Tracing Reynolds’ Italian inspirations part 2

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

By Paul Willis, Curator of Fine Art

Here are more works I have managed to identify from our Reynolds sketchbook.

The set of sketches recto 62 and recto 63 are of the Parmigianino (1503–1540) work: Cupid, 1523-4 oil on wood, 135cm x 65.3cm. The theme of this painting may be based on a concept of late antiquity in which Eros (Love), Himeros (Desire) and Pothos (Longing) were seen as an erotic triad. In the Renaissance it was redefined as heavenly and earthly love. Here Parmigianino is commenting on the possibility of ‘pain’ associated with these forms of love.

Reynolds made two sketches from this work, one of the overall image and the second focusing on the Himeros and Pothos. Later in life Reynolds owned many of Parmigianino’s drawings in his own private collection.

He later wrote, regarding one of Parmigianino’s most famous works, Moses breaking the Tablet of the Law (Madonna della Steccata in Parma), that he was at a loss which to admire most, the correctness of drawing or the grandeur of conception.

Verso 65 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Carracci, 'Pieta with St. Francis and St. Mary Magdalene' © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Verso 65 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Carracci, ‘Pieta with St. Francis and St. Mary Magdalene’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (verso 65) is of the Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) painting: Pieta with St. Francis and St. Mary Magdalene c. 1602, oil on canvas, 277cm x 186cm.  Later in life, Reynolds upheld the attitude of Annibale and Ludovico Carracci, championing a return to nature coupled with the study of the great northern Italian painters of the Renaissance. In his first Discourse, (delivered on 2nd January 1769), he stressed the importance of drawing from the model in the training of young artists. Students should be encouraged to ‘draw exactly from the living models which they have before them’. To illustrate his argument he cited the examples of Raphael and Annibale Carracci whose ‘exactness’ he described as ‘so contrary to the practice of the Academies’. There is uncertainty as to where Reynolds might have viewed this work, however if we wish to see this work today, it is currently held at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Verso 66 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Domenichino, 'The Assumption of the Virgin' © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Verso 66 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after Domenichino, ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (verso 66) is of the Domenichino’s (1581 –1641) gilded wooden ceiling of the nave with The Assumption of the Virgin in Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest Churches in Rome. Reynolds shows his interest in balance and unity of the composition and it’s areas of light and shade. When we look at Reynolds’s sketches we must remember how exciting it must have been for him. Although he had numerous Old Master drawing and prints whilst apprenticed to Hudson, he would never had seen the full colour and majesty of these works before.

Verso 76 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after del Sarto, 'Madonna and Child with St Elisabeth, the Infant St John, and Two Angels' © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing
Verso 76 (PLYMG.2014.72), sketch after del Sarto, ‘Madonna and Child with St Elisabeth, the Infant St John, and Two Angels’ © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage) / courtesy of Guy Channing

The next sketch (verso 76) is of the Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) painting: Madonna and Child with St Elisabeth, the Infant St John, and Two Angels, 1516, oil on wood, 141cm x 106cm. In this work, Reynolds has focused primarily on Mary, Mother of Christ and the Christ Child. There are possible reasons why St Elisabeth and the angels are not included in his sketch, and that the Infant St John the Baptist is not copied in the same pose as the original. Perhaps the sketch derives from another, but at present untraced version of this work, or Reynolds has deliberately left out those items that he was not interested in recording. Reynold’s aversion to servile copies of celebrated paintings is well known and often repeated in his Discourses.

Let those choice parts only be selected which have recommended the work to notice. If its excellence consists in its general effect, it would be proper to make slight sketches of the machinery and general management of the picture … (Discourse 2, 1769)

Conclusion
The Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery sketchbook provides a fascinating window in Reynolds’s life and his artistic development in Italy. It provides a visual record of Reynolds’ artistic eye, his thought processes and his personal interests. It is a rare private and personal insight into an artist whose life and work was to change the face of British painting in the following years to come.

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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