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Guercino il Magnifico

Atelier Guercino Autoritratto
Self-Portrait of the Artist holding a Palette, ca.1635

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino was born on February 8, 1591 in Cento, a small city near Ferrara. He is one of the great masters of the Italian Baroque and poet of painters. Noted for his speed and efficiency, Guercino also worked in a number of mediums with equal passion whether ink, chalk, charcoal, or oils. His nickname, which means 'little cross-eyes' in Italian, derives in part from an apocryphal childhood accident where he supposedly awoke from a deep sleep as a child from a loud scream that caused his eyes to cross. Another story says something was thrown into his eyes. At any rate, he was self-taught as an artist from as early as nine years old and by his early teens was discovered by the eldest of the Carracci where he would spend some time at the Accademia Degli Incamminati before venturing out on his own. Despite his apparent 'handicap', his vision and talent would make him a giant that few others of his generation could equal.

In his self-portrait above Guercino portrays a humble expression of himself, an artist reflected in the mirror. Note his limited palette of colors he displays proudly. There is no mystery in the man, what you see is what you get...yet it is what he could do with those few colors and in particular how he used those brushes, that we will explore in the following works.

Guercino - Saint Matthew and the Angel - Google Art Project
Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1622

A theme painted many times by others such as Caravaggio, Nicolas Régnier, Simone Cantarini, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, Carlo Dolci, and by Guercino's contemporary Guido Reni, under Guercino's brush it becomes something entirely different. St. Matthew is in a reclined, diagonal position on the floor with the youthful angel beside him indicating the scripture he will write. He uses a sparse drapery on St. Matthew to portray his humility. Look up close and you can see that Guercino used larger brushes than his contemporaries, particularly in the highlights and hair. His use of greys and greens in the mid-tones of the skin is hypnotic. Note the attention to anatomy, especially in the feet, hands, and knees...Guercino is one of the only artists I can think of that paid attention to the complex joint of the knees in his own expressive way. Within this biblical theme Guercino uses a subplot to contrast youth and old age, with a very warm palette on St. Matthew compared to a ghostly cool one for the angel. It is evident here that Guercino is a painter's painter.

Guercino Erminia Tancredi
Erminia Finds the Wounded Tancred, 1619

Taken from the epic poem by Torquato Tasso called Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) about the battle between Christians and Muslims, here Princess Erminia of Antioch discovers her wounded lover Tancred, a Christian knight of the Crusades. She betrays her own people out of love for Tancred and upon discovering him wounded, heals him. Guercino's interpretation of the text into this highly dramatic scene is nothing short of incredible. On display at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, I remember being completely enthralled by this painting when I first saw it in 2010. The greens and warm reflected tones in Erminia's neck and cheek are a textbook on painting in itself. Even her drapery flutters in the wind with a sense of urgency, while Tancred's drapery droops to reinforce his injured state. Vafrino is the man on the left who bares the open wound to Erminia. Guercino's facial expressions here are real, even though she throws her hands up in horrific surprise, it may have been a natural expression of surprise in the 17th century. Glowing skin under a warm bright light spilling on top of them, Guercino creates a hauntingly beautiful piece alternating warm and cool colors in the drapery, and a dark sky of billowing clouds behind them. Guercino creates a moment within a story that defies any play or film.

Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619

A frenzied composition more akin to a Rubens than someone from the Bolognese school, this familiar biblical theme has much going on, compared to the quieter version by Rubens, ironically. And here Samson is portrayed more as just a fit man, not a massive warrior. By focusing on the back of his neck, Samson's face hidden from us, the Philistines are now the subject of evil taking down a defenceless man, where they will gore out his eyes. In other versions of this theme Delilah is the focus of the painting as a femme fatale, a seductress who deceives Samson, yet here she is merely one of many trying to take away his strength. The only awkwardness here is in the legs of Samson, which appear to be trying to run away, but in reality he is now a mortal human fighting for his life and his body language reflects this struggle.

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) - Christ and the Woman of Samaria - Google Art Project
Christ and the Woman of Samaria, 1620

This biblical story depicts Christ at a well asking a Samarian woman for a drink of water, and she refuses him because he is a Jew (Samarians and Jews didn't get along in the Bible). Guercino interprets the figures as two adults, side by side, not blatantly favoring Christ over the woman as many painters would have done. Instead, the woman is skeptical and apparently not aware of who he is, with a stiffness in her neck to show disapproval. Christ is shown trying to get through to her, with a sincerity of expression that only Guercino could paint. Note again the incredible tone and depth in the shadow areas of the neck, the placement of warm and cool highlights on the hands of Christ, and the soft edges of the hair contrasting with the prominent shapes of the forehead and nose. Look at the smooth brushstrokes of her drapery and hands. I love the low-key sky and trees behind them, painted in greys and blues with warm tones in the edges of the clouds.What Guercino may have lacked in composition more than makes up for in his strong sense of presence and immediacy here, a sense that there is a true dialogue transpiring here and not merely biblical proselytizing narrative.

Guercino - The Persian Sibyl - Google Art Project
The Persian Sibyl, 1648

This Renaissance-styled portrait does not seem like a Guercino, in fact it has the mood and structure of a Raphael. However, notice the green-gray midtones and shadows on her skin, and the glazing of pink on top of the blue drapery along her shoulder and down her sleeve. The poignant expression on her face also shows an emotional quality that Guercino is known for. The painting is hypnotic in that the more you look at it, the more interesting it becomes. Its simplicity is overcome by a strong innate presence that is tactile with the prominent drapery.

Below are a small sample of his studies in various media:

Raising of Tabitha Sketch

Bust of an Apostle, late 1620s

Recumbent Male Nude, ca.1619

Study for Cleopatra

Beggar Holding a Rosary and a Cap, 1620

Assumption of the Virgin, 1623

Here is where Guercino's powers of composition shine. Note how most of the figures are arranged in groups of three, except for the Virgin Mary and the two lone saints on the far right. This theme has been painted by several great artists (Rubens painted it three times) including a large masterpiece by Titian, which definitely must have added pressure to Guercino. Here in this version, Guercino takes a simpler, less theatrical arrangement and utilizes his powers of presence once again with an incredible variety to the figures, using anatomy, drapery, color, various age groups and facial expressions. Any single one of these figures is a painting in itself. In his quest for a work that is in the same category as other great artists who painted this very theme, Guercino unwittingly did something unexpected: a triumph of painting.

St William of Aquitaine Receiving the Cowl, 1620

An early famous work by Guercino that established him as a key painter of the Bolognese School. The composition is unique in that the center of the painting is 'empty', separating the figures below from above with a loose circular pattern around this center. The painting depicts a French count who, having fought in battle against the Muslims, became a monk in his later years to which he is shown here in shining armour receiving his cowl. In the far background we can see warriors on horseback. Guercino uses dramatic light, complex foreshortening, and figures facing various directions to lead our eye around the painting to prove his mastery of drama and expression.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c. 1621
Click here for zoomable version

Guercino's breathtaking chiaroscuro, hypnotic skin tones and powerful presence are a triumph here again. Note the thick strokes of highlights along the neck of St. Thomas, while the figure above him is in soft shadow with a glint of highlight on the tip of his nose. The similarity to Guido Reni is definitely apparent, but here Guercino's mood and facial expressions cannot be matched by anyone else. Christ's skin is an eerie mixture of greens and yellows, browns and greys, glowing gently, as if lit by moonlight and yet it works perfectly. All the shadows here are transparent and give enormous depth and character to the figures.

Disegno and Colore (Drawing and Color) by Guercino, Getty Center
Disegno and Colore (Drawing and Color), ca.1640

This work sums up the philosophy of Guercino's painting, which he equates to a sort of yin and yang, masculine and feminine whole where both elements are absolutely vital to painting. Note how the woman (Colore) refers back to the man (Disegno) as to the importance of the drawing, no matter what stage in the painting. Note also her limited palette.

Guercino Christ et la samaritaine
Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, 1641

A totally different variation of the theme, this time the message is proselytizing. However, the style of painting is also different, and the Samaritan woman has a gracefulness that is sculptural, like a Titian, and there is a sense of regret in her face. Her drapery has more intricate folds than the previous version also. Christ here looks more typical and brightly colored, his authority not to be questioned. Guercino's ability to change with the demands of his patrons reveals another kind of genius and versatility that not too many painters would have.

Guercino - St Jerome in the Wilderness - WGA10950
St Jerome in the Wilderness, ca.1650

Almost musical in body language and composition, St. Jerome is bathed in a very warm light coming from the right. Note that the background is not black, as most tenebrist paintings are, but an atmospheric haze from glazing warm on top of cool greens and blues. Despite the highly uncomfortable position of kneeling on a rock while transcribing hebrew, Guercino gives him a grace and dignity for his age to inspire all those who seek to learn and seek a patron saint of students and librarians.

Guercino - Virgin and Child with Four Saints - WGA10952
Virgin and Child with Patron Saints of Modena, 1651

Guercino's knowledge of composition has grown vastly here in this later work. The figures on the bottom are grouped in three, with a vertical curve on the left figures and a horizontal curve on the right figures. Guercino's sense of depth and perspective are also stronger here, as the spacing between each figure varies. The attention to detail in the robe of Saint Geminianus is stunning, yet Guercino manages to preserve his character as he holds a model of the town of Modena with a cherub. The diagonal slant of the clouds above with Mary and the cherubs is loosely repeated in the figures below, yet the depth and distance Guercino gives the saints below is also repeated in the cherubs above who are noticeably behind Mary. The Venetian coloring that was to provide a deep influence on Guercino in these later works is evident here, yet somehow the vitality and strength of his earlier work is difficult to match. Guercino was an artist whose talents speak louder than any words ever could, and his legacy of work from a man teased for being cross-eyed as a youth, is a giant of painting.


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