscube on an extravagant scale in 1826-7. Like Forbes, Campbell set about collecting pictures for his ‘new’ mansion, helped by the Scottish painter-cum-agent Andrew Wilson who had been in direct competition with Irvine in Genoa over two decades earlier and made purchases in Italy after he withdrew as Manager of the Trustees’ Academy at Edinburgh in 1826. The Luini was by a comfortable margin the finest Renaissance picture that Campbell acquired, but he also bought works given to Moretto and Leonardo - the last a rare portrait by Zaganelli - as well as Annibale Carracci’s intimate so-called Montalto Madonna (London, National Gallery), a distinguished Genoese portrait by van Dyck and a characteristic Cuyp. His pictures were complemented by a substantial group of Old Master drawings: this included what was perhaps the finest Florentine trecento drawing in any Scottish collection, the sheet attributable to Taddeo Gaddi now with the Woodner Collection in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, as well as a notable study by Guido Reni that was purchased for the National Gallery of Scotland when the collection was dispersed at Christie’s, 26 March 1974.