Spanish Old Master Drawings

Bust of a Child and Head of an Angel (recto) Saint Anthony of Padua (verso)

Claudio Coello

(Madrid, 1642-1693)

  • Date: c. 1685-1690
  • Red and black chalk on ochre-coloured laid paper
  • 295 x 216 mm
  • Signed: Madrid, art market; Madrid, private collection

Claudio Coello’s activities as a draughtsman, which are essential for an understanding of his aesthetic and conception of the art of painting, were already signalled out as a sign of his identity in the earliest biography on him, published thirty years after his death. In his Parnaso Español, Antonio Palomino located the origins of Coello’s vocation and professional career in the practice of drawing when he recounted how the artist entered Francisco Rizi’s studio in accordance with his father’s wishes. The latter wanted his son to help him design his creations as a bronze sculptor but the young Coello’s skills with chalk and pen soon revealed a consummate artist. In Rizi’s words, quoted by Palomino: “he gave infallible hopes of being an eminent man in it [painting].” 1 This commitment to drawing seems to have first expressed itself in Coello’s study of the medium, and he went as far as to analyse the drawings his master had thrown away, then in his constant and persistent practice of drawing, even “at uncommon hours”, a habit the artist always maintained and which helped to make him “a truly complete artist.” Seen from the perspective of time, Coello’s artistic activity was one of the most wide-ranging among his contemporaries active in Europe at this time as not only did it encompass all the artistic genres but also included work in all formats, from mural painting to the more conventional easel painting. In addition, Coello’s career culminated with great success given that he became court painter to Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg.

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Coello’s career was closely associated with the court as although his works for the King are not documented until well into the 1670s, his close relations with two of the monarch’s earliest court painters must have opened the doors of the royal studio and the remarkable royal collection to him. These two artists were his master Rizi, who worked for the Habsburgs from 1657, and later Juan Carreño de Miranda, whom Coello would succeed as painter to the King in 1685. Aside from the professional consequences of these friendships, they were crucial for his evolution as a draughtsman. Thus the initial ideas learned from Rizi, who was heir to the Italian tradition, were expanded through the experience of Carreno from an early date and drawings by Coello of 1661 already recall the work of both artists. It should be remembered that Carreño and Rizi collaborated on important mural projects and that the members of their workshops would have associated with both of them. Carreño’s use of two colours in his chalk drawings, for example, would be skilfully assimilated by the young Coello. 2

This is the technique employed in these two previously unpublished studies which are here attributed to Coello, although red chalk certainly predominates and the black chalk is reduced to a secondary role. The latter is just visible in some slight indications in the outlines, reinforcing the shadows or constructing accessory details. This makes these studies exceptional within Coello’s output as such mastery of red chalk is only known in two other works: the restrained Male Life Study in the Casa de la Moneda in Madrid, 3 and the recently attributed Small Putti or Child Angels in the Biblioteca Nacional de España. 4 The present sheet, which has two images of great interest and exceptional quality, thus broadens the horizon of knowledge with regard to the artist’s use of this medium.

In addition to the evident technical similarity with his habitual manner, the attribution of these drawings to Coello is based on the fact that the design on the verso (fig. 1) is clearly preparatory for the figure of the saint in The Vision of Anthony of Padua. This composition dates from around 1685-90 and two versions of it (with slight differences) are currently known, one in a private Spanish collection 5 and the other in the Musée Goya in Castres (fig. 2). 6 While Gaya Nuño proposed that the first painting came from the monastery of San Hermenegildo in Madrid, as part of a group on Franciscan themes assignable to Coello’s late period, it is not clear where the work was originally. However, the appearance of an autograph replica of similar size at least allows it to be said that it enjoyed some success.

The saint appears in the present drawing in the pose used in the final painting, which is identical in both canvases; kneeling on a stone step and looking upwards with an expression of devotion characteristic of scenes of mystical revelation of this type, accompanied by the gestural play of his hands. Coello focused most on the analysis of the drapery, the folds of which are faithfully translated onto the painting, as is the effect of light falling on the sleeves, knees, hands and face, achieved by leaving some of the paper blank. At the same time, he concentrated the red chalk on the profiles and shadows, the latter created with short parallel strokes of varying intensity. Coello used the red chalk to very precisely silhouette the entire outline, limiting the black chalk to brief reinforcements in the most pronounced areas of shadow, such as the inside of the sleeves and the deepest folds. The black chalk is only made clearly visible in order to define the different material of the step and the hair and for the subtle broken line that indicates where the cingulum would fall in the final painting. The artist made use of the thick texture of the paper, which is characteristic of the High Baroque Madrid school, so that the red chalk flows over it to imitate the rough texture of the Franciscan habit.

While relatively highly finished with regard to these details and to the overall concept of the figure, for the saint’s body Coello opted for a synthetic, unfinished approach. This is evident in the hands, which are briefly sketched in, and is austerely effective in the definition of Saint Anthony’s profile, which is constructed from short, angular and heavily pigmented lines. The purpose of this preliminary study was thus to try out the figure with regard to its volume and position and the way the light falls on it. This is already at an advanced stage and the sheet precedes more detailed studies.

In contrast, Coello used the recto of the sheet to draw a superb and detailed study of two infants’ heads. They are surprising in their skilled use of the same medium employed with a totally different aim, as here the artist focuses on capturing physical features, foreshortening and carefully differentiated expressions. While concentrating on details Coello maintains his agile but simultaneously contained stroke in the areas of shadow and the curly hair. In addition to the subtle areas of hatching, here with a greater use of black chalk, the artist also blends the red tone, as on the boy in the upper part’s cheeks. This type of “well defined” softness perfectly reflects Palomino’s words in his final sentence at the end of his biography of Coello: “In order to improve an outline, Claudio would give nature thirty twists.” The result was a much more polished appearance than that found in the work of many of Coello’s fellow artists in Baroque Madrid, undoubtedly explaining the incorrect attribution of this drawing in the past to Mariano Salvador Maella.

While the two children or putti share the same sheet with Saint Anthony they do not seem to be for the final composition of the saint’s vision. Their typology is very similar to that of the children depicted in other works by Coello, whose religious compositions are filled with angelic glories as well as the zephyrs and genii that fly over his decorative schemes on mythological themes. Nonetheless, in The Vision of Saint Anthony one of the small angels among those seemingly disputing for a stem of lilies has very similar features to the child shown bust-length in the present image: a broad forehead, very prominent, rosy cheeks and curly hair with a lock in the centre of the forehead. Coello gave similar features to the Infant Christ who appears to Saint Rose of Lima (1683. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado) and to others of earlier date. The remarkable immediacy with which this figure is captured suggests that it may have been depicted from life.

Similarly, the head in the lower part of the sheet, which is foreshortened and seen from below so that it tilts back to show its pointed nose and some faintly suggested wings, can be related to the angels in the clouds next to Christ or to the Virgin, particularly in Coello’s Immaculte Conceptions. A very comparable one, albeit facing the opposite way, is present in the above-mentioned Vision of Saint Anthony on the Christ Child’s throne, and also in The Earthly Trinity (1685-90. Budapest, Szépmüsvészeti Museum), to mention an example that is close in date.

Finally, it should be noted that both heads are lit from below, as frequently found in studies for mural decorations and an effect that appears in other drawings by Coello. Its concentration and quality make this new red chalk drawing an important addition to Coello’s drawn oeuvre.


  1. Palomino (1715-1724/1947), p. 1058.
  2. On Coello as a draughtsman, Pérez Sánchez’s summary continues to be valid. Pérez Sánchez (1986), pp. 262-268. For the catalogue of his drawings, although now somewhat outdated due to new additions, see Sullivan (1989), pp. 243-285.
  3. Durán (1980), p. 34, cat. no. 25; Sullivan (1989), p. 279, cat. no. D59.
  4. Zapata & Gómez (2015), pp. 310-312.
  5. Gaya Nuño (1955) p. 49; Sullivan (1989), p. 215, cat. no. P85. Oil on canvas, 182 x 183 cm. Previously in Cabrera de Mar, Barcelona, private collection.
  6. Oil on canvas, 162 x 123 cm. Musée Goya, inv. no. D2006-1-1. On deposit from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes.