Simone Cantarini distinguished himself by being both the most talented, inventive and factious pupil of Guido Reni. He first trained under Giovanni Giacomo Pandolfi, and then Claudio Ridolfi, an early phase of his career in which he was deeply influenced by Federico Barocci and Orazio Gentileschi. It was the arrival in Pesaro of Reni’s altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints Thomas and Jerome (now Rome, Vatican Museums) that had a decisive impact on Cantarini when he saw it in circa 1632. Malvasia explained, in his biography on the artist, that ‘non si può dire quanto restasse sovrafatto da questa nuova delicatezza, accompagnata da sì gran nobiltà di maniera’ (C.C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice. Vite de’ Pittori Bolognesi..., Bologna, 1841, II, p. 374). Shortly thereafter Cantarini moved to Bologna to become a pupil of Reni. As time passed, though, he became increasingly critical of his master, and saw no issue in criticising Domenichino and Albani; he even corrected parts of Reni’s work, when he was absent, in front of his fellow pupils. Malvasia, who knew Cantarini personally, did not hold back in dissecting the more difficult side of his character: ‘fu egli altiero molto, e satirico non meno per proprio istinto, e natura, per motivo e istigazione degli adulatori’ (ibid., p. 381). Inevitably, with such talent and an unbridled tongue to match, he soon left the workshop, subsequently moving between Pesaro and Rome before going back to Bologna where his opened a studio himself in 1642. He developed an idiosyncratic style all of his own: his painterly touch and sensitive use of colour, together with his inventive compositional arrangements, created an oeuvre that was as intimate and delicate as any artist working in the seventeenth century.
These qualities are encapsulated in the exquisite tenderness of this Holy Family. The brushwork is wonderfully light and the palette is characteristically cool, with the hues of blue, pink and green harmoniously worked alongside each other. Another Holy Family, in a private collection in Pesaro, dated to 1638, has a similar compositional arrangement, with the Madonna seated holding an open book and the Child standing on the table, held up by Joseph. They share a subtle sense of melancholy, told here through the downcast gaze of the Madonna, as she rests her head on her hand in contemplation. Cantarini created a remarkable number of different compositions of the Holy Family, this amongst the most beautiful, returning repeatedly to the theme during his relatively short life: he died at thirty-six years of age, likely poisoned at the court of Mantua, perhaps after another misadventure had inspired rage in a rival.