This accomplished Virgin and Child by Francesco Pesellino, dating from the mid-1450s, was one of the most reproduced paintings in fifteenth-century Florence. It was a pivotal work in an unusual and prolific copying enterprise. From the 1450s to the mid-1490s, the composition appeared in thirty-eight panel paintings executed by a workshop close to Pesellino and Filippo Lippi. These copies and variants were produced using a mechanical transfer method – stencil-like pounced cartoons, possibly generated from a tracing taken from the Gardner panel, rubbed over with charcoal dust. A very similar painting in Esztergom, Hungary, is probably also an autograph work by Pesellino. The Gardner panel, however, is clearly the prototype and a more accomplished work. The modeling is very delicate and the brushwork fluid. Underdrawing is visible through the transparent paint film and shows that changes were made in the drapery and body contours of both the Virgin and the Christ Child.
The Gardner Museum’s Virgin and Child is an important work within the small body of paintings attributed to Pesellino, a celebrated, but little-studied fifteenth-century Florentine master whose paintings were collected by the Medici family. Made at a time when painted and sculpted half-length Virgin and Child images were becoming standard features in middle and upper class Florentine homes, Pesellino’s painting has much in common with the work of the most successful Madonna manufacturers of the day — Filippo Lippi, Donatello, and Luca della Robbia. There is tension between the sacred and profane within the picture. The holy protagonists are positioned close to the picture plane, creating a sense of intimacy and accessibility. The Christ Child — appealingly childlike — meets the eye of the beholder. In contrast, the Virgin refuses visual engagement: she asserts decorum and distance; her physical grace and beauty are designated sacred, not of this world.
Source: Megan Holmes, "Virgin and Child with a Swallow," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 49.