• Undoubtedly the collection of Count Antonio Maria Zanetti (1680-1766), Venice.
• Purchased in Venice c. 1791 by Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747-1825).
• Collection of Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon, Paris (no mark), until at least 1829.
• France, Private Collection.
• Engraved by Vivant Denon for Monuments des arts du dessin (Monuments of the Arts of Drawing) under the title "A Patriarch with his Children. Taken from the Cabinet of M. Denon." (pl. 202).
The Year 1620
Was called to Ferrara, where [he] did other paintings for the said Legate, and for his nephew, who so delighted in drawings; and made a painting of the Prophet Elijah in the desert, and Jacob Blessing the Sons, all with full figures.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice, vite de’ pittori bolognesi, Bologne, 1678, vol. II, p. 364.
Annus mirabilis : thus Sir Denis Mahon characterized the year 1620 in Guercino’s career. Spent between Cento, Bologna, and Ferrara, these few months would see the birth of a series of masterpieces dominated by Saint William of Aquitaine Receiving the Monastic Habit, painted for the Church of San Gregorio in Bologna (Bologna, Pinacothek), as well as pictures for the personal collection of Cardinal Jacopo Serra (1570-1623), papal legate in Ferrara: Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene (Bologna), The Return of the Prodigal Son (Vienna), Samson Captured by the Philistines (New York), Elijah Fed by Crows (London), and Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Sons (Dublin).
Rarely depicted by artists, the subject of the last picture is taken from the Book of Genesis. One of the most complex figures in the Bible, Jacob, called “Israel” after having wrestled with the angel, came into Egypt at Joseph’s invitation. Feeling his death near, he called for his sons and grandsons – Manasseh, the elder one, and Ephraim – to come to him. Whereas tradition was that he would bless the elder with his right hand, Jacob laid his left on Manasseh and the right on Ephraim, and responded to Joseph’s interrogation by saying that the younger one “shall be greater” and that “his seed shall become a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 48, 13-19).
This original theme was certainly suggested to Guercino by Cardinal Serra who bore the same name as the patriarch. However, the Prelate gave the painter full freedom as he didn’t wish to curb either his genius which he had already been able to appreciate, or his rich inventiveness which, with Guercino, took the form of a multitude of sketches. Hurried or concise, studies of the whole or of details, done in a single sitting or reworked many times, Guercino’s preparatory drawings in ink and wash represent the meanders of his ardent imagination as he searched for the best possible expression, the best gestures and poses, the best light effects.
The rareness of the subject of Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Sons meant that the disparate preparatory works for the painting which were dispersed between many public and private collections remained unidentified for a long time; the attribution of some was even subject of discussion. In addition, our work, one of the gems of Dominique-Vivant Denant’s cabinet, was engraved by him under the title of "A Patriarch with his Children" to illustrate Guercino’s talent in his encyclopedic work dedicated to the “arts of drawing” and left unfinished. The indefatigable collector had certainly acquired it in Venice, where he retired to flee the uncertainty of the Revolution:
“Zanetti’s famous cabinet remained undivided, and among all of his successors, none of them inherited his talents and taste. I could not buy everything at once, but forty drawings by Parmigianino, sixty by Guercino, seemed a treasure to me.”
With our drawing, seven preparatory sketches for Cardinal Serra’s painting can be recognized today. All are in pen and wash, the dimensions are relatively close and the scene is treated as a whole, with the exception of a small sketch which studies Jacob’s bust (Cento, Pinacoteca, 13 x 13 cm.) Nonetheless, the composition differs so radically from one folio to another that it is easy to understand the difficulty of associating a series that is so disparate to one single painting.
In the painting, Guercino chose to depict the exact moment when Joseph questions his father on the reason for inversing his benediction. The old man, half nude, sits up in his bed, as in the Scriptures (“And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Gen. 48, 2) He turns to to his son, on the right, and doing so, removes his hands from the childrens’ heads, to the left of his couch.
The composition is virtually the same in the drawing conserved in Moscow which is no doubt later (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). The sketch in Bayonne shows Jacob turning towards his grandsons (Bonnat Museum, inv. RF 502940), while as in that of Chicago, the whole scene is reversed and Joseph’s kneeling pose has been reworked intensively as can be seen by several pentimenti. As for the Chatsworth and Windsor sketches (Royal Collection, inv. RCIN 902471), there is no more question of an intervention by Joseph who doesn’t seem to be the man reading a book: this strange figure absorbed by his reading assumes the features of the young man in the Windsor drawing. The scene is still in Jacob’s bedroom, but the old man is standing and attired in the fashion of the time in a long buttoned robe or coat. He leans towards the two boys with a benevolent gaze.
Further yet from the final compostion, our drawing should seemingly be placed well in the beginning of the artist’s creative reflections as in a primo pensiero. All indications of space are absent: there is no bed nor column nor draperies, but only three half-figures, as in The Return of the Prodigal Son painted for Cardinal Serra (Vienna, KHM, inv. 253), one of Guercino’s most Caravaggesque works. Solemn in his ample fur coat, the old man holds the younger boy tightly in his arms and the latter gives in to his grandfather’s caresses. With his left hand – in an exact repetition of the father in the Prodigal Son – Jacob attracts the elder son who has his arms crossed on his chest, the traditional gesture of requesting a blessing.
Everything takes place as if the painter first mused on another passage in Genesis:
“And Israel said, Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them. Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them.” (Gen. 48, 9-10)
Guercino’s agitated incisive line, recognizable in all of the drawings, subsides in the patriarch’s coat folds and white hair. The pen is more attentive to hands and faces, seeks to capture the old man’s sincere emotion, the tenderness of his gestures, the warmth of his embrace, the innocence of the young children. The brush places light blended shadows which do not at all disturb the scene’s quietude so distant from the tension in the painted version. Long before Rembrandt, who appropriated the same subject in 1656 (Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen, inv. GK249), Guercino handled this Biblical story here not as composed of passion and action, but of emotion.
We would like to thank Mr. Nicholas Turner for having confirmed the attribution of our drawing after examination.
Bibliography of the Work
Dominique-Vivant Denon, Amaury DUVAL, Monuments des arts du dessin chez les peuples tant anciens que modernes, Paris, Brunet Denon, 1829, vol. III. Suite des écoles italiques, pl. 202.
Michael JAFFÉ, The Devonshire Collection of Italian Drawings, Phaidon Press, 1994, vol. IV, Bolognese and Emilian Schools, p. 142, under cat. 561 (as lost).
Denis MAHON and Nicholas TURNER, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge, 1989, cat. 499 (as lost).
Marie-Anne DUPUY-VACHEY (dir.), Dominique-Vivant Denon. L’œil de Napoléon, exh. cat. Paris, Louvre Museum, RMN, 1999, pp. 392-469, 511-515.
Denis MAHON, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Il Guercino (1591-1666). Disegni, Bologna, 1992.
Luigi SALERNO, I dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988.
Benjamin PERRONET, "Denon, collectionneur typique ou atypique?," D. Gallo (dir.), Les Vies de Dominique-Vivant Denon, Paris, La Documentation française, 2001, vol. II, pp. 741-766.