Federico Barocci, The Annunciation, 1582-4
Critics have been queuing up to praise the National Gallery's current exhibition, 'Barocci: Brilliance and Grace'. Laura Cumming highlighted his mastery of colour, 'especially gold, grey and rose, getting the chromatic key right every time,' and the way he prepared his paintings: 'no artist before him – and maybe only Degas since – made quite so many different kinds of preliminary drawing.' Adrian Hamilton described his 'technical brilliance and graphic genius' and observed of The Visitation (1583-6) that 'nothing I think in art can compare with the tenderness of the look between the two women as they greet each other'. Waldemar Januszczak, behind his Sunday Times paywall, has apparently called the show 'inspired' and Brian Sewell found it a 'beautiful, thrilling and intelligent exhibition, its exegeses so self-evident that the turbid and turgid, over-explanatory and occasionally foolish catalogue is virtually superfluous'. I have not looked into this unfortunate catalogue, but I did have a look round the exhibition, and what none of these critics mention is that it includes a row of three quite beautiful nature studies, which are described by the curators as having an 'immediacy unprecedented in earlier Italian art'.
Federico Barocci, Landscape with Banks and Trees, a drawing
© Trustees of the British Museum
When Barocci died, 170 sketches from nature were among the works listed in his studio. Interestingly, of those that survive, none seems to have a direct connection with his finished paintings. The landscapes you see in the backgrounds of Barocci's religious scenes tend to be views of Urbino's ducal palace, as in The Annunciation reproduced above. Incidentally, there is a remarkable preparatory chalk sketch for this painting in the show in which the two figures, drawn in smudgy sfumato, meet in front of what appears to be a looming cliff - a blank space where the landscape will go. In contrast to such sketches, Barocci's nature studies were probably 'spontaneous responses to nature', executed in a style 'evocative of Oriental brush painting.' The drawing above belongs to the British Museum, to whom it was bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight. Another, from the Frits Lugt collection, shows a pair of trees delicately drawn in black chalk and brown wash. It can be purchased in the form of a silk scarf from The National Gallery shop.
Federico Barocci Study of Trees souvenir scarf
"capturing his original work in all its delicate beauty"