Edited by Luca Fiorentino

This sheet is an initial idea for a painting conserved at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in Milan, a group portrait of one of the most important families tied to Napoleon: Madame Pétiet and her young children.

Andrea Appiani, Madame Pétie with her children (1800 circa). Milano, Galleria d’Arte Moderna
Andrea Appiani, Madame Pétie with her children (1800 circa). Milano, Galleria d’Arte Moderna

The GAM also has the pendant of the painting depicting Claude-Louis Pétiet with his children, a more somber, formal painting than that of his wife, which has a more serene, familiar air1.

Claude Pétiet held important offices under the Napoleonic government, including that of Special Minister of the French Government, so the commission was a prestigious one, and it went to Appiani, one of the foremost Italian and Milanese painters of the period.

The drawing presented here demonstrates the fine quality Appiani was able to instil even in quickly drawn works; here we have a sketch of the painting in an advanced phase of work, but we can still appreciate the beauty of the rapid, concise strokes. Everything on this sheet is vibrant, from the modulation of the figures to the tones of the shadows; the background, treated in an almost monochromatic way, makes the protagonists pop out with all the brightness of the bare paper utilised for their limbs.

The fact that the plan for the painting was still in fieri at this point is also evidenced by a few substantial differences in the figures’ poses, like that of Madame Pétiet’s daughter’s left arm, which in the drawing is resting on her legs, while in the painting she is affectionately squeezing her mother’s hand, which rests on her shoulder.

The use of red chalk is clever and elegant, as well as instrumental to the development of the composition: it adds a tonal and coloristic interpretation, utilised in carefully calibrated small sections of the drawing where necessary. It enhances and lends vitality to the personages’ lips, hands, and a few points of their arms. It is mixed with black chalk marks in the hair of the boy on the left to lend it a chestnut tone, thus creating a painterly nuance.

This drawing testifies not only to the artist’s skill even in drawing quick preparatory works on paper, but also to his dedication to the art of group portraiture, a genre rarely found in Appiani’s oeuvre.

1 See in particular: Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano. Le Collezioni, eds. Alessandro Oldani and Paola Zatti, photographs by Umberto Armiraglio, Milano, 2017, p. 74 entries 32-33 ed. Alessandro Oldani.

On the paintings and another preparatory drawing (in a private collection) for the one of Madame Pétiet see: Francesco Leone, Andrea Appiani pittore di Napoleone. Vita, opere, documenti (1754-1817), Milan, 2015, p. 75 and fig. 30.

The portrait of Monsieur Pétiet is signed and dated 1800, while that of his wife is not dated.

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