Saint Sebastian, 1625
One of the most famous of the Bolognese, Guido Reni was born on November 4, 1575. Although his father Daniele was at the time a respected musician Guido was kind of a black sheep, preferring the brush to the harpsicord, and in his early twenties he joined the famous Carracci school Accademia degli Incamminati. For three years he absorbed the style of his favourite painter, Raphael with the teachings of the school whereupon he went to Rome with Annibale to help out with the Farnese frescos. A man of physically short stature and unassuming features, Reni would soon become a huge figure in the Baroque that would influence countless artists to come.
His Saint Sebastian above, one of many Reni painted depicts the saint as youthful and handsome, an innocent victim rather than a martyr. This is a painter's painting. Study the brushstrokes and see how Reni alternates between blending and rough edges, thick highlights with sof transparent shadows, and his use of greens in the cooler middletones and yellows in the warmer areas. Reni's anatomy reveals a solid understanding of muscle and bone, enhanced by sharp and fuzzy edges to complete the illusion of flesh. The way he softens shadow edges with a warm border creates glowing skin, and even though the highlights on the shoulder and neck appear slathered on up close, when we squint it is spot on perfect.
St Matthew and the Angel, ca.1640
I had the pleasure of seeing this piece in Italy two years ago, and having a reproduction of it in a calendar made it even more exciting to witness in person. Reni's dazzling brushstrokes of St. Matthew's hair and beard are hypnotic, filled with warm yellows and and transparent greys. The penetrating gaze on his face, foreshortened, speaks so much without having to say a word. This is real portraiture.
Baptism of Christ, 1623
Click for Google Art Project zoomable version here
Creating a space around Christ, Reni tells the familiar story through body language...note how humble Jesus is portrayed. St. John the Baptist is painted in warm hues of yellows and oranges with cool green-greys, and his ability to create character by his understanding of hairstyle is ingenius, especially in the seventeenth century. Although Reni seems to have an impatience for elaborate backgrounds, he makes it work to his advantage by focusing on the main figures with a realism that captivates our attention. Having said this, the use of the red robe and light green sky pulls us into the painting, a clever use of complementary color.
The Toilet of Venus,1623
Here we see Reni's tenebrist side, heightening the drama with dark shadows and pale skin with a complex arrangement of the figures. As a mass they form a right-angle triangle, yet individually Reni uses their limbs and faces to direct our eyes to Venus, even if we wander off to Cupid peaking in through the window behind them. Note the subtle color arrangement of yellow, purple and blue in the drapery. Purple is both a warm and cool color, and Reni must have known this for he uses it effortlessly here to smooth effect.
Saint James the Greater, 1638
Click for zoomable Google Art Project version here
A stunning portrait, Reni uses pure colors to catch our attention, (compare with this sparser version by Rembrandt) that this was the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred and is the patron saint of Spain. The incredible attention to drapery here is breathtaking—Reni's knowledge of color temperature, hard and soft edges with eloquent brushwork is something any painter can learn from here. However, it is in the face and neck of St. James that we see superb cool green-greys and flawless highlights. And, once again Reni uses hair as a character-forming element that shapes our opinion of the man, not just the saint. Simply breathtaking.
St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, ca.1620
A tender work with subtle complementary color harmony, Reni creates a theme that verges on the sentimental yet under his deft brush we still want to examine this story. Note how he develops the background just for this very reason. Not just a religious theme, it is about a father's love for his child. Again, Joseph's hair reveals character, a tireless father who dotes over his only son.
St. Catherine, 1615
An unusually cool palette at work here, Reni creates mystery and elegance with his gift for skin tones and effortless drapery. Note the choice of olive-like green and very warm blue in this drapery. Reni understood that the neck area also defines the character and here she is graceful and serene, yet dark and brooding...a surreal depiction of royalty.
The Gathering of the Manna, ca.1615
A busy composition filled with multiple figures, Reni uses a vertical arrangement to create a sense of activity and drama. Compare with this version by Poussin. The drama is further heightened by the atmospheric perspective of distant figures in the background, and Moses' arms create a triangular frame to keep our eye to the main foreground figures. What is brilliant here is how the middleground figures raise their arms to the angles above. The scene has a startling realism that is surreal for a Baroque painting.
Lot and his Daughters leaving Sodom, ca.1616
Click here for zoomable version on National Gallery of London
A simple compositional arrangement here to be sure, but Reni more than makes up for it in sheer brilliance of details. Note the interesting color order: olive green, red and yellow. Here Reni shines in his facial expressions, which are among the finest he has painted. Zoom in on Lot's face and you will see everything you could ever want to know about portrait painting. Warm skin tones on cool hair and beard with brushstrokes that defy description. Another feature that Reni uses to create character is of course, hands and here he paints them in dramatic chiaroscuro yet with real depth and meaning. Reni has outdone himself here, in a huge way, easily comparable to any Van Dyke or Velázquez, and yet few painters or critics talk about this painting. It is paintings such as this that inspire me to write this blog, because it deserves true attention.
Peter and Paul,ca.1605
Depicting two apostles having a conversation against a dark landscape...Reni's genius here is palpable. In the future I will do a study of St. Peter as this pose and depiction of him is the most natural and poetic I have ever seen.
Reni had powers of the brush and mind that deserve a merit beyond what is usually known for, such as Atalanta and Hippomenes. Although sometimes veering toward the sentimental, what Reni could do when he focused his eye toward is something that few others could equal.