This expressive, highly finished composition of strongly inflected 'chiaroscuro' portrays a muscular nude figure of Saint Jerome seated within a cave, and surrounded by his various attributes: the lion, the cardinal's hat, the crucifix, the human skull of the memento mori, and the stones of self-mortification. Behind the cave, a luscious landscape with Antique-style buildings, seen as if far in the distance, is sketched almost exclusively with the brush and white gouache in the upper left of the composition. The pen and ink with wash medium is handled with great technical virtuosity, and the effects of light and shadow seem exquisitely atmospheric on the hair and beard of the saint, on the trees, and on the columns of the buildings. There, the artist's application of the white gouache with the brush seems particularly dazzling for its painterly freedom.
An attribution of this drawing to the Emilian Mannerist, Niccolò dell'Abate (1512-1571), was tentatively proposed by Carmen C. Bambach, shortly after its acquisition as by an anonymous Emilian 16th century artist. The powerful muscularity of the figure of Saint Jerome, with large hands showing a Michelangelesque bent at the wrist, the somewhat exaggerated knobbliness of the torso, as well as the robust, parallel-hatched application of the white gouache highlights on the figure, and the atmospheric, ineffably painted landscape, all confirm that an attribution to Niccolò dell'Abate is most probably correct. The muscular, figural type of the elderly Saint Jerome is exactly comparable to Niccolo's mature, bearded, long-haired male figures (Kupferstichkabinett inv. KDZ 22194, Berlin; Devonshire Collection inv. 131 [Jaffé cat. no. 437], Chatsworth; British Museum, London; Yvonne Tan Bunzl, 1976 [Photo Archive of the Department of Drawings and Prints]). The controlled execution of the white gouache highlights applied with very stark contrasts of tone but in fine parallel hatching is also closely comparable to that in many sheets by the artist (The Rape of Ganymede, Woodner Family Collection, New York; the eight drawings of angels holding the instruments of the Passion, Ecole des Beaux Arts inv. EBA 2B, Paris; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York).
The atmospheric treatment of the landscape seems here more nuanced, but nevertheless seems comparable to that in other sheets (Devonshire Collection inv. 131 [Jaffé cat. no. 437], Chatsworth). Both the handling of the medium and the composition type with a predominant atmospheric landscape suggest a likely dating in 1550-60, that is during the years of transition around Niccolo's arrival in France (May 1552). Yet the delicate profusion of antique-style buildings and the exquisitely pictorial treatment of the landscape also recall his famous paintings of Euridice and Aristarchus (National Gallery, London) and the Rape of Proserpina (Musée du Louvre, Paris), dated by Sylvie Beguin around 1560-65 (see "Niccolò dell Abbate en France," Art de France: Revue annuelle de l'art ancien et moderne, no. 2 (1962), pp. 113-145). Regarding the relevance of the subjectmatter to the artist's career, a painting of the 1550s, first rightly attributed to Niccolò by Federico Zeri, portrays the muscular Saint Jerome kneeling toward the right in the foreground of an enormous atmospheric landscape with antique-style ruins (Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, Rome; illustrated and discussed in Daniela di Castro, Anna Maria Pedrocchi, and Patricia Waddy, Il Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi e la Galleria Pallavicini, Rome-Turin-London, 1999, pp. 91-93).
(Carmen C. Bambach, 2004)
Giuseppe Vallardi (Italian, Milan 1784–1863); Francesco Dubini (Italian, Milan 1848–1932 Milan); sale, Sotheby's, New York, lot 169 (as anonymous Emilian 16th century); Katrin Henkel; Donor: Katrin Henkel