• Giuseppe Villardi (1784-1863), Milan (Lugt 1223a in lower left).
• Undetermined collection, “N. 93” inscribed on upper part of verso.
• Undetermined collection, southern Germany, according to a note on the old mount.
• Germany, private collection (attribued to Pietro Faccini).
Famous for his pen drawings which display a never equaled virtuosity, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino, one of the most illustrious painters of the 17th century Bolognese School, wielded sanguine and black chalk with equal perfection in nude studies. Formerly attributed to Pietro Faccini (1562 – 1602) who was a very talented student of Annibale Carracci, our drawing can be situated quite naturally within Guercino’s corpus with its attenuated evocation of light, self-assurance in the lines, as well as concise and sometimes schematic modeling of the volumes, especially in the hair. In comparison, Faccini’s style in his late academies appears more supple, even eccentric.
Our large format drawing is on thick granular paper comparable to that which was used for fresco cartoons. However the contours here are not heavily emphasized enough and even become evanescent on the boy’s left shoulder, a fact which prevents any transfer. In addition, the handling of flesh tones and chiaroscuro is too precise for it to be a simple cartoon. In contrast, the meticulous detailing of muscles and the curves of the ear, the distribution of masses accentuated by the skillfully placed light makes one think of a virtuoso exercise by a drawing master who wishes to demonstrate that human anatomy is better rendered by the play of light reflections than by pure contours. Everything would tend to indicate that this sheet was intended for use in training Guercino’s apprentices and that it would have served as an example of work on the male nude. Several similar drawings exist, mainly in large format. They were not, as had been thought until recently, executed in oiled charcoal, but rather in black chalk dipped in gum Arabic. Producing a deeper black with a richer texture, this medium is held better by the paper, catches the eye, and proves practical for demonstrations, even though it remains difficult to correct, a factor which makes manipulation even more spectacular. Pietro Faccini used the same technique for his life studies and certain of his preparatory sketches: according to Malvasia, Guercino admired de Faccini’s drawings very much.
Guercino taught drawing from a live model mainly during the first twenty years of his career. His Academy of the Nude was founded in Cento in 1616, after Bartolomeo Fabri, one of the artist’s patrons, let him use two rooms of his house. Guercino’s undertaking was a huge success and attracted more than twenty students. The painter continued to give drawing courses until his departure for Rome in 1621, and then after his return to Cento two years later and until at least the middle of the 1620’s. After that date, he rarely employed the technique of black chalk dipped in gum Arabic. As is the case for certain others in the same medium, the style of our drawing corresponds most to the period following his Roman sojourn when Guercino was engaged in decorating the cupola and drum of the Cathedral of Plaisance with frescos.
In our drawing, the pose of the model who leans forward while turning his head to display a right profile, could have been inspired from that of a young man leading a ram to the altar in Domenichino’s Saint Cecilia before the Judge, executed between 1612 and 1615 and exhibited in the Polet Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. As is often the case in studies which Guerchino intended for his students, comparable works painted by the master himself are not lacking. In particular, the young shepherd with bare shoulders and half-open mouth who is leaning towards the Virgin and Child in the Adoration of the Shepherds, produced in about 1615-1616 (Rome, Palazzo Corsini, Gallerie Nazionale d’Arte Antica) comes to mind. The young man torn from his sleep by the Angel in The Annunciation to the Shepherds, fresco in Plaisance Cathedral finished by Guerchino in 1627, as well as the young shepherd of the Adoration of the Shepherds, pen drawing dated to the same year (Windsor, inv. RCIN 902473), can also be evoked.
A step in a great painter’s long artistic thought process about the bent figure of a young man, a model of perfection offered for imitation to the students of his Academy of the Nude, a monochrome drawing in a compact composition, our folio is distinguished by surprising power, rare in academies where the stiffness can be explained by the necessity of holding the pose a certain time. The muscular incurvated body like a tense spring anticipates action. The contracted right arm seems to grasp something heavy or resistant, the gaze fixes insistently on an objective outside the frame, while the half-open mouth seems ready to formulate words. Applied in tight hatching or spread across flat areas, the black chalk medium captures the instant and vigor of youth which so fascinated and inspired Guercino at the beginning of his career.
We would like to thank Mr. Nicholas Turner for having confirmed the attribution of our drawing after first-hand inspection and for his help in preparing this entry.
Denis MAHON and Nicholas TURNER, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge, 1989.
Denis MAHON, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Il Guercino (1591-1666). Disegni, Bologne, 1992.
Luigi SALERNO, I dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988.