Study for an Ignudo, 1599
Annibale Carracci was born in Bologna on November 3, 1560. Having lived a relatively short life, Annibale's contribution to art was nonetheless enormous in that with his brother Agostino and older cousin Ludovico formed a historic school that would change art history and usher in the Baroque movement, the Accademia degli Incamminati. The first of its kind, they sought to combine the Florentine philosophy of line and draftsmanship with the vibrant color of Venice to create a new, unified style that would supersede the convoluted theories of Mannerism with a more hands-on approach where students and teachers alike were considered equals. The goal of the school was an inner drive to bring painting back to its Classical roots but with a fresher approach. Of the three, Annibale was the most talented and ingenious, emphasizing to his students the necessity of rigorous study before every drawing and determining what you are going to represent and what message you are trying to transmit to your viewer. It was this common-sense view of art, complete with life-drawing in class, a first in an art academy, that would propel Annibale to great success in Rome.
Look at the sketch above and you can see how Carracci's draftsmanship was something he took quite seriously, something that was deteriorating under the flamboyance and myopia of Mannerism. Even under the foxing of this old drawing, Carracci's power and elegance shine through.
Portrait of Giovanni Gabrieli (Giulio Mascheroni) in red chalk with white highlights, 1594
A study for a famous musician that Carracci would paint (see here), the freshness of this study is hypnotic. Carracci uses confident hatching and cross-hatching with a heavy edge to the jawline, creating a solid face of immense character, as spectacular as any portrait painting. The use of white however, is what takes it to another level of palpable realism, along with the warmth of red chalk or sanguine.
River Landscape, ca.1590
Another astonishing breakthrough, the landscape as an artform almost two hundred years before the French would dominate this genre. Note the vibrant brushstrokes in the leaves and the loose strokes of the tree bark. To say that their school was centuries ahead of its time is no small exaggeration.
Christ in Glory, 1598
Observe Carracci's figure arrangement here. A semicircle forms in the sky around Christ, while below Carracci alternates the pairs of figures with a horizontal arrangement on the left with a vertical one on the right. The influence of Correggio is strong here, but Carracci still pays strict attention to form and anatomy. Carracci also alternates the open hand of the figure on the left with the figure on the right pointing his hand to himself. The colors are rich without detracting from the overall composition and body language of the figures. Far in the distance lies St. Peter's and a dramatic sunrise.
Assumption of the Virgin, ca.1590
A busier composition that Carracci handles deftly by arranging all the figures in a kind of S-formation, giving each figure individual expression and body language. Although looser in brushwork than in other works, this painting has the richness and brilliant flow that makes us want to know what is happening in this scene. Mary rises in a puff of dramatic smoke from her earthly coffin to the heavens, stunning her earthly witnesses. Compare this with the ironically polished version by Titian.
The Virgin Appears to Saint Luke and Catherine, 1592
Here Carracci keeps to the same template as above, yet with less figures. In this version Mary and Heaven is packed with saints, while below Saints Luke and Catherine are arranged with open arms but facing opposite directions. Saint Luke has a palette with brushes at his feet, while St. Catherine, lovely and holding a book, has one foot atop of what appears to be a case of some sort. It is a wonderful treatment of an abstract subject.
Madonna Enthroned with Saint Matthew, 1588
An astonishing work, Carracci arranges the figures in a space around the Virgin Mary in a heightened drama that somehow appears natural and believable, despite the amount of vibrant complementary colors and variety of figures. Just imagine that you are being commissioned to paint this scene, and make it look as natural as possible...it seems impossible! Carracci uses superb drapery, perspective, strong colors, excellent anatomy with amazing skin tones, and it doesn't break down at all. Annibale's secret is merely design and effective use of color.
Domine quo vadis?, 1602
Translated as Lord, Where Are You Going?, Peter is surprised to see Jesus walking with a cross on his shoulder (as anyone probably would) to which Jesus replies Eo Romam iterum crucifigi "I go to Rome to be crucified anew". The way in which Christ is portrayed as almost nonchalant about this impending death, walking with a spring in his step even, is revolutionary in religious painting. A sense of duty is what motivates Christ here, and Carracci portrays him more with confidence and strength than as a martyr. The result is still visually intriguing and inspiring, and how Carracci uses color and a peaceful landscape in the distance to tone down the message of sacrifice and pain.
The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, 1587
Both beautiful and poetic, this painting makes effective use of Carracci's inherent genius for space and figure arrangement. Dark colors alongside deep reds and warm yellows and browns make for an enchanting mood with the flawless grace of a Correggio.
Venus with a Satyr and Cupids, ca.1588
A triumph of sensuality and mythology, Annibale has indeed surpassed his beloved Correggio here in way that is absolutely captivating. The soft shadow on her face contrasts with a sinuous graceful back that must have been risqué in its day. The warm glow of Titian spreads dimly over her skin and it is here that Carracci has made poetry from obscure mythology, a storyteller and artist who changed art. Unfortunately something happened to Annibale in his later years that affected his ability to concentrate on painting and think rationally, and he died far too young, with so much more to say and teach us all.