7 ½” x 9 13/16“ (191 x 249 mm), framed 16 1/8” x 19 5/16” (41 x 49 cm)
Provenance: Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (1723-1792), his mark lower right (Lugt 2364); Anthony Powell
The attribution of this drawing to Pier Francesco Mola has been confirmed by Dr. Francesco Petrucci, an expert of the artist.
This extraordinary study was executed around 1656 by Pier Francesco Mola, one of the masters of the Roman Baroque. With great technical virtuosity, Mola combines a preparatory drawing executed in red chalk and pen with washes of grey and brown inks and highlights of white lead. Although very different from the final outcome, it is probably an early thought for the fresco the artist painted in the gallery commissioned by Pope Alexander VII for the Quirinale Palace, a fresco which, according to the British art historian Ann Sutherland Harris, was "his largest single composition and probably the most prestigious commission of his career”.
1. Pier Francesco Mola, a painter of Baroque Rome
Pier Francesco Mola was born in Coldrerio, Ticino, near Lugano, on 9 February 1612. His father Giovanni Battista was a well-known architect and the family moved to Rome in 1616, where Pier Francesco spent most of his career.
Trained in the workshops of the Cavaliere d'Arpino (1568 - 1640) and Domenico Zampieri, known as Dominichino (1581 - 1641), Mola made two jouneys to northern Italy, one from 1633 to 1640, and the second from 1641 to 1647, which led him to stay in Bologna and Venice, before returning to settle permanently in Rome. He was also influenced by the classicism of Francesco Albani (1578 - 1660), whose workshop he frequented.
While Joseph greeting his brothers is his main fresco, Pier Francesco Mola was also an important painter of easel paintings. A leading figure in the neo-Venetian movement in Rome, alongside Pietro Testa (1617 - 1650) and Andrea Sacchi (1599 - 1661), he sought to reconcile Bolognese aesthetics with Venetian colour. He sometimes collaborated with Gaspard Dughet, and at the end of his life (1660-1666) he also revealed himself as a great landscape painter. He was linked to the Franco-Roman classical milieu (Poussin, Lorrain and Dughet), giving his figures a realism close to Ribera’s.
His graphic work has always been sought after, particularly across the Channel, as the early provenance of the sheet we are presenting demonstrates. It comes from one of the most prestigious collections formed in England in the second half of the 18th century, that of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792), who was the first president of the Royal Academy from 1768 onwards.
2. Description of the artwork
Pier Francesco Mola displays here all the facets of his talent, and in particular his very specific way of incorporating figures into a lush landscape. Our study focuses on the figures of Joseph and Benjamin, recounting the moment when the latter " fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept" (Genesis 45-14).
This episode terminates the story of Joseph, who had been sold by his brothers to merchants who took him to Egypt, where he became Pharaoh's trusted man, interpreting his dreams. Thanks to him, Pharaoh built up stocks of food during the seven years of plenty, which enabled him to feed his people during the seven years of famine. Joseph's hungry brothers came to buy grain from him and returned a second time with Joseph's younger brother Benjamin at Joseph’s request. This is the moment that Joseph chooses to reveal his true identity to his brothers, showing special tenderness for Benjamin, his own mother's only other son.
While Joseph rushes towards Benjamin with ardour, Benjamin seems more reserved as he advances towards Joseph, suggesting perhaps that it is the forgiver who must make the first move. "Benjamin wept upon his neck," adds the Genesis, and this weeping is evoked by his left arm being folded as if to hide his tears.
The figures of Joseph and Benjamin were probably the main concern of the painter in this study. Their half-brothers are depicted in the background, massed to the left of the study. Their static silhouettes, sketched in a rather schematic manner, contrast with the dynamism of the encounter between Joseph and Benjamin, whose clothes flutter as if animated by a light wind.
The complex technique of this study places it at the borderline between drawing and painting, thanks in particular to the white lead highlights that give life to the two main figures, and to the very fluid ink washes, as for example in the representation of the grove of trees on the right.
Much of the charm of this drawing lies in the evocative description of the landscape - probably the banks of the Nile - in which the artist introduces an impression of depth by evoking the reflection of the trees in the water in the background of the composition.
3. A long maturation for the subject
The gallery of the Palazzo del Quirinale is one of the great commissions of the pontificate of Alexander VII. It was entrusted to Pietro da Cortona in 1655, who was responsible for bringing together a group of artists to carry out this decorative programme. At the end of the gallery two scenes were executed by the two main painters who participated in this vast decorative programme: the Adoration of the Magi by Carlo Maratta and Joseph greeting his Brothers by Pier Francesco Mola. This arrangement takes up the idea of associating an Old Testament scene with a New Testament scene, and we can see in the story of Joseph who makes himself known to his brothers at the height of his power a counterpoint to the humility of the birth of Christ, recognised by the shepherds.
Numerous preparatory drawings for this fresco have survived, reflecting the importance of this papal commission for Pier Francesco Mola. In his book published in 1972, Richard Cocke lists 12 known preparatory studies. Our drawing, which was kept in private collections at the time, has not yet been studied by art historians, but we shall see, by focusing on the evolution of the figure of Joseph, that it is most probably be a very early thought, executed before the one kept in the British Museum, which was considered by this art historian to be the oldest drawing in the series.
In this composition, made on an inverted basis, we find the three figures formed by Joseph, who is represented in a manner very similar to that of our drawing, Benjamin, who has become a young adolescent, and one of the brothers whose arm balances, as in our drawing, that of Joseph.
This brother is now depicted standing instead of sitting, giving the composition more dynamism. The group of the other brothers unfolds like an antique frieze in a mineral landscape in which vegetal references have disappeared. As in the drawing in the Musée Atget in Montpellier and as in our study, Mola presents Joseph running to greet Benjamin in an intimate and personal gesture that does not include his other brothers.
The next stage in the evolution of the composition is presented to us in a study in the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf in which Mola depicts Joseph with his arms open, including all his brothers in his greeting. Whereas in the first sketches Joseph was depicted as a bearded middle-aged man - which was consistent with the fact that he is around forty years old according to the Bible at the time of this meeting - Mola later rejuvenates him, as he looks closer in age to Benjamin.
The following preparatory studies are entirely devoted to the complex arrangement of the group of brothers. In the final composition reproduced below, this group is now split into two parts: six of them are shown kneeling in a deferential position. Benjamin is shown standing with his arms folded in the background, in front of four other brothers who are also standing. It is also interesting to note that this final composition reintroduces the vegetal background, as we are now in a courtyard bordered by a balustrade beyond which lush gardens extend. Their trees look quite similar to those represented in the right of our study.
4. A prestigious provenance: Sir Josuah Reynolds
Sir Joshua Reynolds (Plympton 1723 - London 1792) can be considered as the leader of the English school of painting in the 18th century. Specialising in portraiture, he was the co-founder and first president of the Royal Academy. His youth was marked by a long journey to Italy between 1749 and 1752 and his favourite masters remained throughout his life Michelangelo, Raphael, the other Italians of the 16th century and Claude Gellée.
He was the most discerning collector among the painters of his time. His eclecticism, constantly in search of the "great style", is evident both in his lectures at the Royal Academy and in the choice of his collections, to which he devoted a large part of his income. We don’t know whether he started buying some drawings in Italy or whether those were only purchased after his return to England.
In his 8th lecture, Reynolds describes the charm that drawings held for him in terms that apply quite well to the drawing we are presenting: “From a slight, undetermined drawing, where the ideas of the composition and character are, as I may say, only just touched upon, the imagination supplies more than the painter himself, probably, could produce; and we accordingly often find that the finished work disappoints the expectation that was raised from the sketch".
The bulk of his drawings were sold at auction on 26 May 1794 and again from 5 March 1798. The mark in the lower right corner of our drawing was inscribed by his executors on Reynolds' death. They marked the 1163 best drawings (of which our sheet was part) on the recto, while the inferior drawings were stamped on the verso.
This drawing has since been kept in the UK. His last known owner was the writer Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time. He was considered by the Times magazine in 2008 to be one of the 50 most important post-war British writers.
For this drawing we have chosen an Italian frame from the second half of the 17th century, whose carved and gilded laurel branches, joined by ribbons placed in the middle of each side of the frame, seem a good match with the "grand style" of our drawing.
Main bibliographical references :
Richard Cocke - Pier Francesco Mola - Clarendon Press - Oxford 1972
Edited by Manuela Kahn Rossi - Pier Francesco Mola (1612 - 1666) - catalogue of the exhibition held in Lugano and at the Musei Capitolini in Rome in 1989-1990
Francesco Petrucci - - Pier Francesco Mola (1612 - 1666) Materia e colore nella pittura del' 600 - Ugo Bozzi Editore - Roma 2012
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