Tracing Reynolds’ Italian inspirations

Detail from Reynolds sketchbook © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

By Paul Willis, Curator of Fine Art

I would like to share a few of the works I have managed to identify from our Reynolds sketchbook.

Recto 10 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Giovanni Lanfranco 'Liberation of St Peter' © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Recto 10 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Giovanni Lanfranco ‘Liberation of St Peter’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The first sketch (recto 10) is of the Giovanni Lanfranco (1582 – 1647) painting: The Liberation of Saint Peter, c. 1620-1, oil on canvas, 154cm x 122.1cm. In this unfinished painting (see the number of arms the angel has), an angel has just arrived in a blaze of light, to free St Peter from prison. The angel’s left hand touches Peter’s shoulder, which gives the image a feeling of immediacy. However, for Reynolds it’s the angel’s grand gesture and dynamic pose that attracted his attention. Reynolds viewed this work at the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome, situated between the Via del Corso and Via della Gatta.

Recto 22 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Il Guercino 'Return of the Prodigal Son' © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Recto 22 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Il Guercino ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (recto 22) is of the Il Guercino (1591-1666) painting: The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1654-55, oil on canvas, 155.6cm x 146.1cm. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most frequently represented in Western art for teaching repentance and forgiveness. Like other late works by this Il Guercino, this work is characterised by its clarity and simplicity, and I assume this is exactly what would have attracted Reynolds attention to it. You can see how he sketched the composition and highlighted the tonal highlights of the work. I believe it is these ‘dramatic moments’ that Reynolds liked and sought out while in Italy. Reynolds viewed this work at the Palazzo Colonna in central Rome, which is located at the base of the Quirinal Hill, and adjacent to the church of Santi Apostoli. However, if we wish to view this work today, it is in the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, USA.

Recto 46 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Solario 'Madonna with the Green Cushion' © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Recto 46 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Solario ‘Madonna with the Green Cushion’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (recto 46) is of the Andrea Solario (c. 1465 – 1524) painting: Madonna with the Green Cushion, oil on poplar, 59cm x 47cm. Madonna with the Green Cushion, a devotional image of the Virgin nursing the Christ Child, has been so called since the 17th century due to the motif of the green cushion placed on a marble plinth in the foreground. The relationship established between the two figures, the dialogue of their respective gazes, the complicity of their postures all display a tenderness that Reynolds obviously found attractive and would replicate in his later work Mrs Susanna Hoare and Child, 1763–1764, Oil on canvas, in The Wallace Collection. It is interesting to note that Reynolds thought this work was by Leonard da Vinci, when in fact it was the work of Solario, who was one of his pupils.

Verso 47 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Rosa, 'The Temptation of St. Anthony' © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Verso 47 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Rosa, ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (verso 47) is of the Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) painting: The Temptation of St. Anthony, oil on canvas 125cm x 93cm Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. The Temptation of St. Anthony is an often-repeated subject in history of art. It concerns the supernatural temptations faced by Saint Anthony during his journey in the Egyptian desert. Reynolds finely sketches the prone figure of Saint Anthony but his main focus is on his temptation – the female, dragon monster – which Rosa has depicted in such frightening and horrifying detail. The work, which obviously inspired the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali.

Recto 59 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Barocci, 'Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere' © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Recto 59 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Barocci, ‘Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

And the final sketch (recto 59) is of the Federico Barocci, (1535-1612) painting: Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, 1572 Oil on canvas, 113cm x 93cm. The Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, who was an ardent supporter of Barocci. Barocci’s Portrait shows his patron wearing armour, in the role of a military victor. The rich variety of textures and colours creates an image of wealth and power, and this is exactly what would have attracted Reynolds attention.

Keep an eye out for the next installment to see more identified works…

Reynolds sketchbook bibliography 2014

The article is based on an Art Bite talk given at the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery on Wednesday 3 September 2014

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