The drawing was copied from one by Guercino, which he produced in 1632-34 as a study for a now lost altarpiece for the church at Nonantola, near Cento. Both St Sebastian and the kneeling St Roch were believed to protect against the plague and the altarpiece was probably commissioned in thanks for the town’s reprieve from the disease in 1630.
The initials of the British portrait painter Thomas Hudson (born in 1701, died in 1779) are on the drawing. It is therefore thought that the copy was produced by Joshua Reynolds (born in 1723, died in 1792), when he was Hudson’s pupil in about 1742-3. Reynolds went on to promote admiration for Guercino’s drawings through his lectures as the first President of the Royal Academy from 1768.
Saint Sebastian was a favourite subject of medieval and Renaissance artists, who welcomed the challenge to paint the martyr’s contorted body. He was a Roman soldier who was first shot with arrows and then later beaten to death, after attempting to convert others to Christianity. This drawing, like most images from the period when the original was produced, show the Saint as a handsome, semi-naked, young man and focus on the moment of his execution. They depict him tied to a tree or post, his bare torso pierced with arrows, often seemingly deriving a spiritual pleasure from his pain. It is thought that the abundance of such eroticised portrayals of the martyr’s naked, muscular, arrow-pierced flesh inspired the cult following Saint Sebastian attracted within late nineteenth century gay communities. The saint’s youthful good looks made him a symbol of homoerotic desire and male beauty which has endured to this day.
The drawing once belonged to William Roscoe. It was bought in 1995 as part of the Weld-Blundell collection of old master drawings with the help of the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Sir Denis Mahon and British Nuclear Fuels.