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Formerly in the collection of Victorian artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, this extraordinary tondo is one of the last by Sandro Botticelli to come on the market.
Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1445-1510)
The “Burne-Jones Annunciation”, ca. 1500-05
tempera and oil on panel
⌀ 87 cm
⌀ 125 cm framed

An exceptional example of Botticelli’s late style, this tondo is unusual for its use of oil over extensive and refined underdrawing. Stylistic evidence also supports its dating to shortly after 1500. Recent cleaning has removed noticeable amounts of overpaint and discolored varnish. As a result, the transparency of glazes and saturated colors have been recovered. We also now have a better understanding of its status: a few small areas, such as a capital on the left and an architectural element in the lower right, remain unfinished.

Since its rediscovery in the nineteenth century, this beautifully preserved painting entered the collection of William Graham, an important Victorian collector and patron of the Bitish Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites were at the vanguard of the recognition of Botticelli’s status as one of the greatest painters of the Florentine Renaissance so it was only appropriate that this panel should be bequeathed by Graham to Sir Edward Burne-Jones. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy and the New Gallery in London. After its subsequent sale it disappeared from public view and, as a result, evaded critical attention.

 

Detail of the present painting © Nicholas Hall
Dating and attribution

Botticelli’s late style

Their archives show that Bernard Berenson and Federico Zeri were two significant twentieth-century scholars who recognized the work as being by Sandro Botticelli, an opinion later shared by the Italian critic, Roberto Longhi, who examined the painting shortly after its sale in 1963 (although dating it to ca. 1480). Lightbown (op.cit.), is the only author to have described it as a workshop production, though it is probable that he never saw it in person. Curiously, he was the first scholar to publish the painting however his scholarship has since been superceded and in recent decades our understanding of the master’s late style has developed. In the late 1490s, Botticelli became influenced by the teaching of the Dominican friar, Savonarola, and remained faithful to his precepts after the preacher’s death in 1498. Botticelli’s late style, as a result, becomes more austere and focused on spiritual expression.

The recent evaluation of this tondo has led to a consensus that it is one of the finest products of Botticelli’s late period – an opinion shared by, among others, Laurence Kanter* (Chief curator, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), Keith Christiansen (Chairman of European Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the late Everett Fahy.

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Infrared reflectography showing details of the underdrawing in the present painting
Detail of the seated madonna in the present painting, with unfinished details on the lower right
Other Annunciations by Botticelli

Related works

The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted of all New Testament subjects and Botticelli painted it several times in the course of his career. A much-damaged fresco documented as having been executed in 1480 survives at the Belvedere Fortress in Florence (fig. 1) while a better known rendition of the subject is in the Uffizi and datable to 1489-90 (fig. 2). Another Annunciation by Botticelli, painted 1485-1490 is considered one of the most prized possessions of the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Two still-later versions of the Annunciation are in the Landesmuseum, Hannover and in the Glasgow Museums (fig. 3).

What these paintings all share in common with the present work is an intense expressionism and the marked linear rhythms that distinguish the artist’s style after about 1480. As one might expect, the versions show a clear development. In the Lehman picture (fig. 4), the Angel is more earthbound and the Madonna more obviously receptive to his message. In the “Burne-Jones Annunciation” the Angel is now portrayed as if dancing on on air, more ethereal, while the Madonna is lost in thought in a world of her own. Furthermore, this panel is the only version to have been painted in the tondo format, a trademark of Botticelli. The artist plays with the placement within a circular frame the rigorously Albertian architectural setting with its meticulously planned lateral and vertical lines and almost abstract sense of space. This interest in the expressive use of architecture and open space is typical of Botticelli’s late works, among them the Miracles of St. Zenobius in the Metropolitan Museum.

Fig. 1 Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala, 1480, fresco, on loan to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, September 2013 © Reuters / Alamy
Fig. 2 Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, ca. 1489-90, tempera on panel, 150 x 156 cm © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1890 no.1608
Fig. 3 Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, ca. 1490-95, tempera on panel, 49.5 x 61.9 cm. Glasgow Museums, Bequeathed by Archibald McLellan, 1856 (174). © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Fig. 4 Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, ca. 1485-92, tempera and gold on wood, 19.1 x 31.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
point of interest

Tobias in an elaborate landscape

Despite the popularity of the subject, Botticelli rarely incorporated Tobias and the Angel in his Annunciations. The latter, taken from the Book of Tobit, usually shows the young Tobias, guided by the Angel Raphael, on his journey to Media where he is to collect a debt owed to his blind father Tobit. Tobias was venerated by merchants and so was an especially popular subject in Renaissance Florence, whose merchant and bankers travelled widely in Europe. Verrocchio and Leonardo also painted famous renditions of the subject.

The articulated landscape in the present tondo – the winding hillroads, pinnacled rooftops, miniature figures (man with the camel, horserider, two boat riders, people fishing) and highlight-dotted bushes – show considerably more Northern influence than in the earlier treatments of this subject. The intensified cultural exchange between Bruges and Florence since the 1470s introduced the vocabulary of Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memling to the Florentine artistic circle, and encouraged the wider adoption of painting in oil.

Detail of Tobias in the landscape in the present painting © Nicholas Hall
The provenance

A link to the Pre-Raphaelites

William Graham, the earliest recorded owner of the present painting, was one of the principal contemporary supporters and collectors of Pre-Raphaelite art. There is no doubt that Botticelli’s art, and this painting in particular, embodied many of the traits that became identified with the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”: simplicity and clarity of design, use of primary colors and authenticity of expression. This informal fraternity was founded in 1848 in London by a group of like-minded artists who included John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriele Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. They were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that was lost in later years (figs 5-6).

In his taste as a collector, Graham was drawn to the Pre-Raphaelites but also to the prototypes that inspired them: Gothic and Early Renaissance Italian paintings. His bequest of the present work to Burne-Jones is a significant testimony of how, in Graham’s view, the two artists – Botticelli and Burne-Jones – were kindred spirits.

Fig. 5 Stained glass window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, made by William Morris studio, St. Martins church, Brampton, Cumbria © Stephen Dorey / Alamy
Fig. 6 Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm © Tate Britain, London. Bequeathed by Lord Battersea 1924
In the spotlight

Recent exhibitions

In recent years, the painting has been included in a few notable exhibitions backed by leading scholarship. Organized in association with Palazzo Strozzi, the Beauty and Money exhibition in Japan in 2015 was curated by Sandro Cecchi, former Chief Curator at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence (fig. 7). The 2016 Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was co-organized by Stefan Weppelman, former curator at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche museen zu Berlin who now directs the Museum of fine arts (MdbK) in Leipzig. ❖

Fig. 7 Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence exhibition poster, Bunkamura Museum, Tokyo, Japan, 2015
“This tondo is unquestionably an autograph work by Botticelli.  It is, furthermore, one of the finest and best preserved examples of his late style I have ever seen.”
– Lawrence Kanter (private correspondence, 2015)
Reserve of the present panel © Nicholas Hall
provenance

William Graham, Esq. (1817-1885), London, by whom

bequeathed to the artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, R.A. (1833-1898), London

by descent, his son, the painter Sir Philip Burne-Jones (1861-1926)

His sale, London, Sotheby’s, 8 December 1926, lot. 54

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exhibitions

London, Royal Academy of Arts, Winter Exhibition, 1877, lent by William Graham

London, The New Gallery, Exhibition of Early Italian Art, from 1300 to 1550, 1893-94, lent by Edward Burne-Jones

Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil São Paulo, Mestres do Renascimento – Obras Primas Italianas, 13 July 2013 – 5 January 2014

Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art, Money and Beauty – Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence, 21 March 2015 – 28 June 2015

London, Victoria & Albert Museum, Botticelli Reimagined, 5 March, 2016 – 3 July, 2016

Bibliography

Winter Exhibition, London, 1877, exh. cat., no. 177, as Sandro Botticelli lent by W. Graham, Esq.

Exhibition of Early Italian Art, from 1300 to 1550,  London, exh. cat., 1893-94, no. 155, as Sandro Botticelli lent by Edward Burne-Jones

Algernon Graves, A Century of Loan Exhibitions 1831-1912, London, 1913, vol. 1, p. 88.

Robert Lightbrown, Sandro Botticelli, London, 1978, vol. 2, pp. 138-139, no. C43, reproduced, as workshop of Botticelli.

John Pope-Hennessey, Italian Paintings in the Lehman Collection, New York, 1987, p. 188, as untraced.

Cristina Acidini and Alessandro Delpriori, Mestres do Renascimento – Obras Primas Italianas, exh. cat., Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, 2013, pp.56-57, reproduced, as Sandro Botticelli.

Alessandro Vezzosi, “‘L’Annunciazione Burne-Jones” di Sandro Botticelli”, 2014.

Ludovica Sebregondi, Money and Beauty – Botticelli and the Renaissance in Forence, exh. cat., Tokyo, 2015, pp. 80-81, reproduced, as Sandro Botticelli.

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