Overview

A fevered intensity in this portraval of Saint Sebastian marks it as a characteristic work by Tanzio, whose native village of Varallo in the mountains north of Milan was a major center of popular piety. The painter has shown Sebastian, who was persecuted as a Christian under Diocletian, being rescued by angels after the assault on him by the Emperor's archers. The thickset figure at the right who tenderly steadies Sebastian's body for the angel's ministrations may be Saint Irene, who nursed the martyr back to health.

The visual excitement of Tanzio's portrayal serves to convey Sebastian's state of emotional transport and transcendence of bodily pain. Contributing to the fervid drama is the extreme compression of the composition. Tanzio's large, solid forms are crowded by the frame, seeming to twist and strain to fit its confines. If the vivid illusionism and sharp contrasts of light and dark -- pulsating in the drapery across Sebastian's lap and in the spiky patterns of expressively tapering fingers -- reveal a study of Caravaggio's art, Tanzio's use of discordant colors is uniquely his own.

Inscription

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Marks and Labels

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Provenance

(Tomei, Milan, 1916).[1] Achillito Chiesa, Milan, by 1922 until at least 1924.[2] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence); purchased 1935 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1922
Mostra della pittura italiana del seicento e del settecento, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 1922, no. 962.
1994
Art's Lament: Creativity in the Face of Death, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, 1994, no. 6, repro.
1999
Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ': Saints and Sinners in Baroque Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, brochure, no. 4, repro.
2000
Tanzio da Varallo: Realismo fervore e contemplazione in un pittore del Seicento, Palazzo Reale, Milan, 2000, no. 8, repro.

Bibliography

1938
Kraehling, Victor. Saint Sebastian dans l'art. Paris, 1938: 40.
1941
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 190-191.
1942
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 245, repro. 192.
1943
Longhi, Roberto. "Ultimi studi sul Caravaggio e la sua cerchia." Proporzioni 1 (1943): 53, n. 66.
1945
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 134, repro.
1953
Bologna, Ferdinando. "Altre prvoe sul viaggio del Tanzio." Paragone 45 (1953): 43.
1955
Sandoz, Marc. "Ribera et le thème de Saint Sébastian soigné par Irène." In Journées internationales d'études d'art (Cahiers de Bordeaux) 2 (1955): 2:67.
1957
Dell'Acqua, Gian Alberto. "La pittura a Milano dalla metà del XVI secolo al 1630." In Storia di Milano. 17 vols. Milan, 1957: 10:772, 767, repro.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 39.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 224, repro.
1959
Rosci, Marco. "Two Altar-pieces by Tanzio da Varallo." The Burlington Magazine 101 (1959): 186.
1959
Testori, Giovanni. Tanzio da Varallo. Exh. cat. Palazzo Madama, Turin, 1959: 37, no. 12, fig. 62.
1961
Longhi, Roberto. Scritti giovanili. 2 vols. Florence, 1961: 1:511, fig. 259.
1964
Rosci, Marco. Mostra del Cerano. Novara, 1964: 63.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 126.
1965
Ruggeri, Ugo. "Un disegno inedito del Tanzio." Arte Lombarda 10/2 (1965): 98.
1967
Moir, Alfred. The Italian Followers of Caravaggio. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967: 1:265; 2:110.
1967
Testori, Giovanni. Manieristi piemontesi e lombardi del '600. Milan, 1967: 32, fig. 25.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 112, repro.
1973
Pirovano, Carlo. La pittura in Lombardia. Milan, 1973: 150.
1973
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XVI-XVIII Century. London, 1973: 81-82, fig. 146.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 336, repro.
1975
Zupnick, Irving. "Saint Sebastian. The Vicissitudes of the Hero as Martyr." In Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edited by Norman T. Burns and Christopher J. Regan. Albany, 1975: 257.
1979
Saint Sébastien dans l'histoire de l'art depuis le XVe siècle. Preface by Francois Le Targat. Paris, 1979: 202, 197 repro.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: I:438-440, II:pl. 318.
1983
Szigethi, Agnes. "Early Seicento Paintings from Lombardy and Piedmont in Hungary." Müvészettötéeti értesitö 32 (1983): 47, 50, fig. 5 (in Hungarian with English summary).
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 386, repro.
1986
Oklahoma Treasures: Paintings Drawings and Watercolors from Public and Private Collections. Exh. cat. Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City; The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa. Oklahoma City, 1986: 124.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 110, repro.
1994
Goldfarb, Hilliard T. Art's Lament. Creativity in the Face of Death. Exh. cat. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1994: color repro.
1995
Caravaggio and Tanzio: The Theme of St. John the Baptist. Exh. cat. The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Kansas City, 1995: 25-27, fig. 15.
1996
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 254-258, color repro. 257.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 165, no. 124, color repro.

Conservation Notes

The support is a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric with unevenly spun threads. It was prepared with a white ground. Distinct impressions of the brushstrokes can be seen in the paint surface. X-radiographs show extensive changes in the white and green cloths draped over Saint Sebastian's legs, the blue robe of the angel, and the green drapery of Irene. A minor change is apparent in the curvature of the hand removing the arrow.

The support was extended by a 2.5 cm wide fabric strip sewn along the bottom edge. At the top, left, and right, the paint surface has been extended by approximately 2.5 cm onto the lining fabric, and by 0.5 cm at the bottom. The original dimensions were closer to 112 x 90 cm, as verified by the cusping and tacking holes detected in x-radiographs. Extensive abrasion and paint loss have occurred in the drapery, legs, and faces, which were originally built up with glazes. The shadows and darker colors of the faces have been inpainted and Sebastian's green drapery has been repainted. The thick varnish is considerably discolored. The painting was relined, discolored varnish was removed, and the painting was restored by Stephen Pichetto in 1936.

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