The younger brother of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Davide Ghirlandaio was himself a gifted painter and mosaicist. His life is well-documented, and we know that his work included the mosaic façades of the Orvieto and Siena Cathedrals as well as stained glass for the tribune of the Pisa Cathedral, all now destroyed. Davide's collaboration with his elder brother is recorded from 1480, and after Domenico's death Davide took over painting commissions from the workshop, including the high altar for Santa Maria Novella in Florence and the altarpiece depicting Saints Vincent Ferrer, Sebastian and Roch, commissioned by Elisabetta da Rimini in 1493 (Rimini, Pinacoteca Comunale).
This charming depiction of the Madonna and Child records a composition from Domenico Ghirlandaio's studio of which only one other version is known (London, National Gallery, inv. NG 3937). That work, formerly assigned to the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, was ascribed in full to the master following a conservation treatment in 1992-1993. A private devotional painting of unknown origin, it is datable to the late 1470s and displays Ghirlandaio's dependence on the work of Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488). The general design, including the parapet separating the Virgin from the viewer, the mountainous landscape beyond, and the delicate cushion on which the Christ child stands, all derive from Verrocchio and his studio. Other details, such as the carefully folded tunic of the Virgin and the exceptionally fine highlights in her curly red hair reflect the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, then perhaps still active in Verrocchio's shop. In our panel, Davide has made a few innovations of his own relative to the compositional prototype. The gauzy, translucent cloth falls about the Christ child's arm in a different direction, and the pillow at his feet has a more elaborate, decorative shape.
The present, nearly life-size image is an important addition to the oeuvre of Davide Ghirlandaio, whose work has traditionally been difficult to separate from that of his brother. Recent studies have addressed Davide in greater depth, however, enabling scholars to isolate his style more clearly. Jean Cadogan lists several autograph works by Davide in her recent monograph on Domenico Ghirlandaio, including the Virgin and Child with Saints Clare, Paul, Francis, and Catherine of Alexandria now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (inv. 84), and the Saints Nicholas of Bari and Dominic, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (inv. WA1850.12). She notes that Davide's physiognomies are distinctive, and that his draperies have a slightly softer, more curvilinear style than those of his brother (J. Cadogan, Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan, New Haven, 2000, p. 159).