Guido Reni, by the end of his career, had become the most famous artist in Italy, with a European reputation. The purity and spirituality of his baroque classicism became a touchstone for devotional art in the Catholic world, like the later work of Carlo Dolci (1616–86) in Florence and Murillo (1617–82) in Spain. Reni was born in Bologna and trained under the Flemish late mannerist Denys Calvaert (1540–1619). He naturally gravitated towards the Carracci academy, whose new style reinvigorated the legacy of Raphael (1483–1520), Correggio (1489–1534) and the great Venetians with a realism based on life drawing. In 1601, Reni moved to Rome and in his first major commission, the Crucifixion of St Peter, he adopted a Caravaggesque manner, then on the cutting edge. His fresco of Aurora in the Casino Rospigliosi shows the impact of the antique in the relief composition and classical poses, as well as the smooth elegance of the late Mannerist painter the Cavaliere d’Arpino (1568–1640) whom he knew well.
In 1614, Reni returned to Bologna where he immediately confirmed his supremacy with his fresco of St Dominic in Gloryin the church of San Domenico, for which he had already painted a Massacre of the Innocents. In the latter, the violence is contained by a disciplined armature of gesture, a common device in early baroque painting. Among notable works from his second Bolognese period up to 1630 are his Assumption of the Virgin in St Ambrogio, Genoa, a worthy heir to Raphael’s Transfiguration of a century earlier in the masterly deployment of the figures to express their varied reactions. In the Hellenistic grace of his Sampson and the rarefied Atalanta and Hippomenes he parallels the style of Andrea Sacchi (1599–1661) and the sculptor Francesco Duquesnoy (1597–1643) in Rome, while in the magnificent Nessus and Dejanirain the musée du Louvre, a revered model for later history painting in France, the proto-baroque passion and energy of later Greek sculpture is powerfully, if maybe unconsciously, resurrected. The epicene classicism of the Bacchus and Ariadne in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art introduces an unexpected note of humor in Ariadne’s exasperation with her lover’s insouciance. The somewhat later Assumption of the Virgin, painted for the Spanish Infanta is a prime example of the sentimental spirituality that made him famous, repeated in many smaller paintings of Christ, saints and biblical heroines.
In the 1630s Reni lightened his palette and his technique became looser in response to a taste for less tenebrous paintings. His St Michael in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome was once, with its androgynous beauty, a major tourist attraction. At this time Reni’s addiction to gambling forced him to ramp up his production, much of it with studio assistance. His very late works are less painted for the market, more monochromatic and thinly painted in a series of veil like washes. Reni’s looser brighter manner was continued by his pupil Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610–70) and his daughter Elisabetta (1638–65) who became the most famous woman painter of her day. Reni was a notable if infrequent portraitist. His portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada is the archetype of the cultivated ecclesiastic.
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Books on Guido Reni
Richard Spear, The “Divine” Guido: Religion, Sex, Money, and Art in the World of Guido Reni, New Haven, 1997.
Cristina Casali and Andrea Emiliani (ed.), Guido Reni, 1575-1642, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1988.
Stephen Pepper, Guido Reni: A Complete Catalogue of his Works with an Introductory Text, New York, 1984.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice: Lives of the Bolognese Painters, 1678, trans. ed. Elizabeth Cropper, Washington D.C., 2012