Barocci: a forgotten Renaissance painter at the National Gallery in London

By Jenni Davidson | 15 March 2013

Exhibition review: Barocci - Brilliance and Grace, National Gallery, London, until May 19 2013

A painting of the Virgin and baby Jesus with Joseph and a donkey on the flight to Egypt
Federico Barocci, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (circa 1570-73). Oil on canvas. Vatican Museums, Vatican City© Photo Scala, Florence
If Family Fortunes were to ask the public to name a Renaissance painter, Federico Barocci would be unlikely to feature among the top choices.

Less well known than his peers due to the small number of paintings he produced, and because he worked in his hometown of Urbino rather than Rome or Florence, Barocci is nevertheless a significant artist of the period.

A painting of a young man with flowing blond hair
Head study for Saint John the Evangelist. Oil on paper lined with linen. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund© National Gallery of Art, Washington
He has received little attention in Britain. But just over four centuries after his death, the National Gallery in London has put together the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to his work.

What is particularly interesting about this exhibition is that it shows his planning and work in progress, as well as the finished paintings.

Usually you see only the final painting on display, and it is easy to imagine that it somehow emerged spontaneously from the painter’s brush.

Viewers can observe his process, with each major painting is accompanied by several of Barocci’s preparatory sketches, showing how meticulously planned the compositions were.

Barocci was a pioneer in the making of preparatory sketches in a variety of mediums such as chalk, pastel and oils.

His sketches from life, plans for the composition - moving people around, working out the exact position of a finger or angle of a head, even reversing the scene – and fully painted oils of parts of the composition, show just how much work was done before a brush even touched the final canvas.

A painting in a gilt frame of a group of people carrying the body of Jesus
Entombment (1579-82). Oil on canvas. Diocesi di Senigallia - Chiesa della Croce, Senigallia© Photo Scala, Florence
Barocci rarely used female life models. The sketches of male studio assistants - complete with genitalia - look a little odd to modern eyes as models for the Virgin Mary, but they provide an interesting insight into the working process, as he gradually transforms the pose into a female figure.

The Renaissance painter was in many ways ahead of his time. His particular interest in the fall of light and shadow, demonstrated by the many chiaroscuro studies in the exhibition and the drama and immediacy of the scenes he depicted, foreshadow Baroque painting of the 17th century.

Barocci's paintings and altarpieces have a delicate sensitivity towards colour. His unconventional treatment of his religious subjects convey a delightfully simple faith and an affection towards his subject.

Most of the finished paintings in the exhibition belong to churches and monasteries in the Marche region of Italy, so this is a rare chance to see them together in a gallery. Seize the opportunity to discover this delightful but undervalued painter.
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