LONDON — Discovering a lost artwork is always cause for fanfare, regardless of the circumstances (i.e., the Picasso spotted in Imelda Marco’s house in May 2022). It is an occurrence to be celebrated by both art history and the art market, with auction prices a reflection of this. Discovering a “sleeper” in an obscure place, perhaps hidden under overpaint, or by one of the most famous artists ever (ahem), is an irresistible pursuit for many an eagle-eyed art dealer; the BBC has constructed an entire series around it in Fake or Fortune. The financial element, however, can be queasy, with the markup offering a point of contention.

In March 2022, Colnaghi, a commercial gallery founded in 1760 and with branches in London, New York, and Madrid, announced a new show championing still lifes by female painters, Forbidden Fruit: Female Still Life. During its preparation, a painting came to light that may be the ultimate “sleeper,” and is now the star attraction of the display. “The Annunciation” (1677) by Caterina Angela Pierozzi depicts the busts of Gabriel and the Virgin, cropped by a gold frame bearing the artist’s name, native city, and the date, surrounded by minutely observed botanical studies including irises, tulips, hyacinths, peonies, and lilies intertwining throughout the border in an opulent display of disegno, the element of strong design perpetuated in 17th-century Florence. Upon close observation, some underdrawing is thrillingly visible. It reveals vivacious and confident linework underneath color applied by a brush that may have been only one or two hairs thick. This nimble touch extends to the rendering of hair in barely discernible dots. Remarkable also is its contemporaneous frame, constructed in gold metalwork and brilliant blue glass; the reverse shows the vellum corners folded into place and the back secured by the unmistakable irregularity of handmade metal screws.

Reverse of Caterina Angela Pierozzi, “The Annunciation Miniature” (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

Biographical detail for Pierozzi is scant; she is documented as working for the Medici Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere, a patron of female artists. This miniature purportedly derives from a 14th century fresco in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, whose design was tightly controlled by the Medici family, which is documented to have commissioned copies from it in various formats. We also know from a biographical dictionary of Florentine artists compiled by Filippo Baldinucci, who worked at the Medici court, that she was married to the painter Michelangelo Corsi and was likely trained from an early age by her uncle. Most remarkably, she was one of only two female artists accepted to the Accademia del Disegno during the 17th century — the other being, of course, Artemisia Gentileschi.

In recent years, many galleries and museums have revisited overlooked female contributions to art history, with major shows dedicated to Gentileschi, as well as the Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier. The artists’ ascendancy is understandable given the astonishingly consistent quality of painting, confirmed by major exhibitions in Antwerp in 2018 and London in 2020, respectively, and by strong auction performance. Superficially, then, it may be difficult to compare the modest scale and format of Pierozzi’s miniature with the other artists’ mighty oeuvres in oil paint. Coupled with a lack of provenance prior to 2020 — which, despite the purchaser’s apparent best efforts, as Colnaghi told me, remains minimal — viewers may be surprised at the markup from the buyer’s 7,800 Euros purchase price at Millon to the “six figure” guide price by Colnaghi, especially given the entire lack of a comparative canon, or indeed any extant work by the artist. However, as Colnaghi rightly states, the overwhelming significance this piece represents for art history “cannot be overestimated.”

Clara Peeters, “Still life with a Peregrine Falcon and its Prey” (c. 1612-21), oil on oak panel, 13 1/8 x 18 inches (courtesy Colnaghi)

While many newly discovered works by female artists have been the result of reattributions, such as the case with Wautier and Gentileschi — even within Colnaghi’s show is a reattribution of an important work by Fede Galizia — this piece represents the exceptional rarity of discovering the “first” work, and thereby first revealing to the world the artist’s style. There are few, if any, instances of this phenomenon occurring in recent art history.

In the text on Pierozzi supplied for the show, by Dr. Eve Straussman-Planzer and Dr. Sheila Barker, the latter reveals she has discovered a birth record for Pierozzi, along with evidence of payment records to her from the Grand Prince Ferdinand (to be published in a forthcoming article). Barker has also published a recent text on Gentileschi, which specifically invites readers to build upon the existing knowledge on the artist, combined with new attributions, to continue the process of piecing together her biography. This miniature similarly represents a cornerstone on which to build. Art history is a living thing, and events such as this are key milestones in its progression. It is encouraging to learn from Colnaghi that interested buyers have included institutions; having the Pierozzi publicly visible, rather than retreating into the obscurity of private ownership, allows art history to grow.

Fede Galizia, “Still life with apples, pears, figs and melon” (c. 1625-30), oil on panel, 13 7/8 x 23 1/4 inches (courtesy Colnaghi)
Josefa de Ayala Figueira or Josefa de Óbidos, “Still life of Flowers, a Butterfly, and a Basket of Fava Beans” (n.d.), oil on panel, 24 3/4 x 39 3/8 inches (courtesy Colnaghi)
Rachel Ruysch, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Marble Table” (1748), oil on panel, 11 5/8 x 9 1/2 inches (courtesy Colnaghi)

Forbidden Fruit: Female Still Life continues at Colnaghi gallery (26 Bury Street, London, England) through June 24. The exhibition was organized by the gallery with Professor Alberto Cottino.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...

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