PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION FORMED BY KING WILLIAM II OF THE NETHERLANDS AND ANNA PAVLOVNA
Elegantly orchestrated, the narrative unfolds in the lower register of the drawing, revealing to the full the artist’s powers of invention. The focus is on the central figures of Christ and Saint Peter and their gestures, which determine the choreography of the whole episode. The composition of the drawing appears to be more harmonious than its painted counterpart, where Guercino decided to close the space at the top with the addition of an angel. Although this is not the final study, in the present sheet the artist has already reached a satisfactory arrangement of the subject; but, as has so often been noted by scholars, Guercino’s ideas evolved continuously through his drawings, which bear witness to his indefatigable mind and fertile imagination.
In this sheet we can fully appreciate the Carracci’s influence on Guercino’s early style, and especially that of Lodovico (1555-1619). The refined composition is here achieved with outstanding delicacy through the fluid use of the pen and the subtle application of pale washes. As observed by Nicolas Turner and Carol Plazzotta in their introduction to the exhibition of drawings by Guercino from British collections, held at the British Museum in 1991: ‘These same traits remained consistent features of Guercino’s drawings in the medium almost to the very end of his career, though they were quickly tempered by his maturing personality.’3 Guercino’s favorite technique really does seem to have been pen and ink, with brown wash. This combination of media gave him the opportunity not only to express the fluidity of his virtuoso penmanship, but also to achieve a range of pictorial nuances, and his desired suggestions of light and shade. He was also highly accomplished, throughout his career, at creating light by making use of the natural color of the paper. It is interesting to note that the famous French collector and connoisseur Pierre Jean Mariette, who acquired the present drawing at the 1741 sale of Pierre Crozat’s collection,4 remarked on this aspect of the artist’s technique: ‘il y a dans la distribution de son clair-obscure, une intelligence & des effets merveilleux’.5 In the present drawing, the overall pictorial effect is further enriched by the extensive red chalk underdrawing. In this technique, Guercino may be indebted to Lodovico Carracci’s method of preparing a composition, and both artists also manifest, in their sophisticated works on paper, an unprecedented approach of naturalism mediated by a lyric and poetic sentiment.
Another full length study for the same altarpiece, in reverse, is preserved in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.6 This shows an earlier stage in the development of the composition: Saint Peter kneels in profile in the foreground, receiving the keys from Christ, who stands behind him on a step, pointing with his right hand to the empty papal chair, while looking towards Peter. The Apostles can be seen in the background to the right, and there are putti in the clouds above. This solution is less articulated, and much simplified from the one seen in the present drawing. Guercino must have reversed the composition in order to refresh his ideas, resulting in a complete different grouping of the figures, and in a more successful use of the space. The Windsor sheet is nearly as large as the present work, but executed using different media: unusually, in the Windsor drawing, Guercino has prepared the paper with a light yellowish-brown wash and added white heightening to indicate strong variations of light. As Turner and Plazzotta pointed out, when cataloguing the Windsor sheet for their 1991 British Museum exhibition: ‘This technique allowed the artist greater scope to explore the effect of light than was normally open to him using just pen and wash on white paper’.7 It was not, though, Guercino’s invention, and was often used by Lodovico, and also by Pietro Faccini (1562-1602), another artist in the Carracci’s circle, as well as by certain followers like Giacomo Cavedone (1577-1620).
Although our drawing and the one in the Royal collection are the only two compositional drawings related to the Cento’s altarpiece, a few other related studies are known. Sir Denis Mahon, in his exhibition catalogue of 1968, first mentioned a red chalk study, on blue paper, for the feet of St. Peter, formerly also in the collection of Pierre Jean Mariette, then in that of Tancred Borenius, and now in the Louvre.8 Only two other figure studies are known: for the Angel raising the curtain, on the verso of a double-sided drawing formerly in the collection of Rudolf Joseph, now in an American private collection,9 and for the figure of the kneeling St. Peter (location unknown).10 Such an important altarpiece was surely preceded by a lengthy series of preparatory drawings, ranging from quick sketches of details and carefully drawn single figure studies to final compositional drawings like this one, and we can therefore reasonably assume that the majority of the drawings done in preparation for this painting have sadly been lost, making of our drawing a very rare and important survival.
Guercino’s drawings are private exercises, and an integral and vital part of his working method – the closest insight into his thinking. Often, they chart a complex and tortuous journey towards the final painting, as the artist endlessly varied his composition and continuously revisited his previous thoughts. He jealously kept the majority of his drawings for future inspiration and as a record of his work, to be reused and elaborated in other pictures that he or his bottega would paint at some point in the future.
The present compositional study, dating from so early in Guercino’s career, makes us fully aware of his precocious talent and his incredible ability as a draftsman, while also clearly revealing his appreciation of artists like the Carracci – especially Ludovico – and other important Emilian predecessors who so influenced his development. Yet fundamentally, his artistic education was of his own making, and based on his extraordinary innate talent. The very illustrious provenance of this outstanding drawing is also witness to the esteem in which it was held over the centuries by generations of distinguished collectors of Italian drawings, starting with Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), and followed by Pierre Crozat (1661-1640), Pierre Jean Mariette (1694 -1774)11 – a great admirer of Guercino’s ability as a draftsmen – Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and King William II of the Netherlands (1792-1849).
An etching in reverse (fig. 2) by Giovan Battista Pasqualini (1595-1631), dated by Bagni to circa 1620 (see Literature), may well be based on the present composition, but could also record another, lost drawing by Guercino, representing a step closer towards the final composition. In addition, the present sheet was etched in reverse for Mariette in 1767 by Vincenzo Vangelisti (1740-1798), and this plate was eventually included in John Boydell’s impressive compendium of prints, the Most Capital Paintings (II, 70).
1. C.C. Malvasia, Felsina pittrice: Vite de’ pittori bolognesi…., Bologna 1678, vol. II, p. 363
2. By 1634 the altarpiece was in need of restoration. This repair was carried out by Guercino himself, and paid for by Nicolo Guerini; see N. Turner, The Paintings of Guercino, Rome 2017, p. 315, no. 56
3. N. Turner and C. Plazzotta, Drawings by Guercino from British Collections, Rome 1991, p. 17
4. Mariette, who was responsible for the catalogue of the sale of Crozat’s collection and wrote on the present drawing, part of lot 545 (see Provenance): ‘trés-beau Dessein qui vient de Pietro Lely. Il y en a une Estampe gravée par Pasqualini’; the lot included four drawings by Guercino: two bought by Mariette and two by Tessin; see Bernadette Py, Les dessins italiens de Pierre Crozat (1665-1740). L’oeil de Mariette. http://mini_site.louvre.fr/trimestrial/2015 Catalogue-Crozat/index.html (on-line publication)
5. P.J. Mariette, Description sommaire des Dessins […..] di Cabinet de feu M. Crozat, Paris, 1741, p. 57, under lot 559. Windsor Castle, The Royal Collection, inv. no. 2727; see D. Mahon and N. Turner, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of her Majesty the Queeen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge 1989, p. 4, no. 6 , reproduced pl. 7. N. Turner and C. Plazzotta, op. cit., p. 40
8. D. Mahon, Il Guercino, Dipinti, exhib. Cat., Bologna, Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, 1968, under no. 28, p. 67; Louvre, Départment des Arts graphiques, inv. no. RF 42263; see C. Loisel, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, Inventaire général des dessins italiens, Tome X: Dessins bolonais du XVIIe siècle, vol. II, Paris 2013, p. 342, no. 542
9. Sale, New York, Sotheby's, 25 January 2012, lot 58
10. Sale, Paris, Christie's, 23 March 2006, lot 225
11. The present drawing will be published in the forthcoming catalogue of the Italian Drawings of the Mariette collection: Pierre Rosenberg, Les Dessins de la collection Mariette. Ecole italienne, Paris 2019, I 944
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