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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino)
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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino, was one of the greatest Italian painters and draftsmen of the 17th century. A prolific artist, he created some 400 easel paintings, several fresco cycles and perhaps over a thousand drawings. The subject matter of his works ranged from religious and mythological themes to landscapes and portraits. Most of his drawings are preparatory works for paintings or designs for prints, but he made numerous drawings depicting landscapes, genre scenes, caricatures and fanciful scenes, apparently done for his own amusement. Probably born on February 2 and baptized on February 8, 1591 in Cento, between Bologna and Ferara, he received the nickname “Il Guercino” (“the squinter”) after an early eye injury. He received some artistic training from the painter Paolo Zagnoni in Bologna at an early age. In 1607 he was apprenticed in Cento to the painter Benedetto Gennari the Elder (1570-1610) for three years. Guercino’s first commissions came in 1613, thanks to the support of Fr. Antonio Mirandola, a prelate in Cento. They were an altarpiece for a church in Cento and a mural for the Palazzo Comunale. Fr. Mirandola became his life-long friend and supporter. The next year he painted murals in the Casa Provenzale in Cento, followed by murals in the Casa Pannini, Cento. A painting and drawings by Guercino were exhibited in Bologna in 1615. Guercino opened a drawing academy in Cento in 1616, but it lasted only two years, apparently because he had no time for it. Commissions came for the cathedral in Cento and churches in Bologna and Ferrara, and from the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence. At the suggestion of Fr. Mirandola, Guercino created a book of anatomical drawings in 1618 that were soon engraved with a dedication to Ferdinando Gonzaga (1587-1626), the Duke of Mantua, which led to a commission from the Duke the following year. These early works helped to establish his reputation. His early paintings, with dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and rich color, show the influence of the naturalistic works of Ludovico (1555-1619) and Annibale Carraci (1560-1609), leading painters in Bologna. A major change in Guercino’s career came when his patron Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi (1554-1623) of Bologna was elected Pope Gregory XV and summoned the artist to Rome in 1621. Although he was in Rome only for two years, he executed a number of commissions, including an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Basilica and frescoes for the Casino Ludovisi (including the great Aurora ceiling), Palazzo Lancellotti and Palazzo Patrizi. While in Rome he was exposed to the works of other artists, whose style has been described as “classical,” leading to a more refined style with a lighter palette that became apparent in the works Guercino created after returning to Cento in 1623, following Pope Gregory’s death. He remained in Cento for nineteen years, although he traveled to Parma, Reggio Emilia, Piacenza and Modena to execute commissions. Important commissions also came from King Charles I of England (1600-1649) and Marie de’ Medici, Queen Mother of France (1573-1642). Guercino declined offers to become a court painter in both countries. In 1628 Guercino’s sister Lucia married his former teacher Gennari’s son, Ercole Gennari (1597-1658); their sons Benedetto II (1633-1715) and Cesare (1637-1688) became painters and Guercino’s assistants and heirs, as Guercino never married. At some point Guercino’s brother Paolo Antonio Barbieri (1603-1649), a still-life painter, became his collaborator and in 1629 started an account book to record Guercino’s commissions, which he continued after his brother’s death. The book has survived and provides us with a record of his work. After the death of Bologna’s leading painter Guido Reni (b. 1575) in 1642, Guercino moved to Bologna and became the city’s most important painter. Two years later he purchased a house in Bologna, keeping his studio there until his death. After 1650 his health may have deteriorated; in a letter that year he complained about chest pains. His international reputation continued unabated; Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) visited him in 1655. Guercino was ill during 1661 but recovered and continued to paint and draw. He died on December 22, 1666. He left his house and contents to his nephews; the house became known as Casa Gennari. After Benedetto’s death in 1715, an inventory was made of its contents, completed in 1719. It listed a number of Guercino’s paintings and hundreds of his drawings. One of the three Guercino drawings in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums, St. John the Evangelist Meditating the Gospel, can be traced back to the Casa Gennari collection. (TNB 4/2013) Selected bibliography: Mahon, Denis. Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque. Exhibition catalog, with Andrea Emiliani, Diane De Grazia and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. Washintgon: National Gallery of Art, 1992. Turner, Nicholas. Guercino: Drawings from Windsor Castle. Exhibition catalog. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1991.