Menu Login Ticket basket   Search

Head of an Old Man

The strong, characterful face of the old man in this dynamic study is timeless. Rendered with a loose and expressive handling of paint, the Italian artist Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) perfectly captures the realism of his subject, who strokes his beard as if lost in thought. The array of deft brushstrokes gives a sense of the speed with which Carracci produced this study, rapidly filling the entire picture plane with the man’s head to form an extreme close-up. As a subject, the honest face of the old man has provided Carracci not only with an opportunity to study the effects of ageing, but also to experiment with technique. With a limited palette of earth colours, he has drawn on a range of marks to capture the different textures on offer. Dry, patchy brushstrokes of white trace the wisps of the man’s tousled hair, with glimpses of warmer paint layers showing through the broken marks. In contrast, Carracci has applied thicker daubs of paint to map the wrinkles of the man’s furrowed brow. An orange buff ground gives a harmonious warmth to the study, especially where Carracci has left it to show through the thin layers of paint, for instance along the left-hand side of the face and in the hand. This sketch would have been one among many that Carracci produced as part of his normal working practice in the studio.

Born in Bologna, northern Italy, Annibale Carracci came from a family of artists, and worked alongside his brother, Agostino (1557–1602) and cousin, Ludovico (1555–1619). The Carraccis were known for their originality, rejecting the mannerism of late sixteenth-century artists – a style seen to be idealised and artificial – to pursue instead an artistic approach based on a return to the study of nature. To disseminate their ideas, they opened the Accademia degli Incamminati (The Academy of the Progressives) in Bologna, which is often considered the first art school to have been grounded in life drawing. This sketch may have been produced as a visual exercise, either for teaching purposes or as a preparatory work for a larger composition. Drawing inspiration from the world around him, Annibale Carracci was an insatiable observer of real life, always at the ready to capture a character that could later be reimagined in a history painting or ceiling fresco. He was even said to have eaten meals with a pencil in hand and would utilise anything nearby to record a memorable face, even a laundry list. This sketch is painted directly onto paper, and later adhered onto canvas, the surface of which is still visible through the thin washes of paint.

Currently on display

Attributed to Annibale Carracci
Gallery 10
39.4 x 27.9 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number