Auction catalogue Bataillard, Paris, 30.4. 1840, no.1 ;
Charles Gavard, Galeries historiques de Versailles, 1838 – 1845, Supplément III, plate 89 ;
Eudore Soulié, Notice du Musée Impérial de Versailles, 2. partie, Peintures et sculptures, Versailles 1855, p. 613, no. 4119 ;
Eudore Soulié, Le Musée de Versailles pendant l’occupation allemande (Rapport à Frédéric Villot, secrétaire général des musées nationaux, 1871, in : Revue de l’ histoire de Versailles et de Seine -et Oise, vol. I, 1899, pp. 150 – 160 ;
Claire Constans, Musée National du Château de Versailles et des Trianons, Les Peintures, Versailles 1995, vol. 1, p. 34, no. 157 ;
Stéphane Loire, Musée du Louvre, Eole italienne, XVIIe siècle, 1. Bologne, Paris 1996, p. 378 ;
Catherine F. Puglisi, Francesco Albani, New Haven and London, 1999, no. 82 LV.c. (erroneously as a lost version of the Bologna self-portrait).
This small picture, almost the size of a miniature, first appeared in a Paris auction of 1840 (Bataillard, 30.4.1840, no.1) as a self-portrait by Francesco Albani. We know nothing of the history of the picture previous to this date. It seems likely that the old inscription on the back was based on an earlier tradition.
The self-portrait was bought in the sale by the Musée Impérial de Versailles, during the reign of King Louis Philippe (Soulié 1855). An engraving of it was published by Gavard (1838-45). It presumably disappeared during the occupation of Versailles and the siege of Paris by Prussian troops, in 1870, during the Franco- Prussian War (Soulié 1871), yet it was not mentioned in a list of works, taken by the German occupants. The picture reappeared on the art market in May 2015. Subsequent cleaning revealed the exquisite quality of the painting: the dark grey, black dress with flies or slits, the whitish, light-grey collar, the golden-blond hair, the light creamy complexion of the face with the grey-blue eyes, and the intense blue background, more intense around the head (lapislazuli pigment).
We can only guess the age of ca. 25 – 30 years of the sitter. This places the picture in Albani’s Roman period (1602 – 1617) to ca. 1603 – 08, when he worked first as Annibale Carracci’s assistant and head of the studio during Annibale’s illness (1605-06) (frescoes of the Herrera chapel, formerly Rome, S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli, later detached and now in Barcelona and Madrid; 1605-06) and then as an independent artist (two ceiling frescoes in the Palazzo Mattei, 1606, and a large ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Giustiniani in Bassano Romano, 1609-10).
Like his fellow Emilians in Annibale’s Roman studio, Lanfranco, Badalocchio and Domenichino, Albani painted only very few portraits during his long career — he lived to be 82 years old. (Lanfranco did very few portraits, but of important patrons such as the cardinals Alessandro Peretti Montalto and Domenico Ginnasi; Domenichino did a few more, even a portrait of Gregory XV).
Only three other portraits by Albani are extant and accepted by Puglisi (Francesco Albani, New Haven and London, 1999) two are from the 1630s, i. e. relatively late works: Albani’s self-portrait in Bologna (Pinacoteca Nazionale), of. ca. 1636-38, in which he depicted himself as an elderly man (elderly by the standards of the time) of 58 – 60 years, the fleshy features of which correspond to Sacchi’s portrait of Albani (1635) in the Prado. The second one is the three-quarters-length portrait of Andrea Calvi of Bologna at the age of 42, dated 1636, now in Cardiff, Museum of Wales (see C. Puglisi, p. 169, no. 81). This is only an attribution, sustained by Mahon, Emiliani, the present writer, Benati and Puglisi. The fine features of the face have something in common with our picture. The third picture is another self-portrait, holding an easel in the left hand, showing Albani at ca. 77 – 82 years, thus twenty years later than the Bologna self-portrait. This picture, in the Camera dei Deputati in Rome, is dated by Puglisi ca. 1655-60 (no. 155A). Its features are noticeably different from those in the Bologna picture. The long, narrow nose reminds us somewhat of the nose in our picture.
There were three other portraits by the artist belonging to the 1630s, no longer extant, two of these mentioned in the manuscript by Oretti: the portrait of the famous poet Claudio Achillini, Bologna( ca. 1632 – 40) (Puglisi 1999, L 147), the portrait of Giacomo Arnoaldi, Bologna (Puglisi, L 148) and the portrait of Melchiorre Zoppio (1634; Puglisi L. 150).
Although the present early self-portrait stands totally isolated in Albani’s oeuvre, separated from the other portraits by more than 25 years, nonetheless, we may quote Malvasia’s words of how Albani looked in his youth and later:
“E qui rimostrare quanto egli fosse mai stato bello in gioventù, forte nella virilità, venerando nelle canizie : d’un colorito anche in quest’ ultimo mirabile, pastoso, tenero, e bianco smaltato di viva grana : d’un aspetto nobile, d’una ciera maestosa …” (Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice, Bologna 1678, ed. 1841, II, p. 192) (“Albani was a handsome young man, vigorous in maturity, and venerable in old age; he had a soft, delicate and light complexion, and a noble bearing, with a solemn and stately mien”. Translation by Puglisi 1999, p. 169).
Malvasia’s characterization of his “soft, delicate and light complexion” goes well with what we see in our picture. The features of the face are rendered with extreme subtleness, and with soft transitions from light to shade, the whitish-grey collar is indicated with a very free, light brush. The eyes turned to the right angles betray that Albani painted himself in front of a mirror. Characteristic is the light complexion, a creamy, almost pastel-like tonality. The artist views the spectator with a cool distance, the expression is self-assured, with a slightly melancholic tone.
The present picture stands unique amongst portraits by Albani and his contemporaries for its miniature size and its copper support, which finds parallels in the artist’s predilection for small works on copper in his figurative paintings: of the 157 catalogue numbers in Puglisi’s monograph (autograph versions are not included), there are 39 paintings on copper, from the beginnings in 1600-01 up to to the very end, with a remarkable pause of 15 years (1625 – 1640 ), in which no paintings on copper are known. Most of these paintings are larger, at least 30 or 40 cm. high, but there a few, rather small paintings, the sizes of which are still larger than that of our portrait, but come close: Puglisi L. 53 and 54 (19 x 14 cm; Dijon and Louvre, ca. 1617-20) an L. 55 (13,6 x 10,1: Washington, DC, Spear coll.).
Compared to the stiff, rigid official Roman portraits by Ottavio Leoni, which have different tonalities, the restrained naturalness of expression of this portrait shows its indebtedness to the Emilian-Carraccesque school, although this portrait has virtually nothing to do with the realism of Annibale Carracci’s own portraits (there are no very early portraits by Albani’s early teacher Reni) or with Domenichino’s early portraits (Cardinal Girolamo Agucchi, 1604/05). Thus we can only emphasize, how singular this extraordinary little portrait was then and remains now.