One of the great artistic achievements of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the proliferation of monumental paintings for the walls and ceilings of churches and palaces throughout Europe. These elaborate decorative ensembles were the result of carefully designed programs developed by artists in collaboration with patrons and advisors. These large, often figure-filled compositions were the result of careful processes of visual planning, in which reduced-scale sketches painted in oil played an important role.
Most painted sketches were never intended to be displayed publicly, but rather were made as tools in the creative process. They were used to experiment with ideas for a composition, to propose a composition to a patron, or to record a finished painting for future reference. Preliminary painted sketches could be very rough in appearance, mapping out the artist’s first thoughts about a composition, or more finished exercises that laid out not only elements of the composition, but also served as studies of color and light.
This lively, loosely painted sketch is a preliminary study for a large altarpiece in the Pilo e Calvello Chapel, Sant’Ignazio Martire all’Olivella (formerly San Filippo Neri), Palermo, commissioned from Conca at the height of his fame in 1739-40. In these years, Conca led a large and busy workshop in Rome and served as the director of the Roman academy. Unwilling to relocate to complete such commissions, Conca would have sent small preliminary sketches like this to his patron in Sicily for approval before undertaking the final full-scale altarpiece. Two additional painted sketches and one drawing related to the altarpiece also survive, with slight variations between them that indicate Conca’s exacting approach to composition.
Diana’s sketch is a preparatory study for the main altarpiece of the church of San Sebastiano (now San Giovanni Battista), Gragnano, part of a series of five paintings dedicated to the life of the saint. This painting is relatively large in scale, indicating that it might have served as a presentation model for the patrons, even though it displays the unfinished quality of a preparatory sketch. Diana omits fine details such the bows and arrows held by the executioners, which he may have judged to be extraneous to the overall effect of the composition. The graceful, refined figures and warm tonality are hallmarks of Diana’s style, which was widely disseminated thanks to his role as an instructor at the academy in Naples.
Carlone’s brilliantly colored, fluid sketch is a study for the cupola fresco in the chapel of Schloss Ludwigsburg, the residence of Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Württemburg. Large-scale ceiling decorations required especially careful planning because of their complexity. As in this composition, they often featured a multitude of figures in extreme foreshortening arranged in highly complex interwoven groups. Here, heaven expands upwards, presided over by the Trinity and swirling masses of angels and saints. Carlone’s dependence on painted sketches to work out the elaborate commissions he undertook for palaces and churches in Germany and Austria is attested to by the presence of some 300 sketches that remained in his studio at his death.
With their fluid brushwork, abbreviated handling, and intimate scale, painted sketches are often more vibrant than finished full-scale paintings. As a glimpse of the artist’s creative process and because of their aesthetic value, these studies appealed to sophisticated connoisseurs and collectors in the eighteenth century, who conceded them to painted sketches the status of works of art in their own right.
A new installation featuring 18th-century painted sketches from the IMA’s permanent collection is now on view in the Charles O. McGaughey Gallery. The paintings by Conca and Diana are being exhibited for the first time since entering the museum’s collection in 1971, following recent conservation treatment. An upcoming post will discuss the treatment of these two paintings.