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This red chalk drawing by the Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto is a preparatory study for the figure of St John the Baptist in the fresco Baptism of the People, at the Chiostro dello Scalzo in Florence. Commissioned by the Confraternity of the Scalzo (the Barefoot Friars), of which del Sarto was a member, the fresco forms part of a cycle of twelve monochrome paintings illustrating episodes from the life of the saint. Completed in 1517, Baptism of the People depicts St John baptizing a kneeling youth, while others wait their turn. The commission, on which del Sarto worked intermittently from 1509 until 1526, became one of the most important Florentine fresco cycles of the High Renaissance.

The close correspondence between the drawing and the finished painting suggests that del Sarto made the study at an advanced stage of the design process. This is evident not only in the pose of the figure and the bearded face of the model but also in small details. Faint lines that encircle the figure in the drawing indicate where del Sarto planned to paint bulky draperies, and a stick in his left hand is transformed into a cross in the finished painting. Del Sarto probably made this drawing from a model, possibly a workshop assistant, in order to convincingly depict the figure’s musculature. Areas of the body that are visible in the painting, such as the figure’s torso and extended arm and lower legs are drawn with particular care.

Del Sarto may have based the figure of St John on Michelangelo’s unfinished marble sculpture of St Matthew (Accademia delle Belle Arti, Florence), whose monumental form and dynamic pose are echoed in this sheet. Michelangelo’s influence also extended to del Sarto’s drawing technique: the network of hatched and cross-hatched lines create areas of tone that, along with his emphatic outline of the contours of the figure, recall Michelangelo’s celebrated Battle of Cascina cartoon, 1504–6 (destroyed).

Always admired for his draughtsmanship, del Sarto’s prolific output ranged from small compositional sketches and individual figure studies, to detailed explorations of anatomy. An example of the latter can be seen on the verso of this sheet. The red chalk drawing of hands has been identified as a study for the figure of St Elizabeth in the Holy Family with St Elizabeth and the infant St John (Louvre, Paris).

Text by Maria Zagala from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 33.

Details

  • Title: Study for St John the Baptist
  • Creator: Andrea del Sarto
  • Date Created: (c. 1517)
  • Physical Dimensions: 38.5 x 18.8 cm (Sheet (irreg.))
  • Type: Drawings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1936, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: red chalk
  • Provenance: Collection of Edmond Lechevallier-Chevignard (1825–1902), Paris, before 1902; his studio sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 31 April –1 May 1902, no. 15; John Postle Heseltine (1843–1929), London and Walhampton House, Hampshire; Henry Oppenheimer (1859–1932), London; Oppenheimer sale, Christie’s, London, 10 July 1936, no. 173; from where purchased, on the advice of Randall Davies, for the Felton Bequest, 1936.
  • Catalogue raisonné Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
  • Catalogue raisonné: Freedberg pp. 67, 84; Shearman pp. 364-65

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