Amongst Reni's most enduringly popular images are his depictions of beautifully rendered bust-length, or near bust length, holy figures: various saints and apostles, the Magdalene, the Virgin and Christ himself. It was a genre that the artist essentially pioneered, paintings of heads that took as their subject not the physical, but the psychological, description of the figure portrayed, a kind of emotional portrait. All of Reni's biographers noted his skill at rendering heads in this manner, his ability to capture the much-admired depiction of affetti, or physical description of sentiment in painting, whether in large compositions, or on a smaller scale. The ease with which he painted them was remarked upon; not only was he often quick—a note from early in his career noted that he painted a head of Saint John the Evangelist "in una sera"—but miraculous (Bellori observed that "the colors could be seen coming to life from his brushstrokes to the amazement of those present, particularly when he created his beautiful arie di testa, which was a wonder).1 Malvasia noted that Reni's skills were particularly adept at rendering older figures:
Quelle anche de' vecchi non lasciò, liscie ed unite come l'altre, ma con botte maestre, piene di mille gentilezze osservate in quelle pellicciuole cadenti...nè con certa abbreviatura... mostrò di prima macchia le barbe loro e capelli, come di tenerissima piuma....ma la contrario si servì di quel primo colore, quasi di letto per scherzarvi sopra, gettandovi con gran brio appoggiato ad altrettanta intelligenza, prima d'ogni altro.... da lui praticata, il peli girati per varii versi, mortificati e vivi, conforme il loro sito di sotto e di sopra, dandovi poi nella prima sommità compimento co'primi e principali lumi a suo luogo.2
This Penitent Saint Peter is an example of just this type of painting. It depicts a half-length figure of the Apostle Peter, his head resting on his hand while he looks forlornly heavenward. Peter is shown without any of his usual attributes, and it is only through Reni's skillful depiction of the saint's distress at having denied Christ, are we able to determine which of the disciples is represented. His other hand is open across his bare breast, in a gesture both indicating his own guilt and asking for atonement. Reni's devout nature was often remarked upon by his contemporaries, and it was in such paintings as this he that allowed his own personal piety full scope to express itself. The loose and expressive manner of the brushstrokes, sacrificing none of the finished quality that Reni appreciated in his own work, suggests that the Saint Peter should date to fairly late in the artist's career, to the very late 1630's, as his personal style was become much looser than it had been previously. In fact, another version of the present composition, of oval format, is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and was dated by Pepper to 1639-40.3 An autograph earlier version, also oval, is in the Prado, Madrid. The present Saint Peter is much closer in style to the former and painted in the manner of this later period.
1 For Reni's rapidity noted in his accounts, see S. Pepper, "Guido Reni's Roman Account Book," Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIII, 1971, p.315; arie di testa were the highly admired and sought after expressions a great artist was able to achieve, see G.P. Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. A. S. Wohl, New York 2005, p. 366.
2 "These old men he did not leave, smooth and unified as the others, but with masterful strokes, full of a thousand niceties observed in their falling folds of skin,... nor with a certain sketchiness... did he depict with quick strokes their beards and hair, like the softest of feathers, but to the contrary he used the ground of the painting almost like a playing field, throwing himself against it with as much gusto as intelligence, done in a manner as no one before him had, the strands of hair twisting in different directions, deadened or enlivened, conforming to their place in the front or below, and on the top of which he placed the first and final highlights giving [the painting] its finish," see C.C. Malvasia, Felsina pittrice: Vite de' pittori bolognesi, Bologna 1678, ed. G. Zanotti, Bologna, 1841, vol. II, p. 57.
3 S. Pepper, Guido Reni, New York, 1984, p. 288, cat. no. 192B, illus. Plate 225; Spear prefers to date the Vienna picture a few years earlier (see The "Divine" Guido, 1997, p. 372, footnote 64).
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