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The Path of Nature: Scenic Routes


The Baptism of Christ

Sebastiano Ricci (Italian, Belluno 1659–1734 Venice)

ca. 1700
Oil on canvas
26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Rogers and Gwynne Andrews Funds, and Gift of Jane L. Melville, by exchange, 1981
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    An artist of international reputation, Ricci left Italy for England in 1711 or 1712. This is the finest of his three oil sketches for the decoration (destroyed) of a wall of the Duke of Portland's chapel at Bulstrode House, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. The facing wall showed the Last Supper and on the ceiling was the Ascension. In 1733 George Vertue praised Ricci's work in the chapel: "the whole a noble, free invention [with] great force of lights and shade, with variety and freedom in the composition of the parts."

  • Catalogue Entry

    Around 1713–14 Sebastiano Ricci decorated the chapel at Bulstrode House near Gerrards Cross for Henry Bentinck (1682–1726), 2nd Earl, and from 1715, 1st Duke of Portland. The painter Sir James Thornhill recorded on August 24, 1717, that Ricci had been paid £600 for "the little chapel at Bulstrode". Ricci painted the walls and ceiling of the chapel but after the destruction of the building, between 1847 and 1860, all that remains of the scheme are the modelli recording the composition of the paintings, and the description by George Vertue of 1733: "at the Duke of Portlands Gerrards Cross. [Bulstrode house] the Chappel. painted by Sig. Bastian Ricci. the round in the Ceiling. the Ascention of Christ at the end over the Gallery the Salutation. on the right hand side from the altar. the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan - on the left, oppossite to it, the last Supper, with the twelve apostles. ornaments & the four Evangelists &c. the whole, a Noble free invention. great force of lights and shade. with variety & freedom. in the composition of the parts".

    Ornella Osti ("Sebastiano Ricci in Inghilterra," Commentari 2 [April–June 1951], p. 123 n. 1) for the first time connected a modello depicting the Last Supper in the National Gallery of Art in Washington with Ricci's decoration for the chapel. The Washington canvas (26 3/8 x 41 in.) is probably the pendent to the Baptism of Christ (27 x 40 5/8 in.) formerly in the Paul Drey collection in New York. The MMA's modello for the Baptism of Christ is of higher quality than the Drey painting. It is likely that it also once had a pendent Last Supper, similar to the one in Washington, and still untraced. The painting comes from the collection of Sir John Leslie at Castle Leslie, Glaslough, County Monaghan, in Ireland. It was sold by the Leslie family (Sotheby's, London, December 7, 1960, no. 13), acquired by Agnew's, was then in the collection of Rudolf J. Heinemann, and was purchased by the MMA in 1981.

    The scene is set in a wide open landscape, along the banks of the river Jordan, where the multitudes have come to be baptized by John. While people discard their clothes along the river in a theatrical fashion, Christ is at the center of the painting, surrounded by a glory of angels. The dove of the Holy Ghost descends from the sky, suddenly illuminated by a burst of divine light. The white drapery and the wings of the angels are moved by a miraculous wind that crosses the valley of the Jordan. As noted by Keith Christiansen (1982) the man to the bottom left is a citation of the Hellenistic sculpture of the so-called Arrotino in the Uffizi, which Ricci must have seen while in Florence.

    The main composition is framed by an architectural setting surmounted by the inscription: "HIC EST FILLIVS / MEVS DILECTV(S) / LVC CAPVT III" (Luke 3:21–22; in fact the precise source is Matthew 3:16–17). To the sides are the two allegorical figures of Meekness (not Saint Agnes as proposed by Daniels in 1976) on the left, and Penitence on the right. Above are two scenes in grisaille probably representing the Preaching of the Baptist on the left and his Beheading on the right. In the Washington modello for the Last Supper there are the figures of Divine Inspiration on the left and Obedience on the right, while the scenes above represent the Agony in the Garden and the Kiss of Judas.

    Two further versions of the Baptism exist. The first (26 1/2 x 41 7/8 in.) comes from a private collection in Lincolnshire, and was sold through Agnew's to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge in 1994. This is often confused (most recently by Scarpa in 2012) with the modello formerly in the Drey collection—the two canvases are very similar, with the exception of the fact that the Drey painting has only one L in the word "FILIVS" in the inscription, while the Fogg one has two ("FILLIVS") as in the MMA canvas. A further version of the Baptism of Christ, smaller in size (24 x 27 in.) and without the architectural decoration, used to be in the collection of John Harris in London, and is—as rightly noticed by Martini (1982) and Scarpa (2006)—a copy by a different hand. Martini (1964) mentions another version of the Baptism on the market in Vienna in 1961.

    [2012; adapted from Salomon 2010]

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Inscribed (on cartouche at top of arch): HIC EST FILLIVS / MEVS DILECTV[S] / LVC CAPUT III (This is my beloved Son. Luke 3 [actually Matthew 3:17])

  • Provenance

    Sir John Leslie, 1st Baronet, Castle Leslie, Glaslough, co. Monaghan, Ireland (by 1890s–d. 1916); Sir John Leslie, 2nd Baronet, Castle Leslie (1916–d. 1944); Sir Shane Leslie, 3rd Baronet, Castle Leslie (1944–60; sale, Sotheby's, London, December 7, 1960, no. 13, for £3,800 to Agnew); [Agnew, London, and Pinakos, Inc. (Rudolf J. Heinemann), 1960–61]; [Rudolf J. Heinemann, New York, 1961–d. 1975]; Mrs. Rudolf J. Heinemann, New York (1975–81; sold to MMA)

  • Exhibition History

    Dublin. Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. "Paintings from Irish Collections," May–August 1957, no. 24 (as by Sebastiano Ricci, lent by Sir Shane Leslie, Bart.).

    London. Tate Gallery. "Manners & Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700–1760," October 15, 1987–January 3, 1988, no. 11.

    Codroipo. Villa Manin di Passariano. "Sebastiano Ricci," June 25–October 31, 1989, no. 36.

    Venice. Fondazione Giorgio Cini. "Sebastiano Ricci: il trionfo dell'invenzione nel Settecento veneziano," April 24–July 11, 2010, no. 14.

  • References

    Michael Jaffé. "'Paintings from Irish Collections'." Burlington Magazine 99 (August 1957), p. 276, fig. 36, calls the attribution to Sebastiano Ricci certain.

    Francis Haskell. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. New York, 1963, p. 280 n. 3, mentions it as a sketch for a work commissioned by the 2nd Earl of Portland for the chapel of his country house, Bulstrode Park.

    Egidio Martini. La pittura veneziana del Settecento. Venice, 1964, p. 161 n. 46, as formerly in the collection of Sir Shane Leslie; calls it and the Last Supper (National Gallery of Art, Washington) probably sketches for works executed by Ricci for the church of the Cappuccine di Castello; confuses it with the version formerly in the Paul Drey Gallery, New York, and mentions another version on the art market in Vienna in 1961.

    Edward Croft-Murray. "The Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries." Decorative Painting in England, 1537–1837. 2, Feltham, England, 1970, pp. 15, 266, mistakenly illustrates the Drey version as this one; dates the decoration of the chapel at Bulstrode House to 1713–14 and notes that it was apparently destroyed sometime after 1847; mentions a version in the collection of John Harris; tentatively lists two sketches for the Ascension on the ceiling of the chapel (Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead; and Sir James Thornhill sale, February 25, 1734/35, no. 93; possibly one and the same work).

    Jeffery Daniels. "Letter to the editor." Apollo 98 (August 1973), p. 158, notes that three sketches for the Baptism of Christ survive; accepts the Gateshead picture as Ricci's sketch for the Ascension.

    Fern Rusk Shapley. "Italian Schools: XVI–XVIII Century." Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. 3, London, 1973, pp. 127–28 n. 6, as in an Italian private collection; confuses it with the Drey version; notes that the trompe l'oeil frame acts as a proscenium arch and testifies to Ricci's interest in theatre art.

    Jacob Simon. English Baroque Sketches. Exh. cat., Marble Hill House, Twickenham. London, 1974, unpaginated, under nos. 71 and 72, as in an Italian private collection; tentatively accepts the Gateshead Ascension as Ricci's sketch for the Bulstrode chapel.

    Jeffery Daniels. "Letters: The Gateshead 'Ascension'." Burlington Magazine 117 (August 1975), p. 547, fig. 70 (detail), defends the attribution of the Gateshead work to Ricci.

    Jeffery Daniels. L'opera completa di Sebastiano Ricci. Milan, 1976, pp. 10, 85, 117–18, no. 322, ill.

    Jeffery Daniels. "Sebastiano Ricci in England." Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi su Sebastiano Ricci e il suo tempo. [Milan], [1976?], p. 72.

    Jeffery Daniels. Sebastiano Ricci. Hove, England, 1976, pp. 39–41, 62, 80, 111–12, 153, no. 400, fig. 121, dates it 1713–14; identifies the trompe l'oeil figure at right as Penitence holding a scourge and a fish and that at left as either Meekness or Saint Agnes holding a lamb; suggests that Marco Ricci, Sebastiano's nephew, may have been responsible for the background of the trees and the architectural framework for the Bulstrode work, and may even have painted the architectural framework in the sketch itself.

    Francesca D'Arcais. "Un libro su Sebastiano Ricci." Arte veneta 30 (1976), p. 256, finds the Gateshead Ascension too different from the two Baptism sketches and the Last Supper to be attributed to Ricci.

    Rodolfo Pallucchini. "Sebastiano Ricci e il rococò europeo." Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi su Sebastiano Ricci e il suo tempo. [Milan], [1976?], p. 14.

    Giuseppe Maria Pilo. Sebastiano Ricci e la pittura veneziana del Settecento. Pordenone, 1976, p. 98 n. 156, pp. 99–100 n. 159, on the basis of style, rejects the idea that the Drey and Washington sketches were made for the Bulstrode chapel, dating them to the mid-1720s at the earliest and accepting Martini's [see Ref. 1964] association of them with the lost paintings from the church of the Cappuccine di Castello.

    Theodore Crombie. "Round the Galleries: Settecento Selections." Apollo 107 (February 1978), p. 144.

    Jeffery Daniels. Works by Sebastiano Ricci from British Collections. Exh. cat., Colnaghi. London, 1978, unpaginated, under no. 11.

    Fern Rusk Shapley. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. Washington, 1979, vol. 1, pp. 400, 402 n. 6.

    Keith Christiansen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1981–1982. New York, [1982], p. 42, ill. (color), remarks that "the kneeling figure at the left is based on the famous Hellenistic statue of a crouching Scythian slave sharpening his knife".

    Egidio Martini. La pittura del Settecento veneto. Udine, 1982, p. 479 n. 60, calls the version in the Harris collection a weak copy of the MMA work and not by Ricci.

    Jeffery Daniels. "Nicola Grassi and Sebastiano Ricci, The Influence of Sebastiano Ricci on Nicola Grassi: Direct or Indirect?" Nicola Grassi e il Rococò europeo. Udine, 1984, p. 109.

    Elizabeth Einberg. Manners & Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700–1760. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1987, pp. 13, 39, 103, no. 11, ill. (color).

    Master Paintings: Recent Acquisitions. Exh. cat., Thos. Agnew and Sons Ltd. London, 1989, p. 76, under no. 36, publishes a "hitherto unknown" version of the Bulstrode Baptism from a private collection, Lincolnshire [now in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.]; notes that Jeffery Daniels saw the work and considered it most similar to the MMA painting.

    Aldo Rizzi. Sebastiano Ricci. Exh. cat., Villa Manin di Passariano. Milan, 1989, pp. 126–27, no. 36, ill. (color).

    Robert B. Simon with Frank Dabell in Important Old Master Paintings: Devotion and Delight. Exh. cat., Piero Corsini, Inc. New York, Fall 1989, p. 112, fig. 5.

    Hans Werner Grohn in Venedigs Ruhm im Norden. Exh. cat., Forum des Landesmuseums Hannover. Hanover, 1991, p. 224, under no. 68.

    Rodolfo Pallucchini. La pittura nel Veneto: il Settecento. 1, Milan, 1995, p. 38.

    Eric Garberson in Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Washington, 1996, pp. 230–31, 234 n. 6, p. 235 nn. 15, 17–18, confuses the various versions of the Bulstrode Baptism; states that he finds the Washington Last Supper most closely related to the Fogg version of the Baptism [but he mistakenly illustrates the Drey picture as the Fogg work], that the Fogg [Drey?] painting predates the other versions, and that the Harris Baptism may be a copy after the Fogg [Drey?] picture.

    Stephan Wolohojian in "A Decade of Collecting: Recent Acquisitions by the Harvard University Art Museums." Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin 7 (Spring 2000), p. 54, calls the Fogg version "the most worked and polished of the three surviving studies" and adds that it is closely related to the Washington Last Supper.

    Annalisa Scarpa. Sebastiano Ricci. Milan, 2006, pp. 38, 170, 200, 258–59, 343, 352, no. 330, fig. 449, conflates the Fogg and Drey versions.

    Xavier F. Salomon in Sebastiano Ricci: il trionfo dell'invenzione nel Settecento veneziano. Exh. cat., Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Venice, 2010, pp. 72–73, no. 14, ill. (color).

    Xavier F. Salomon. "Sebastiano Ricci e la decorazione della cappella del Royal Hospital a Chelsea." Sebastiano Ricci, 1659–1734. Venice, 2012, pp. 303, 307 n. 29, fig. 9.

    Annalisa Scarpa. "Suggestioni e ispirazioni nell'arte di Sebastiano Ricci." Sebastiano Ricci, 1659–1734. Venice, 2012, pp. 158, 160, 171 n. 3, fig. 6, continues to conflate the Fogg and Drey versions.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History