Italian School

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Italian School
15th century
Recumbent Ibex and Dog. Verso: Lynx and a Recumbent Unicorn
ca. 1400-1410
Brush and brown, white, and black opaque watercolor, and pen and brown ink for the Goldfinches, on parchment. Verso: Brown and black watercolor, with white opaque watercolor.
6 3/8 x 4 3/4 inches (162 x 121 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.
I, 82 (recto), I, 83 (verso)


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Inscribed at upper right, in pen and brown ink, "6(?)"; on verso, in lower left corner, in graphite, "89".

William Mitchell (d. 1908; no mark; see Lugt 2638), London (according to Fairfax Murray); Frederick, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), London; his sale, Christie's, London, 16 July 1896, lot 439; Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), London and Florence; from whom purchased through Galerie Alexandre Imbert, Rome, in 1909 by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), New York (no mark; see Lugt 1509); his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), New York.

These highly finished pairs of animal studies are drawn on leaves of goat parchment that once formed part of a model book created around 1400. An indispensable part of medieval and early Renaissance workshop practice, pattern or model books consisted of a compendium of individual motifs that generally included animals, religious figure types and artful ornamental forms such as perfect calligraphic initials. Often containing sketches somewhat randomly juxtaposed on the page, model books served as a pictorial archive and reference tool to be used by the master, his assistants, and their successors as commissions arose. Characteristically they were on a parchment support selected for its durability. Most such studies were not drawn from nature but were instead copied from earlier model books or other works of art.1

Eight further folios that surely originated from the same model book as the Morgan studies are known: six are in the collection at Weimar and two are in the British Museum.2 Finely drawn with a thin brush and an opaque watercolor in various shades of brown, black, and white delicately layered to create the impression of dense fur, the extant series contains a total of thirty-six illustrations of animals, generally arranged two to a page and presented in profile with little or no indication of setting. The series consists of charming depictions of foxes, bears, monkeys, leopards, and dogs carefully painted to give the appearance of finished works of art, perhaps in order to impress potential patrons with the extraordinary skill of the artist. The shadowy forms of faintly drawn birds that populate three folios (two in Weimar,3 and one in the Morgan) probably represent unfinished brush underdrawings rather than accidental offsets from motifs on now-lost pages.4

The series was traditionally attributed to Pisanello,5 the Veronese artist noted for his sensitive depictions of animals, until van Schendel remarked upon the resemblance to the work of Giovannino de’ Grassi.6 A generation older than Pisanello, Giovannino was court painter to the Visconti of Milan. He was also the author of a model book now in the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai in Bergamo that contains animal and bird studies similar in style and handling to the ones in the Weimar-British Museum-Morgan group. In fact, our artist, whom Annegrit Schmitt gamely christened “The Master of the Animal Model Book of Weimar,”7 must have been a Lombard master from Giovannino’s circle active in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. The selection of motifs clearly reflects the interest in the exotic and in hunting prevalent at the Visconti court, even when it includes the purely fictional unicorn. The brush technique and high level of detail indicate that both the Weimar-British Museum-Morgan master and Giovannino de’ Grassi were manuscript illustrators, although Giovannino is also documented as a panel painter, sculptor, and architect.

It is not certain when the model book was taken apart. We do know, however, that the Australian-British collector William Mitchell, who owned the sheets now in Weimar, sold them at auction in Frankfurt in 1890; the British Museum folios were purchased from Colnaghi’s in 1895; and the two Morgan sheets were on the art market by 1896. It therefore seems likely that the model book was disbound while in Mitchell’s collection. —REP


  1. For an intact Italian model book of the late trecento in the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, see II, 2-25.
  2. See Schmitt 1997, passim, and London and Florence 2010–11, no. 2. British Museum, London, inv. 1895,1214.94 and inv. 1895,1214.95. See Popham and Pouncey 1950, nos. 289–90.
  3. Graphische Sammlung, Weimar, inv. kk 8808 (recto) and inv. kk 8809 (recto). See Schmitt 1997, pls. 9 and 10; Fischer Pace 2008, nos. 402 and 403.
  4. The technique is incorrectly described as silverpoint in Schmitt 1997. Examination under the microscope by Reba Fishman Snyder did not reveal any traces of metalpoint.
  5. Fairfax Murray 1905–12, 1: nos. 82–85.
  6. Van Schendel 1938, 65–66; see also Scheller 1995, 287–88n8.
  7. Schmitt 1997, 20–21.

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 6.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 1:82, 83 (as Pisanello); van Schendel 1938, 65-66 (as studio of Giovannino de' Grassi or his follower); Schmitt 1997, 20-21; Weimar and elsewhere 1999-2000, under nos. 1-4 (as Lombard, ca. 1400); Fischer Pace 2008, under no. 403; Munich 2008-9, nos. 2-3; London and Florence 2010-11, 91.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, I, 82 and 83.
100 Master drawings from the Morgan Library & Museum. München : Hirmer, 2008, no. 2, repr. [Rhoda Eitel-Porter]

Associated names: 

Mitchell, William, -1908, former owner.
Leighton of Stretton, Frederic Leighton, Baron, 1830-1896, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.
Morgan, J. P. (John Pierpont), 1867-1943, former owner.

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