Guercino was born in the small town of Cento but getting his start in nearby Bologna he moved to Rome from 1621–23 to exploit the patronage offered by the Bolognese Pope Gregory XV. On the Pope’s death he returned to Cento and thence to Bologna where he assumed the mantle of the leading Bolognese artist Guido Reni (1575–1642) who had died in 1641.Thereafter, he enjoyed a national and international reputation, wisely refusing an invitation to settle in England.
Guercino’s early works are predictably influenced by the Carracci family, instigators of the Bolognese baroque, and particularly by Lodovico Carracci (1555–1619) in his use of rich chiaroscuro. Guercino’s early style was later referred to by a collector as his maniera gagliarda “vigorous manner”. One of the best-known examples is St William of Aquitaine Receiving the Cowl in the Galleria Nazionale, Bologna. Here a warm, flickering light sweeps over the figures many of which have a beguiling charm, even more evident in his juicy Erminia and the Shepherd in Birmingham, UK or the wistful Et in Arcadia Ego in the Corsini gallery, Rome. Guercino portrays two shepherds who gaze raptly at a skull, perhaps as a memento mori but maybe also fascinated by the idea of mortality, like the dead in Virgil’s Aeneid waiting for admittance to Hades: “they held out longing hands to the farther shore.”
After his return from Rome, where he painted a splendid fresco of Aurora in the Pope’s villa, his style became more classical, a compromise that appealed to the conservative taste of many Italian clergy. Comparing another Tasso subject, the Erminia Finding the Wounded Tancred (1650) with the earlier Birmingham Erminia, the adolescent spontaneity of the latter has been replaced by a clearer composition, an even, blander light, and a mature sense of tragedy. Guercino’s late works were very popular in eighteenth century England and France, where they appealed to artists like Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) and Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) and formed an exemplar for early French and British neo-classicism. The British, in particular, loved his drawings, attracted by their inexhaustible virtuosity. Denis Mahon, the leading Guercino aficionado of recent times at first preferred his early style, a view which he and others later modified and is reflected in the purchase of many late works by museums and private collectors.
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Books on Guercino
Nicholas Turner, The Paintings of Guercino: A Revised and Expanded Catalogue Raisonné, Rome, 2017.
Sir Denis Mahon, ed., Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1992.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice: Live of the Bolognese Painters, 1678, trans. ed. Elizabeth Cropper, Washington D.C., 2012.