Pesellino specialized in delicately executed small-scale paintings ideal for private study or to carry for private devotion. Remarkably, despite their small size, the figures are described with a mastery that opens a new chapter in Florentine painting. Left to right the saints are: Anthony Abbot, Jerome, Cecilia, Catherine of Alexandria, Augustine, and George. The figure types and lighting reveal the influence of Fra Filippo Lippi, with whom Pesellino occasionally collaborated.
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Fig. 1. Reverse of panel before removal of labels in 2011
Fig. 2. Reverse of panel showing remains of pseudo-porphyry painting
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Title:Madonna and Child with Six Saints
Artist:Pesellino (Francesco di Stefano) (Italian, Florence ca. 1422–1457 Florence)
Medium:Tempera on wood, gold ground
Dimensions:8 7/8 x 8 in. (22.5 x 20.3 cm)
Credit Line:Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950
Pesellino remains one of the more elusive masters of the early Renaissance. This is partly due to the sixteenth-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, whose account of the prodigiously gifted artist and of his grandfather, Giuliano d’Arrigo, known as Pesello, is filled with misinformation and misattributions. He nonetheless recorded that Pesellino painted the predella to Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece for the Novitiate’s chapel in Santa Croce (Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence) and noted that “had death not carried him off at so tender an age [Pesellino] would have surpassed [Lippi] a great distance.”
Lippi’s altarpiece for the Novitiate’s chapel is usually dated to the mid-1440s and it was therefore assumed that Pesellino began his career as Lippi’s pupil. It is far more likely that he was trained in his grandfather’s highly successful workshop on the Via degli Adimari, which he in fact inherited following his grandfather’s death in 1446. Like his grandfather, Pesellino specialized in small scale works of extraordinary refinement, exemplified by the panel in The Met. Only two large scale works survive: an altarpiece depicting the Trinity (National Gallery, London) and a fascinating but still experimental altarpiece in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. His paired panels with the story of David (National Gallery, London), possibly painted for a member of the Medici family, give the fullest measure of his brilliant achievement.
According to recent scholarship, Pesellino’s earliest certain work—one of a series of panels depicting the journey of the Magi (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown)—was carried out in collaboration with Zanobi Strozzi (1412–1468), a pupil of Fra Angelico who excelled as an illuminator of manuscripts. The two artists also worked together illuminating a manuscript of Silius Italicus’s Bellum Poenicum (pages divided between the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice and the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). Like an important pair of cassone panels illustrating Petrarch’s Triumphs (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), the illuminations owe a profound debt to the example of Fra Angelico. The cassone panels, which were probably painted for the marriage of Piero de’ Medici to Lucretia Tornabuoni in 1448, show a growing command of anatomy and an increasing understanding of perspectival space.
Only around 1450 did Pesellino become associated with Fra Filippo Lippi. This experience opened a new chapter and it was in the last three or four years of his short life that he became one of the leaders of artistic innovation in Florence: his Trinity altarpiece, commissioned in 1455 by the Confraternity of Priests in Pistoia and left unfinished at his death in 1457, is one of the landmarks of Renaissance painting. The mastery of anatomy, foreshortening, and perspective together with a grasp of light as a means to creating a strong sense of sculptural form set the stage for the next generation of artists: Pollaiuolo, Verrocchio, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Keith Christiansen 2023
Praston collection (possibly Praslin, Paris); William Beckford, Lansdown Tower, Bath (?in 1839); Robert Stayner Holford, Dorchester House, London (by 1865?–d. 1892); Sir George Lindsay Holford, Dorchester House, London (1892–d. 1926; cat., 1927, vol. 1, no. 14; his estate sale, Christie's, London, July 15, 1927, no. 82, for £16,800 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, New York, 1927; sold for $125,000 to Harkness]; Mr. and Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, New York (1927–his d. 1940); Mrs. Edward S. (Mary Stillman) Harkness, New York (1940–d. 1950)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1887, no. 204 (lent by R. S. Holford).
London. New Gallery. "Exhibition of Early Italian Art from 1300 to 1550," 1893–94, no. 107 (lent by Capt. G. L. Holford).
London. Burlington Fine Arts Club. "Florentine Painting Before 1500," 1920, no. 19 (lent by Lt.-Col. Sir George Holford).
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "A Loan Exhibition of Twelve Masterpieces of Painting," April 16–28, 1928, no. 7 (lent anonymously).
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "Loan Exhibition of Primitives," February 1929, no. 14 (lent anonymously).
New York. Century Association. "Italian Paintings of the Renaissance," March 2–24, 1935, no. 12 (lent by Mr. Edward S. Harkness).
Cleveland Museum of Art. "Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition," June 26–October 4, 1936, no. 140 (lent by Edward S. Harkness).
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "24 Masterpieces," November 4–23, 1946, no. 3 (lent by Mrs. Edward S. Harkness).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Harkness Collection," October 12, 1951–March 19, 1952, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 71.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Fra Angelico," October 26, 2005–January 29, 2006, no. 56.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. Geschichte der italienischen Malerei. Vol. 3, Leipzig, 1870, p. 103, reject the traditional attribution to Fra Angelico and call it a work by Pesellino; identify Saint Jerome to the left of the Madonna and note the influence of Filippo Lippi.
Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts. London, 1887, p. 47, no. 204, attributes it to Pesellino and identifies the male saints as "St. Jerome and a monk on the l[eft]., and St. Michael and a bishop on the r[ight].".
Exhibition of Early Italian Art from 1300 to 1550. Exh. cat., New Gallery. [London], 1893–94, p. 21, no. 107, describes the figures around the Madonna and Child as "two angels behind; on the left stand St. Anthony and St. Jerome, and on the right St. Louis of Toulouse and St. George and two female Saints".
Costanza Jocelyn Ffoulkes. "Le esposizioni d'arte italiana a Londra." Archivio storico dell'arte 7 (1894), pp. 156, 158, rejects the attribution to Pesellino and assigns it to Benozzo Gozzoli.
J[ean]. P[aul]. Richter. "Die Ausstellung italienischer Renaissancewerke in der New Gallery in London." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 17 (1894), p. 240, rejects the attribution to Pesellino and considers it an early work by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York, 1896, p. 124, lists is as by Pesellino.
Hans Mackowsky. "Die Verkündigung und die Verlobung der Heiligen Katharina von Francesco Pesellino." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 10 (1898–99), pp. 83–84, fig. 2, attributes it to Pesellino and identifies a drawing in the Musée du Louvre, Paris [see Notes], as a preparatory study for the bishop saint on the right, whom he tentatively calls Louis of Toulouse; identifies the remaing male saints as Anthony, Jerome, and George
Mary Logan. "Compagno di Pesellino et quelques peintures de l'école (1er article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 26 (July 1901), p. 23, attributes it to Pesellino.
Werner Weisbach. Francesco Pesellino und die Romantik der Renaissance. Berlin, 1901, pp. 68–69, 130, pl. XI, attributes it to Pesellino, calls the drawing in the Louvre [see Ref. Mackowsky 1898–99] a preparatory study, and tentatively identifies the bishop saint as Louis of Toulouse.
Mary Logan. "Compagno di Pesellino et quelques peintures de l'école (2e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 26 (October 1901), p. 342 n.1.
Bernard Berenson. "A Miniature Altar-Piece by Pesellino at Empoli." Revue archéologique 40 (January–June 1902), p. 194.
Bernhard Berenson. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters. London, 1903, vol. 1, p. 55–57 nn.; vol. 2, p. 129, under no. 1847, calls it an early work by Pesellino influenced by Filippo Lippi and Domenico Veneziano; considers the Louvre drawing a copy after the figure of Saint Augustine.
Salomon Reinach. Répertoire de peintures du moyen age et de la renaissance (1280–1580). Vol. 1, Paris, 1905, p. 312, ill. (engraving), identifies the bishop saint as Louis of Toulouse.
Bernhard Berenson. "Una Annunciazione del Pesellino." Rassegna d'arte 5 (March 1905), p. 43, ill., notes similarities to an Annunciation now in the Courtauld Institute, London.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. 3rd ed. New York, 1909, p. 163.
Edward Hutton, ed. A New History of Painting in Italy from the II to the XVI Century.. By [Joseph Archer] Crowe and [Giovanni Battista] Cavalcaselle. Vol. 2, The Sienese School of the XIV Century; The Florentine School of the XV Century. London, 1909, p. 362 n. 4, quotes Berenson's attribution to Pesellino.
Adolfo Venturi. Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 7, part 1, La pittura del quattrocento. Milan, 1911, pp. 396, 402, attributes it to Pesellino and observes similarities to Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico.
G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle and J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe. Storia della pittura in Italia. Vol. 6, Pittori fiorentini fin poco dopo la prima metà del secolo XV. 2nd ed. Florence, 1911, p. 28.
Joseph Meder. Die Handzeichnung: Ihre Technik und Entwicklung. Vienna, 1919, pp. 664–65, fig. 324 (detail), calls the Louvre drawing a copy, identifying the bishop saint as Louis of Toulouse.
Claude Phillips. "Florentine Painting Before 1500." Burlington Magazine 34 (June 1919), p. 215, pl. I, compares it to a Trinity in the National Gallery, London, and considers it "the central panel of [a] dislocated polyptch".
Tancred Borenius. "A Pesellino Resurrected." Apollo 3 (January–June 1926), p. 327, ill. opp. p. 327 (color), describes the removal of the overpaint in the background, and says the bishop saint is possibly Louis of Toulouse.
[R. R. Tatlock]. "The Trafalgar Square Mystery." Burlington Magazine 51 (October 1927), p. 156.
Robert H. Benson, ed. The Holford Collection, Dorchester House. Oxford, 1927, vol. 1, pp. xxix, 2, 17–18, no. 14, pl. XII (frontispiece no. 1), says the bishop saint is perhaps Bonaventure, but calls him Louis of Toulouse in the caption to the illustion; cites Weisbach's opinion [see Ref. 1901] about the Louvre drawing.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 10, The Renaissance Painters of Florence in the 15th Century. The Hague, 1928, pp. 496, 498, fig. 300, erroneously as in the National Gallery, London; dates it to the last years of Pesellino's activity, 1450–57; tentativley identifies the bishop saint as Bonaventure.
"Notes of the Month." International Studio 90 (1928), pp. 62–63, ill., states that it may have been painted soon after 1447, and that the bishop saint could be Bonaventure or Louis of Toulouse.
Philip Hendy. "Pesellino." Burlington Magazine 53 (August 1928), pp. 68, 74.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 11, The Hague, 1929, p. 228 n. 1, rejects the attribution to Benozzo Gozzoli and assigns it Pesellino.
Alfred Scharf inUnknown Masterpieces in Public and Private Collections. Ed. Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Vol. 1, London, 1930, unpaginated, no. 8, ill., dates it to Pesellino's middle period, about 1450.
Odoardo H. Giglioli. "Relazioni tra un quadretto attribuito a Pier Francesco Fiorentino e un disegno di Pesellino." Rivista d'arte 13 (1931), pp. 522–23.
Pietro Toesca. "Francesco Pesellino miniatore." Dedalo 12 (1932), pp. 86–87, ill.
Bernard Berenson. "Quadri senza casa: Il Quattrocento fiorentino, II." Dedalo 12 (1932), pp. 669–70.
[Georg] Gronau inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 26, Leipzig, 1932, p. 463, dates it in Pesellino's late period, near the the time of the Trinity altarpiece in the National Gallery, London.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 226, states that the male saints, from left to right, are Bernard, Jerome, Nicholas, and George.
H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "Paintings Lent from the Harkness Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28 (January 1933), p. 12.
Alfred M. Frankfurter. "Italian Paintings in Loan Display at Century Club." Art News 33 (March 9, 1935), pp. 4, 11, ill. p. 3, dates it before 1450 and identifies the bishop saint as Zeno.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 381.
Bernard Berenson. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters. amplified ed. Chicago, 1938, vol. 1, pp. 86–87 nn. 4, 4, p. 88 n. 3; vol. 2, p. 255, under no. 1841 A, considers the Louvre drawing a preparatory study for the figure of Saint Augustine.
Margaretta Salinger. "Old Masters in America." American Collector 15 (November 1946), p. 8, fig. 3.
"Illustrations of Outstanding Harkness Gifts." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (October 1951), p. 56, ill. p. 62.
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 223, no. 71, colorpl. 71.
Helen Comstock. "The Connoisseur in America." Connoisseur 129 (April 1952), p. 66, ill., identifies the male saints as Bernard, Jerome, Nicholas, and George.
Albert Ten Eyck Gardner. "Beckford's Gothic Wests." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 13 (October 1954), p. 48, ill. p. 46, remarks that it was attributed to Fra Angelico in the time of former owner William Beckford.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 77.
Bernard Berenson. I disegni dei pittori fiorentini. Milan, 1961, vol. 1, p. 134; vol. 3, fig. 184 [similar text to Ref. 1903].
Boyd Alexander. England's Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford. [London], 1962, pp. 296–97 n. 31, lists it among the paintings Beckford acquired during his residence in Bath.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 168; vol. 2, pl. 823, tentatively identifies the bishop saint as Augustine.
Boyd Alexander. Letter. 1966 [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1971], suggests that "Praston" in the traditional provenance may be a misprint for Praslin, an eighteenth-century French collection, from which Beckford acquired many objects.
Bernhard Degenhart and Annegrit Schmitt. Corpus der italienischen Zeichnungen, 1300–1450. Vol. 2, part 1, Süd- und Mittelitalien. Berlin, 1968, pp. 528, 539, fig. 769, date it to Pesellino's late period; state that its connection with the Louvre drawing is not clear, observing differences between the two works that make it uncertain whether the drawing is a study for the painting or a copy after it; identify the male saints as Anthony Abbot, Jerome, Zeno (or Louis or Bonaventure), and George.
Bernard Berenson. Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance. Ed. Hanna Kiel. Bloomington, 1970, p. 169 [same text as Ref. Berenson 1932].
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 96–98, ill., identify the six saints, from left to right, as "Anthony Abbot, Jerome, Cecilia(?), Catherine of Alexandria (?), Augustine, and George"; date it to the second half of the 1440s.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 162, 328, 372, 375, 400, 406, 464, 608.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 20, ill.
Francis Ames-Lewis inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 24, New York, 1996, p. 538, suggests dating it 1450–55.
Miklós Boskovits inItalian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. Washington, 2003, p. 569.
Carl Brandon Strehlke. Italian Paintings 1250–1450 in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 2004, p. 356, fig. 65.8, relates it to Pesellino's "Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Jerome and John the Baptist" in the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, dating the MMA work to the 1450s and the Philadelphia one about 1448.
Laurence Kanter inFra Angelico. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 288–89, no. 56, ill. (color), dates it after 1455; states that of the six saints depicted, only Jerome can be identified with any certainty; believes that the Louvre drawing is probably a copy after the painting.
Lorenza Melli inBeato Angelico: L'alba del Rinascimento. Ed. Alessandro Zuccari et al. Exh. cat., Musei Capitolini, Rome. Milan, 2009, pp. 69–70 n. 57, mentions the figure of Saint George among examples of classicizing figures by Pesellino.
Andrea Staderini inVirtù d'amore: pittura nuziale nel Quattrocento fiorentino. Ed. Claudio Paolini et al. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2010, p. 250, under no. 26.
Old Master & British Paintings: Evening Sale. Christie's, London. December 3, 2013, pp. 62–63, under no. 16.
Andrea Staderini. "La pala della Trinità di Pistoia di Francesco di Stefano, detto il Pesellino." Il museo e la città: vicende artistiche pistoiesi del Quattrocento. Pistoia, 2013, p. 51, fig. 11 (color).
Margit Sonnevend. "La cuspide centrale di una smembrata pala d'altare di Pesellino nel Museo Cristiano di Esztergom." Acta Historiae Artium 56 (2015), p. 98 [published in Hungarian in "Ars Hungarica" 41, no. 3 (2015), p. 344], mentions it as an example of a later work with a gold ground, close in style to the Madonna in Esztergom [which is usually dated to the 1450s].
The four male saints, from left to right, are Anthony Abbot, Jerome, Augustine, and George; the two female saints above may be Cecilia and Catherine of Alexandria. Until it was removed in 1926, a layer of green oil paint concealed the original gold ground.
According to Benson (1927), the painting was attributed to Fra Angelico until 1865, when Cavalcaselle correctly identified it as a Pesellino (see Crowe and Cavalcaselle 1870).
A drawing for the Saint Augustine (Musée du Louvre, Paris; no. 9886) was attributed to Pesellino by Mackowsky (1898–99).
The labels formerly on the back of the panel (see fig. 1 above) were removed in 2011 and are in an envelope in the archive file for the painting.
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