The attribution of this spirited little drawing, previously unpublished, to Annibale Carracci is due to both Carel van Tuyll and Babette Bohn. It has further been suggested that the drawing may be a first idea for one of four ceiling paintings of flying putti holding flowers, now in the collection of the Musée Condé in Chantilly. These four small canvases were originally installed as part of the decoration of one of the rooms of the garden Casino Farnese in Rome, built shortly before 1600 on the Via Giulia along the Tiber. The building was intended as a secluded retreat from the adjacent Palazzo Farnese, and its painted decoration was designed by Annibale Carracci and executed by his assistants between 1602 and 1603. The decoration of the five small rooms and loggia of the Casino was, in fact, the culmination of Annibale’s extensive program of work at the Palazzo Farnese, which had begun soon after his arrival in Rome at the end of 1595.
The ceiling decoration of the third camerino of the Casino (or Palazzetto) Farnese included, in the centre, an allegorical figure of Night, surrounded by the four paintings of winged putti, described by Bellori as ‘giuochi di Amoretti coloriti di giallo’. With the demolition of the Casino later in the 17th century, the paintings were transferred in 1662 to the Palazzo del Giardino in Parma, the home of Ranuccio Farnese, Duke of Parma. Remaining in the possession of the Farnese family and their descendants until the 19th century, most of the surviving Casino paintings were acquired by the Duc d’Aumale in 1854 and entered the collections of the Musée Condé in 1870.
A related drawing by Annibale Carracci for one of the putti in the Chantilly paintings, executed in red chalk, is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Cleveland drawing shares much of the same English provenance as the present sheet, with which it was paired in the Reynolds, Mayor and Bellingham-Smith collections. Both drawings have born traditional attributions to Correggio, an artist of great importance to Annibale’s development as an artist and one of his main influences in the decoration of the Palazzo Farnese. (Indeed, many of Annibale’s chalk drawings have at one time or another been attributed to Correggio). A stylistic comparison may also be made with a red chalk study of winged putti in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is a preparatory study for a corner of the decoration of the Galleria Farnese.