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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (called il Guercino)

Italian, 1591 - 1666

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Born in 1591 in Cento in northern Italy, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was known by the nickname il Guercino, usually translated as "the squinter" but his portraits reveal the defect better described as strabico (man with one crossed eye; see, for example, Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Guercino, black chalk, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence; Salerno 1988: Salerno Luigi. I dipinti del Guercino. Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 1988, fig. 1). Whatever the deformation, it in no way affected the acuteness of his vision as a painter or draughtsman.

Guercino's formal training seems to have been restricted to a three-year apprenticeship with the Centese painter Benedetto Ginnery the Elder. He also studied works by such early Baroque masters as Ludovico and Annibale Carracci in nearby Ferrara and Bologna. Even Cento, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, partook of the largesse of the Church, whose policy during the Counter Reformation was to promulgate the faith through placing paintings in every church and town within the Papal States. While still in his early twenties, Guercino began to receive both religious and secular commissions in Cento and elsewhere. In 1616 he tried to start an academy for life drawing, and although it came to naught, the attempt attests to his faith in drawing as an essential skill in an artist's training. His bold and original style rapidly attracted patronage beyond provincial boundaries, including that of the grand duke of Tuscany and the pope himself; Gregory XV.

Guercino's works are characterized by meticulous draughtsmanship, bold compositions, and a palette of unusual colors combined with dramatic contrasts of light and dark (chiaroscuro). An event occurred in 1621 that dramatically affected not only the artist's life but also his artistic style. He was called to Rome by the pope to execute a vast decorative project in the Loggia delle Benedizioni at Saint Peter's. The pope's death in 1623 occasioned the cancellation of the project and thereafter Guercino's return to Cento, but the brief Roman sojourn provided patronage contacts that established Guercino as an important artist in the full European context, far beyond his provincial origins. His painting style underwent a metamorphosis at that time, adapting itself to the fashionable classical conventions originally established by Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni but by then a part of the international stylistic vocabulary.

His move to Bologna in 1642 signified the actualization of his position as a leading painter of the city and the region. Guercino continued to work in Bologna until his death in 1666, although he became less productive over the years. He excelled in all the drawing techniques, red and black chalks as well as pen and ink or pen and wash. He was extraordinarily prolific and enjoyed the added advantage of having two devoted nephews, Benedetto the Younger and Cesare Gennari, as his assistants in his later years. His nephews, who were also the nephews of his first teacher, inherited Guercino's estate, including all his duly appreciated drawings. It is largely thanks to the Gennari that Guercino's drawings are to be found today in all major collections in Europe and North America and still appear frequently on the art market.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 10.

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