DescriptionANNIBALE CARRACCI (Italian 1560 - 1609)
Two Boys, Head and Shoulders, Smiling, circa 1580-82
Oil on canvas
14-1/8 x 18-7/8 inches
Tagged to verso is a 3-3/8-in piece of paper with an ink inscription in a later hand, Il Parmigianino
Private Collection, Rome;
Property of a Gentleman
This lively painting of two grinning boys, one shown nearly frontally and the other in profile, is a prime example of the early work of celebrated Bolognese artist, Annibale Carracci. Generally regarded as the most gifted member of the Carracci family of painters, Annibale achieved prominence in his native Bologna and later in Rome in the movement against Mannerism, a post-Renaissance style that emerged around 1520 in Florence and flourished internationally until about 1600. Like most styles, Mannerism arose in reaction to the regularity and harmonious balance of Renaissance art which came before it, opting for an infusion of irregularity, exaggeration, and dissonance to enliven the perceived static nature of the old style. Of course in its turn, the reigning maniera's freshness began to fade as well; its unnatural iridescent colors, attenuated figures, complex poses, smooth surfaces, and compressed spaces began to look just as formulaic as the style it had replaced in the eyes of avant garde painters like Annibale Carracci.
In the early 1580s, twenty-year-old Annibale Carracci advocated artistic reform in Italy by drawing from life. He meant this both in the literal sense of making drawings from live models to give the work freshness and immediacy, and by drawing upon life as a viable subject for art. This wasn't simply life at its most refined and sanitary either. It was life in the raw shown in the clear light of day: butchers displaying tall slabs of meat in their market stalls (Christ Church College Picture Gallery, Oxford, England, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas), a hungry farmer sitting down to a meal of coarse bread and pasta fagioli (Bean Eater, Galleria Colonna, Rome), and boys craning their necks back to drain the very last drops of very ordinary wine from their glasses (Boy Drinking, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio). Unlike the mid-sixteenth century Netherlandish models for such low life subjects, Annibale made no particular effort to infuse his pictures with obvious moralizing undertones or admonishments. And, unlike earlier treatments of butcher shop subjects by older Bolognese artists such as Bartolomeo Passerotti, Annibale's scenes have none of the ribald quality that plays upon licentious associations with raw meat. Rather, Annibale's representations of the everyday activities of the lower classes have a dignity that suggests he may have intended such pictures to be understood as metaphors for truth to nature. As such his approach was revolutionary.
In the 1580s, together with his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico, the precocious Annibale founded a teaching academy in Bologna, which the famiglia collectively dubbed the Accademia degli Incamminati ("Academy of the Progressives"). There the Carracci and their students put into practice their philosophy of art, which had a profound effect on the direction of Italian painting and draftsmanship over the course of the next century. Two of their most gifted pupils, Guido Reni and Domenichino, developed a monumental clarity of compositional design coupled with outstanding figure-drawing skills which became the hallmark of the Italian Baroque. While he eventually became a specialist in fresco painting (his masterpiece is the Farnese Ceiling in Rome, 1597-1601) and monumental religious altarpieces, Annibale is perhaps best remembered today for his prodigious corpus of magnificent figure drawings, and for his pioneering work in the development of ideal landscapes, genre subjects, and notably, caricature, a skill ably demonstrated in the present work. Annibale's caricature was a new breed of exaggeration, and something he seems to have developed specifically as a counterpart to the Ideal.
Both in his extensive corpus of drawings and in paintings like the present work, which are held in museums and important private collections worldwide, Annibale Carracci explored the extremes of facial expression in the visages of those around him. In fact, the term for exaggerating the characteristic features of the human face for amusement or for a sort of moralizing criticism, caricatura, is often credited specifically to Annibale Carracci. The word comes from the Italian caricare, meaning "to load or change," and seems to have first appeared in print in 1647. While none of Annibale's caricatures can be traced to an identifiable individual, the work of one of his students can, e.g. Domenichino's Theologian of the Aldobrandini Household of circa 1634 (Chatsworth).
The present work belongs to the early 1580s, around the time the Accademia degli Incamminati was founded. During this period Annibale produced numerous heads in red chalk as well as in paint, sometimes several to a sheet or canvas. The painted heads appear as these do, as pure facial studies, while others comprise key aspects of larger genre scenes. In both cases, the faces have many of the same qualities found in the present work: they are vaguely heart-shaped (he seems to have based the shape upon his own face, judging from the many youthful self-portraits or quasi self-portraits that survive), have high foreheads, and are very "toothy." The teeth protrude, are irregularly spaced, and are very squared off through excessive wear and poor occlusion, factors which point to coarse food and poor oral hygiene. There are many comparative examples including: Buffone che ride of circa 1583-4 in the Galleria Borghese, Rome; and Smiling Youth in the Gazzoni Collection, Bologna, which also has the same highlight of tightened flesh to the side of the young man's mouth seen in the present work, as well as the puffy eyes which seem to be set too high in the skull.
In addition, the smiles are consistently jerked a little too widely, resulting less in an expression of sincere happiness than one of forced hilarity. The sentiment consequently seems uneasy, inauthentic, even the opposite of what is projected as a first impression, which has led scholars to propose a subtext to these works. Are these figures more subversive than they appear to be as well as possibly autobiographical? If we are to believe some of the recorded anecdotes about Annibale's personality by his first biographer, Cesare Malvasia, and others, it might be tempting to read such paintings as something extending beyond caricature. As C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken has noted, "Annibale saw himself first and foremost as a painter and preferred the company of craftsmen to that of persons of more elevated rank; the status of courtier, forced on him during his years in the service of Cardinal Farnese, did not suit him and ultimately contributed to his breakdown. Annibale took little heed of his outward appearance, dressing casually like an artisan, and, in contrast to his brother Agostino, set little store by social accomplishments or laymen's acclaim...[He] sharply [deflated] Agostino's pretensions by reminding his brother that they were the sons of a tailor, and themselves craftsmen." Quite possibly, these faces of the lower classes are reflections of Annibale's own discomfort in reconciling the noble art of painting with his common background.
Annibale painted his early caricatured faces as well as his other genre scenes on coarsely woven canvases, with a fairly rough paint application. In such works, Annibale made no attempt to disguise the physical fact of pigment adhered to fabric. The paint is richly impastoed and the brush marks are plainly visible. The cheeks of his figures often appeared flushed, rouged almost, with liberal applications of red, as though they are stung by the cold, or even too much wine. As in the present work, Annibale's early heads have a rather idiosyncratic look to the eyes. The eyes are a little awkwardly set both in the skull and in the sockets, and the lids and tissue around them often appear puffy and red. The profiled head in the present work possesses all these qualities, and in terms of the strange way the lid hangs above the eyeball it can be compared quite closely with an exactly contemporary drawing of an adolescent boy's head in right profile by Annibale once owned by Cardinal A. Santa Croce and now in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris (see Catherine Loisel, Ludovico, Agostino et Annibale Carracci, Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 2004, cat. no. 431, ill. p. 214, Louvre inv. no. 7379).
According to Nicholas Turner, there are multiple versions of this double portrait subject, all of which are less accomplished than the present work by Annibale. Varying in scale and handling, these copies seem to have been produced by artists associated with the Carracci Academy, and were most likely painted from this work as reception pieces for artists hoping to qualify for acceptance. One, formerly in a private collection in Piacenza, Italy, and published as Carracci Follower by P. J. Cooney and G. Malafarina, L'opera completa di Annibale Carracci, Milan, 1976, no. 205, recently surfaced at Koller auctions, Zurich, on September 22, 2006, lot 3023, where it was correctly described as Carracci School owing to its slicker handling and less secure draftsmanship (oil on canvas, 9 ¾ x 18 ¾ in.). Another smaller version of the painting in a private collection is painted in oil on paper that has been laid down on canvas.
The present work, newly-discovered, is an important addition to Annibale Carracci's early work in Bologna emanating from the formative years of the Accademia degli Incamminati and the artist's own aesthetic.
The present example of Annibale's caricatura bears a nineteenth-century label attributing the painting to the Mannerist, Il Parmigianino, whose work represented the very aesthetic against which Annibale Carracci had reacted. The misattribution documents the strides art historical scholarship has made over the past century in our understanding of later sixteenth-century Italian art.
Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000.
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