Holy Family

The Fine Art Society and Robert Simon Fine Art

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Giuseppe Maria Crespi (Bologna 1665 - 1747 Bologna)
Holy Family
18th Century
Oil on copper
7 5/8 x 6 1/4 in. • 19.4 x 15.9 cm
12 1/8 x 10 7/8 in. • 30.8 x 27.6 cm


Private Collection, South America

Further Information

This jewel-like painting is an outstanding example of the devotional cabinet paintings produced by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, one of the most original Bolognese artists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Crespi's extraordinary originality manifested itself not only in his idiosyncratic style and technique, but in the subjects he chose to paint. While he was often light-hearted, even irreverent, in his portraits and genre paintings, his approach to religious subjects is deeply felt even at its most inventive. This recently discovered and unpublished work by Crespi is in this way typical, evoking both the tender bond between mother and child and the Child's destiny within a compact and intimate format. Executed on this small scale, Crespi's great sensitivity and masterful handling of the paint are in full evidence, particularly in the bravura brushwork of the drapery.

The restrained and focused composition of our Holy Family lends itself to quiet contemplation of the figures. The Virgin Mary holds the Christ child tenderly in her arms, as if presenting him to the viewer. She inclines her head and looks knowing at the sleeping infant, who holds in his hand a diminutive cross that refers proleptically to his crucifixion. Joseph appears in the background-as if emerging from the left side of the frame-gazing upward and folding his hands in prayer. Individual motifs found in our painting reappear in other paintings by the artist-the Virgin and Child in a painting that set the record price for the artist when it was sold at Sotheby's in 2006 (Fig. 1); the Virgin and Joseph in a sadly damaged Holy Family in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (Fig. 2); and the sleeping Christ Child in The Holy Family with Saint Bernardino in Ascoli Piceno (Fig. 3). Here the artist has synthesized them into a new and vibrant composition. Mira Pajes Merriman, author of the catalogue raisonné on the artist, writes that the arrangement of the Virgin and Child in the Sotheby's painting (also found in the present work) makes it "one of the loveliest of Crespi's religious works," and comments that the "toy cross" held by Christ is "entirely characteristic of Crespi, for whom the Passion of Christ was a central theme." She dates the Virgin and Child to ca. 1715-1720, while the other two paintings she places later in the artist's career, both ca. 1735-1740. Crespi clearly revisited his designs across his career, and it appears likely that our painting on copper belongs to this later period given the close stylistic ties to the Vatican and Ascoli Piceno paintings, as well as the artist's increased production of smaller devotional works at this stage.

Our exquisite Holy Family stands out among the artist's works for its cool palette, bold coloration, and the expressive force of the artist's hand. The description of the drapery and the flesh tones are particularly accomplished, each rendered with rapid brushstrokes and made more luminous through the addition of flickering white highlights throughout. The subtle changes to the figures and their relative positions-when compared with those in the related paintings discussed above-seem a consequence of the artist's refinement of the composition to reflect and exploit the diminutive size of the present painting. For example, while Joseph is depicted with a short rod in the Vatican painting-a symbol of his status as the husband of Mary-here his hands are brought into closer proximity to his face and fill the visual field. The reddish-brown ground of the painting, which serves as the backdrop, is almost entirely obscured by the figures. The intimacy of our painting, with its intense focus on the Holy Family brought to the front of the picture plane, underscores its intended use for private devotion-an object to be held in one's hands for prayer or contemplation.

We are grateful to Dr. Daniele Benati for confirming Crespi's authorship of this painting on the basis of photographs (written communication, 16 December 2021). Benati writes of the painting: "È veramente molto bello e non ho dubbi circa l'autografia di Giuseppe Maria Crespi."