A precocious artistic talent, Carlo Dolci started his apprenticeship in the studio of the painter Jacopo Vignali in about 1625–26, and was recognised as an excellent portraitist at the age of only sixteen. He lived and worked throughout his life in Florence, which he left only in 1672 to go to Innsbruck to work on a commission for a portrait of Claudia Felicita, the future wife of the Emperor Leopold I. Cosimo III’s Medici court accorded him unreserved esteem and admiration, as did the English aristocracy on the Grand Tour, taking his reputation to England too. He also made some exquisite still lives, but his fame is mainly linked to his vast production of sacred paintings.
He concentrated particularly on painting from life, and gave a personal interpretation based on precise “optical realism”, which he achieved by creating formally impeccable figures, with a crystal-clear rendering. Dolci always strove for formal perfection and elegance, and this was part of a true religious spirit which led him to consider art as a divine gift for the glorification of God on earth. His aim was to inspire a feeling of Christian piety in the observer. This explains his preference for the depiction of gentle Madonnas and ecstatic saints who, in the years of his maturity, increasingly conveyed a sense of piety. Some of these paintings were later to become popular cult images.
This St Sebastian is a typical example of Dolci’s christianus pictor easel painting, a very successful invention which was much replicated and imitated.