Head of an Old Woman

This intense life study of the head of a woman is marked by its deep sense of engagement and its focus on the dynamic observation of human physical character. Wearing simple everyday working clothes, the sitter is represented at close to life size, and seems a captured likeness of breathing reality, gazing steadily through blue-gray eyes. Every aspect of the topography of the sitter's face, its lighting and coloring are thoroughly examined and then swiftly rendered in loose strokes. The virtuoso brushwork of the sketch is emphasized by the artist through the use of a sheet of old accounting ledger paper (on which discernable words refer to food supplies). Here the strategic application of paint allows the text to show through selectively in spectacular fashion, particularly noticeable in the careful handling of the shadows of the eye sockets, where a few words and marks are left visible as virtual eyebrows.

This oil sketch epitomizes the dedicated and single-minded focus on reality found in the Carracci family workshop in the 1580s. Along with his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico, Annibale Carracci established in Bologna the informal Accademia degli lncamminati (Academy of the Progressives), and their renewed emphasis on the study of life, along with that of Florentine reformers such as Santi di Tito, is credited with returning the focus of painting to natural observation from the perceived exaggerations of so-called mannerism.

Oil on paper, laid on canvas (about 1582)

by Annibale Carracci (Italian, 1560-1609)

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