Head of the Christ Child
William G. Coesvelt, London; his sale, Christie’s, London, 13th June 1840, lot 16, from where purchased by Mr. Norton (£8 18sh 6d.)
Anon. sale; Christie’s, South Kensington, 28 Oct. 2009, lot 21 (as ‘Follower of Antonio Allegri, Il Correggio’).
A. Jameson, The Collection of Pictures of W.G. Coesvelt, Esq., of London, London, 1836, p. 18, no. 60 (illus.)
The soft outlines and modulated lighting of Head of the Christ Child typifies the sensuous grace that is associated with the work of Correggio. His soft, poetic, atmospheric – and in some instances, erotic – style made him a forerunner of Bernini and Rubens, as well as a favourite among 18th and 19th century collectors. Although Correggio had no significant pupils, he exercised a substantial influence on the following generation of Emilian artists. The child’s enigmatic smile in the present sketch, which has parallels in Corregio’s work, also calls to mind figures by Leonardo da Vinci: the blurred contours of the features demonstrate an awareness of Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato techniques.
The fact that this study is a fragment adds to the challenges of connoisseurship. It was originally painted in oil on paper and subsequently laid down on panel, possibly at the time it was cut down from what was obviously a larger composition. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what the original work may have looked like, as it has yet to be associated with a finished work. While it has historically been known as Head of a Putto, a recent cleaning revealed the upper part of a woman’s face at right, which suggests that it was originally part of a Madonna and Child composition.
This painting is recorded in an 1836 catalogue of pictures in the collection of William G. Coesvelt, a successful Dutch merchant and connoisseur who lived at Carlton Terrace in London. Coesvelt favoured works by Italian artists, with a particular focus on the Carracci, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Titian, Parmigianino, Correggio and Raphael. The collection was assembled over thirty years and Coesvelt took advantage of the chaos and disruption caused by the Napoleonic wars to acquire works from important Italian and Spanish collections. The majority of his paintings, including the present work, are illustrated in the catalogue. It was at the time attributed to Correggio, and described as ‘Another more finished Oil Study on Paper, of a Child’s Head, very effective in light and shade. Likewise at Parma’.
An account of a visit to the collection is given in the diary of Miss Frances Williams-Wynn, the daughter of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt.:
Went to see Mr. Coesvelt’s pictures, and return convinced that, for my own pleasure, I should prefer that to any collection I know in London; perhaps one reason is that it is so entirely Italian; another is that, among the pictures, there is not one of which the subject is disagreeable; no disgusting nudity, no painful martyrdom, &c. &c.
He has both increased and diminished the collection since I saw it in Brook Street, four or five years ago. He has two or three very fine Raphael’s [sic]; one that I am inclined to place higher than any one I know in England; that is from the Alva collection. There is an Infant St. John, whose look of pure intense adoration towards the Infant Christ is finer than almost anything I know.
I should say that Parmegiano [sic] is here on his throne; that here I have learnt to value him more highly than I have ever done before. Still I do not like his large pictures as well as the smaller ones; there is one large one recently added to the collection, which Mr. Coesvelt values very highly, but which I think a rather French and maniere Parmegiano.
A few days afterwards I went to see the King’s pictures, and felt that they lost much by comparison with Mr. Coesvelt’s. Perhaps their inferiority in my eyes would be expressed in a very few words—their boast is Flemish, Mr. Coesvelt’s pictures are all Italian.
The collection in its entirety was offered to the National Gallery for a sum recorded in the 1836 catalogue as £40,000, but the offer was refused. Subsequently, an agent for Tsar Nicholas I purchased many of the finest works for the Hermitage, including paintings by Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo. Other masterpieces from the Coesvelt collection currently in public collections include Raphael’s Alva Madonna (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.); and the Aldobrandini Madonna by Titian, (National Gallery, London). A number of other paintings from the collection, including the present study, were offered at Christie’s on 13th June 1840.
Based on photographs, Prof. Paul Joannides has suggested that this is part of an eighteenth-century work after a composition by an artist in the circle of Correggio or Andrea del Sarto, executed in imitation of pastel (e-mail communication, 27 Oct. 2014). Prof. Mary Vaccaro agrees with Joannides’ suggestion, also on the basis of photographs (e-mail communication, 28 Oct. 2014).