Bolognese, 1591 - 1666
Barbieri, Giovanni Francesco; Barbieri, called Il Guercino, Giovanni Francesco; Barbieri, Giovanni Francesco, called Guercino
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was born in 1591 in the small town of Cento near the artistic centers of Ferrara and Bologna. Due to a visual ailment he was known throughout his life as Guercino (the "squinter"). Although he studied with local artists, including the Centese quadratura painter Paolo Zagnani and the Bolognese Benedetto Gennari (d. 1610), he was, as he himself admitted, largely self taught. Guercino looked toward Venetianizing Ferrarese artists such as Scarsellino (1550-1620), whose rich painterly style and deep colors affected his early landscapes. More important, however, were the paintings of the Carracci, and especially those of Ludovico (1555-1619), whose naturalistic figures moved excitedly in a dramatic chiaroscuro light. Guercino remarked that he had been nurtured by Ludovico's altarpiece Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Francis, and a Donor in the Capucchin church of the Carmelites in Cento (now Museo Civico, Cento).
Guercino's precocious genius was recognized by the Bolognese canon Padre Antonio Mirandola, who became his earliest protector and obtained the artist's first Bolognese commission in 1613. From that period on Guercino's reputation was secure. He was patronized by the papal legate to Ferrara, Cardinal Jacopo Serra, the Bolognese cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, and Ferdinando Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua. Between 1617 and 1621, Guercino's religious commissions for these patrons were among the most forward-looking paintings of the decade. Landscapes and religious pictures from this period also emphasize natural everyday events, an indication that the artist was influenced by the early works of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Following the example of the Carracci, Guercino opened an Academy of the Nude in Cento in 1616.
In 1618, on Padre Mirandola's recommendation, Guercino prepared a volume of anatomical drawings for beginning painters. He took this volume to Venice, where he was able to see the works of the Venetian artists whose painterly style had influenced his development through the paintings of Scarsellino and Ludovico Carracci. Guercino's masterpiece of these prolfiic years that shows the mature artist synthesizing his early influences into a bold but balanced composition is the Investiture of Saint William, (1620, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna), a painting that was admired for the next two centuries and carried to France by Napoleon's armies.
When Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi became Pope Gregory XV in 1621 Guercino was called to Rome. For the pope's nephew Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, Guercino produced the ceiling with the Aurora in the Villa Ludovisi, Rome (1621), which is the culmination of his early mature style. For the Vatican Guercino created the immense Saint Petronilla altarpiece, in which a moody atmosphere and dark colors are offset by an awakening interest in the balance of Renaissance compositions, as epitomized by Raphael.
The death of Gregory XV brought an end to Guercino's Roman career and the artist returned to Cento, where he remained until 1642 when he moved to Bologna following Guido Reni's death. During these years Guercino's style evolved from the exuberance of the teens to a calm, classicizing manner. It seems likely that he lightened his palette and calmed his animated style as a natural maturation process. In addition, in the late 1620s Italian taste was swinging in favor of a lighter tonality in paintings in general. Guercino's works of the second half of this decade retain the dramatic early style and while foreshadowing his later classicizing one. By 1630, however, the artist began wholeheartedly to emulate the ideal beauty of Guido Reni (1575-1642) and the emotional affetti of Domenichino (1581-1641). He so completely turned to Reni's manner that the latter accused him of stealing his style. Many of Guercino's mature paintings exhibit a dependence on Reni but expunge Reni's ethereality of form for his own down-to-earth naturalism.
Guercino's change of style did not lessen demand for his works. Among other requests, he was asked to become official painter to the courts of England (1626) and France (1629 and 1639). By the 1650s, however, patronage became less frequent and more localized. As the artist's health declined, his style became more flaccid and studio participation in his works increased. In spite of this, he continued painting until his death in 1666.
Guercino was of a pragmatic nature. In 1629 he began an account book (Libro dei Conti), which he kept until his death. From the account book and surviving letters published by his first biographer Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, it is evident that the artist charged his clients by the number of figures within each painting rather than by the significance of the composition. He traveled little and was devoted to his family. After his death his nephews continued his shop and produced weak imitations of his style. Guercino's influence was not far-reaching, probably because his style was so singular and he did not have a real school to carry it on. His paintings were widely collected but his reputation was based primarily on his large graphic output. Collectors appreciated the immediacy and vivacity of his drawings, in which landscape and genre were treated equally with religious and mythological subjects. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]