The Virgin of the Chair1624 - 1625. Oil on canvas, 213.8 x 137.5 cm.
Sitting on a sumptuous chair, the Virgin tenderly contemplates the nude Christ child, whose expression is pensive and informal. Above them, two cherubs crown Mary. Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Madonna of Bruges has been mentioned as a possible influence, as both combine a carefree Christ child with a solemn mother.
After Bolognese classicism went out of fashion in the second half of the 19th century, this work was looked upon with some scorn. Pérez Sánchez, for example, who knew the Museo del Prado’s collection of Italian painting very well, affirmed: Today, it is not so esteemed and it can be seen as a lesser, second-rate work that may well have been painted largely by the artist’s workshop. In 1980, a restoration required by this painting’s delicate state of conservation removed the old repainting that had hidden its quality, leading to a radical change of opinion. Since then, no one has doubted its authorship and it is again considered a work by Reni.
Guido Reni trained at the studio of Denys Calvaert and later, in 1594, he entered the Accademia founded in Bologna by the Carracci, studying there for four years. In 1601 he settled in Rome, where he painted for outstanding patrons, including the Borghese family. He maintained contact with painters from the Carracci’s circle, including Domenichino and Albani. His rebellious character and his failure to meet his deadlines for certain works, as well as numerous gambling debts, led to quarrels with some of his clients, including the pope. He developed a pictorial style influenced by classical sculpture and by Raphael, with severe forms and vibrant colors. Particularly striking are his female religious figures, who turn their eyes imploringly toward heaven and were later copied by innumerable artists. His final works are characterized by monochromatic tonalities and unfinished forms.
There is no concrete information about when Madonna with a Chair entered Spain’s Royal Collection, but it was already there during the reign of Philip IV, who sent it to decorate the monastery at El Escorial. It appeared in the Prior’s meeting hall there in 1660 and was seen and praised by Hieronymite monk Francisco de los Santos in 1667. In 1772, it is also mentioned by Antonio Ponz, author of a Spanish travelogue with significant information about art. In 1837, it was moved to the Museo del Prado from the Royal Palace in Madrid, where it had been since at least 1811 (Text drawn from Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 100-101).