Giovanni Battista Salvi, Called Sassoferrato

The Virgin Mary and The Archangel Gabriel (The Annunciation)

Oil on canvas: 16.9(h) x 12.9(w) in /

42.9(h) x 32.7(w) cm

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BT 235



Sassoferrato 1609 – 1685 Rome


The Virgin Mary and The Archangel Gabriel (The Annunciation)


A pair

Oil on canvas: 17 x 13 in / 43 x 33.3 cm

Frame size: 23 5/8 x 19 ¾ in / 60 x 50.2 cm


Painted circa 1650



Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of France (1763-1814), Château de Malmaison, by 1811;

her son Eugène de Beauharnais, Duc de Leuchtenberg (1781-1824)

Comte James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier (1776-1855), Paris;

his sale, Me Pillet, 27th March 1865, lot 110 and 111

Private collection, France, acquired 1921;

by descent



Inventaire de Malmaison, 1814, no.994

S Grandjean, Inventaire après le décès de l’impératrice Joséphine à Malmaison, Paris 1964, p.143, no.994

A Pougetoux, La collection des peintures de l’impératrice Joséphine, Paris 2003, p.84, no.50



Sassoferrato is a rare painter; one might have trouble believing this, given the dozens of paintings attributed to the artist that are sold every year around the world. But those paintings are often the work of his studio, copies, mediocre pastiches; and the absence of a signature on the authentic ones, as well as the absence of records of the painter’s work, only help to facilitate the misattributions that are hurtful to the artist’s reputation. The recent reappearance of two small canvases that form a pair, undeniably by the hand of the artist, is an event in itself.


It is true that the subject of the Annunciation is one that Sassoferrato turned to several times, either by following or modifying the well-known compositions of famous painters (such as Raphael’s Annunciation[1], or that of Barocci[2], to be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana) or, as he does here, in associating the head of the Archangel Gabriel with that of the head of the Virgin Mary. The bringing together in this way of two distinct paintings is rather rare and we have only two other similar examples[3], in Cesena[4] and in Holland[5], the latter being the only one to represent two figures identical to the one under discussion here, although they are slightly larger and with the composition inverted.


The models for these two figures are well known: the Virgin belongs to a type found in numerous examples, often of very high quality[6]. A Virgin Mary with lowered eyes in a pose of modesty and contemplation; long locks falling to her shoulders, with a blue veil knotted behind her head forming a characteristic chignon.


The Archangel Gabriel is also a model well known in Sassoferrato’s work, although somewhat rarer: other than the previously mentioned Annunciation scenes to be found in Cesena and Amsterdam, one can be found, for example, on its own in Pesaro (private collection)[7] and in another where the model is reversed in a canvas in the collection of the Ca’Rezzonico of Venice[8]. It is interesting to note that G.-B. Salvi also depicted this same figure, at times without its wings, to depict a Saint Catherine in a mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine previously in the Altomani Collection[9]. In this way, each of these two figures are models widely diffused by the artist (Sassoferrato) but it is his using them to create an Annunciation, which is the first rarity of note.


Beyond their iconographic characteristics, it is the artistic quality of these two paintings that is to be emphasized. There is the great beauty of the Archangel Gabriel, where one particularly admires his profile as it emerges from the darker background with his blonde hair loosely held by a brilliant red ribbon[10].


The Virgin Mary is in exceptional condition and one is struck by the force of the image in the delicacy with which she has been drawn and her extreme refinement. Faced with such admirable serenity, and such well-painted details, the viewer of today stands fascinated by her expression of gentleness and holiness. This veritable “icon”, well beyond its technical perfection, reveals the profound religious sentiment of G.-B. Salvi[11] and places itself perfectly in the art of the Counter-Reformation.


The other element that makes this pair of paintings so interesting and so precious is, of course, its provenance. The remnants of old labels, bearing the numbers 110 and 111, still affixed to these two works, allowed research to retrace part of their prestigious history: these two numbers correspond to that of the sale held in Paris beginning on 27th March 1865 (and over subsequent days), of the collection of Comte James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier (1776-1855)[12] a wealthy Protestant banker whose family, originally from the Cevennes region in France, was first based in Neuchâtel in Switzerland and then Paris. J.-A. de Pourtalès was a famous collector of paintings and works of art with eclectic taste; in 1838 he hired the architect Félix Duban to construct a private mansion for a home where he could best display his collection. The “hotel particulier” still stands today at 7 rue Tronchet in Paris. The painting gallery, which was particularly famous, counted more than 300 works, 130 of which were by the Italian Masters, many of which were masterpieces hailing from illustrious collections (Errard, Orléans, Malmaison…).


In the sale of his collection were three canvases by Sassoferrato: a Virgin (bust) (whereabouts unknown) and the present two paintings sold separately as numbers 110 and 111, provenance given as Château de Malmaison and sold for 850 and 1350 francs[13] respectively, a healthy sum, given their small size.


We have already stated that the two paintings described in the catalogue from 1865 came from Malmaison – that is to say from the collection of the Empress Joséphine (1763-1814), Napoléon’s first wife. Verifying this illustrious provenance was easy: the collections of Malmaison are very well documented and we know from A. Pougetoux[14] that they held no less than 5 and quite possibly 6 paintings by Sassoferrato including the present two paintings[15]. It is unfortunate that the Empress did not maintain a detailed record of her acquisitions and her numerous gifts and trades. We only know that the present Sassoferrato paintings were in the château from 1811[16] and perhaps before and that they did not come from the other properties – neither the Elysée Palace nor the Château de Navarre[17]; it is probable that they were purchased from an art dealer such as the mysterious Varisco, who was based in Paris. At the time of Joséphine’s death, this magnificent collection counted 360 paintings including a hundred of the Italian School and, amongst these a number of works attributed to such famous artists as Raphaël, Leonardo de Vinci or Correggio. All of these paintings were carefully inventoried, valued and then divided amongst her heirs: Eugène de Beauharnais, the soon-to-be Duc de Leuchtenberg (1781-1824) and his sister Hortense (1783-1837), wife of Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland from 1806 to 1810. The present two Sassoferratos were initially valued at 150 francs for the pair, a modest sum compared to the 12,000 evaluated for a painting of cows by Paul Potter! Very quickly thereafter, they were re-evaluated at 400 francs and given to Eugène. We do not know if he held on to them for a period of time or if they went directly to James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier. The fact remains that they do not figure in the catalogue of the collection of the prince first in Munich[18] and later in Russia, before that collection was partially dispersed in the twentieth century.


The Pourtalès Collection was sold in 1865 and from that moment the subsequent path of the two Sassoferratos remains unknown[19]. A century and a half later, they reappeared at auction in Paris. Today they await a collector sensitive to their great beauty and extraordinary destiny.


François Macé de Lépinay




Sassoferrato, The Archangel Gabriel.

Museo Civico, Cesena.




François Gérard, Empress Joséphine.



Paul Delaroche, Comte James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier. Musée du Louvre.


Sassoferrato 1609 – 1685 Rome



Sassoferrato takes his name from his birthplace of Sassoferrato in the Marche. He was apprenticed to his father, Tarquinio Salvi. There is a tradition that he studied with Domenichino in Naples, but no proof of this. He may have met Francesco Cozza in Naples, where he painted The Adoration of the Shepherds (Museo Capodimonte, Naples). As a young man, Sassoferrato travelled in Umbria, gaining a lifelong admiration for Raphael, the most celebrated of Umbrian-born painters. From 1630 he painted canvases of ten Saints for the ceiling of the sacristy of the church of the Benedictine convent of S Pietro in Perugia (in situ).


By July 1641 Sassoferrato was in Rome, where he frescoed the sacristy of S Francesco di Paolo. The following year he was commissioned by Olimpia Aldobrandini, Princess of Rossano, one of the greatest heiresses of her day, successively the wife of Prince Borghese and Prince Camillo Pamphili, to paint a portrait (untraced) to be sent to Naples. In the 1640s and 50s Sassoferrato had a substantial portrait practice in Rome, depicting members of the Papal hierarchy such as Cardinal Rapaccioli (1643-4; Ringling Museum, Sarasota, FL). The portraits are classically calm and dignified, somewhat remote, unlike Sassoferrato’s own arresting and emotionally intense Self-portrait of 1664-70 in the Uffizi, Florence.


In 1643 Sassoferrato was commissioned by Olimpia Aldobrandini to paint the Virgin of the Rosary for the chapel of S Caterina in S Sabina, Rome (in situ). The work replaced a lost painting by Raphael and its serene, triangular composition and bright, clear colours – based around Sassoferrato’s signature white, Marian blue and coral red – is very much in the spirit of Raphael. Sassoferrato produced few large altarpieces, preferring to make smaller images of Saints and especially of the Virgin Mary, whose cult was an important part of Counter-Reformation spirituality. The Virgin is often portrayed by him praying, with eyes modestly downcast, deep in communion with God, as in the Virgin at prayer, 1640, in the National Gallery, London. This Virgin is typical in being is placed against a shallow, plain background, emphasising a quiet, sacred space, and enhancing Sassoferrato’s smooth brushwork and elegant treatment of light playing over complex robes. Sassoferrato found a ready demand for these Marian images, although he also produced a few mythological works. He died in Rome in 1685.


The work of Sassoferrato is represented in the Galleria Borghese, the Palazzo Barberini and the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, Rome; the Uffizi, Florence; the Museo Civico, Padua; the National Gallery, London; the Louvre, Paris; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


[1]  The painting by Sassoferrato that this work inspired is to be found in the basilica of San Pietro de Perugia. Cf. Cristina Galassi (ed.), Sassoferrato dal Louvre a San Pietro, la collezione riunita, 2017, no.30, pp.212-215.


[2] One of the corresponding paintings can be found in the collection of the Louvre, Inv. MI 630. Cf. On this same subject, F. Macé de Lépinay, ‘Sassoferrato: une réhabilitation’, Revue des Musées de France, revue du Louvre, April 2004, p.65, fig. 8.


[3] We may also point out the association of a figure of the Virgin Mary and the head of Christ in Milan in the Luigi Koelliker Collection, Inv. LK 862 and LK 488, oils on canvas; 17 x 13 in / 43.2 x 33 cm.


[4] Pinacoteca Comunale, Inv. 55 (the Virgin) and 56 (the Angel Gabriel), oils on canvas, 17 ½ x 13 ½ in / 44 x 34.5 cm.


[5] Instituut Collectie Nederland, Amsterdam, Inv./cat. no.NK 1498. These two figures were, at a later date, reunited to form one sole painting, oil on canvas, 23 x 41 in / 58.6 x 103.8 cm.


[6] Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Inv. 146, oil on canvas, 17 ¼ x 13 ¾ in / 44 x 35 cm; Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-arts, Inv. 276, oil on copper, 17 x 13 ½ in / 43.5 x 34.5.


[7] Oil on canvas, 29 ¾ x 23 ½ in / 75.6 x 59.5 cm. The head of the angel is placed within a splendid floral crown. Cf. Massimo Pulini (ed.) Il Sassoferrato, un preraffaellita tra i puristi del Seicento, 2009, pp.92-93.


[8] Venice, Pinacoteca Egidio Martini, Ca’Rezzonico, Angel in adoration, Inv. 299. Oil on canvas, 29 x 24 in / 73.5 x 60.5 cm. Cf. catalogue 2002, p.266, no.218.


[9] Altomani and Sons, Milano-Pesaro, oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 19 in / 64.5 x 48.5 cm. Today in a private collection. Cf. François Macé de Lépinay (ed.), Il Sassoferrato. La devota bellezza (exhibition catalogue), 2017, pp.152-153, no.23.


[10] While the ribbon in the other versions is usually blue.


[11] This essential aspect of G.-B. Salvi’s œuvre  is highlighted by the title of the exhibition; Il Sassoferrato, la devota bellezza which took place at Sassoferrato (Marche) from 17th June 2017 to 7th January 2018.


[12] For the history of the man and his collection, cf. E Foucart-Walter, ‘La rencontre d’un eminent collectionneur et d’un grand portraitiste: le portrait du comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier par Paul Delaroche’, Revue du Louvre. La revue des Musées de France, February 2000, pp.39-55.


[13] These prices are given in H. Mireur, Dictionnaire des ventes d’art faites en France et à l’étranger…Tome 6, 1911 (2001), p.442.


[14] Alain Pougetoux, La collection de peintures de l’impératrice Joséphine, Paris, 2000.


[15] Ibid. p.84, no.50.   


[16] Cf. Catalogue des tableaux de Sa Majesté l’impératrice Joséphine dans la galerie et appartements de son palais de Malmaison, Paris, 1811.


[17] Near Evreux (Normandy).


[18] Both of the present paintings are absent from different catalogues of the gallery Leuchtenberg in Munich recorded by J.-N. Muxel from 1825 to 1851.


[19] However, the two canvases bear other sale labels (nos. 38 for the Virgin and 39 for the Angel) that for the moment have not been identified but which one day might allow one to discover the name of others who once owned these works.


Old MasterGiovanni Battista Salvi, Called Sassoferrato