Lot 56
  • 56

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

400,000 - 600,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino
  • The Penitent Magdalene
  • oil on canvas
  • 90 3/4 x 69 3/4 inches


Commissioned by Cardinal Fabrizio Savelli (1606/07-1659), Papal Legate of Bologna from 1648 to 1651;
John Chetwynd-Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852), Alton Towers, Alton, Staffordshire, as of 1833;
His sale, Alton, Alton Towers, conducted on premises by Christie, Manson and Woods, 6 July - 8 August, 1857, lot 78 (with subject incorrectly described as St. Mary of Egypt);
James Arnold, Macclesfield, Cheshire;
John Birchenough, Macclesfield;
Arthur Coventry, Macclesfield; presented by him, 1902-1903, to
The Macclesfield Borough Council;
By whom sold, London, Sotheby's, 9 December 1981, lot 30;
Where acquired by the present owner.


Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, Il Guercino, dipinti e disegni (cat. by D. Mahon), 6 September - 10 November 1991, no. 123, illus. pp. 323, 325;
New York, Richard L. Feigen & Co., Giovanni Francesco Barberini, Il Guercino (1591-1666), 13 March - 20 April, 1992, no. 10., illus. p. 36;
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de San Carlos, María Magdalena: éxtasis y arrepentimiento, 17 May - 2 September, 2001, pp. 201-202, no. 25 (entry by O. Delenda), illus. pp 127 and 201.


C.C. Malvasia, Felsina pittrice; vite de' pittori bolognesi, II, Bologna, 1678, p. 376 [later ed., with notes by G.P. Zanotti, Bologna, 1841, II, pp. 267, 330];
[J.A. Calvi], Notize della vita, e delle opere del cavaliere Gioan Francesco Barbieri, detto il Guercino da Cento..., Bologna, 1808, p. 122;
J.D. Passavant, Tour of a German Artist in England (trans. by Lady Eastlake), London, 1836 [reprinted East Ardsley, West Yorkshire, 1978], II, p. 80;
G.F. Waagen, Kunstwerke und Künstler in England un Paris, Berlin, 1838, II, p. 462 [English ed., trans. by H.E. Lloyd, London, 1838, III, pp. 253-254; revised English ed., London 1854, III, p. 384];
W. Adam, The Gem of the Peak; or Matlock Bath and Its Vicinity, An Account of Derby... (3rd ed.), London, 1843, p. 262 (incorrectly identifies subject as St. Mary of Egypt);
G. Campori, Raccolta di cataloghi ed inventarii inediti di quadri, statue, disegni,...sal secolo XV al secolo XIX, Modena, 1870 [reprint: Bologna, 1975], p. 166;
Bologna, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Il Guercino: dipiniti (cat. by D. Mahon), 1968, cited under no. 88;
N.B. Grimaldi, Il Guercino (2nd, revised ed.), Bologna, 1968, p. 107 (author confounds Savelli picture with another composition, executed by Guercino's workshop, in the Pinacoteca Comunale, Spoleto);
L. Salerno and D. Mahon, I Dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, p. 335, no. 264; also cited pp. 331, under no. 260; 348, under no. 279; illus. pp. 71, 335;
S. Loire, "Etudes récentes sur le Guerchin," Stoia dell'arte, no. 67, September - December 1989, pp. 264 and note 11, 265.
Paris, Musée du Loucre, Le Guerchin en France (cat. by S. Loire), 1990, pp. 64, 65, note 97, cited under no. 12;
D.M. Stone, Guercino: catalogo completo dei dipinti, Florence, 1991, pp. 259, no. 249; 290, illus. p. 259;
London, Christie's, Old Master Drawings, 14 April 1992, p. 37, cited under entry for lot 109 (erroneougly cites drawing as preparatory to the present picture;
B. Ghelfi, ed., Il Libro dei conti del Guercino1629-1666, Bologna, 1997, pp. 44 and note 78; 144, entry no. 414 and note; 205, 216, 230, illus. pl. 19;
New York, Christie's, Old Master Drawings, 30 January 1997, p. 63, cited under lot 45;
N. Largier, Lob de Peitsche: Eine Kulturgeschichte de Erregung, Munich, 2001, p. 193, illus. fig. 32 [English trans. by G. Harman, Brooklyn, New York, 2007, p. 227, illus. p. 229, fig. 5.2];
MIlan, Palazzo Reale, Guercino: Poesia e sentimento nella pittura del 1600 [ed. by D. Mahon et al.], 2003-2004, p. 267, cited under no. 94 (entry by S. Barchiesi);
P.M. Jones, Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Church of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni, Aldershot, Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont, 2008, pp. 216-217, illus. pl. 12.


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This large painting has been restored. While the palette is quite warm, further cleaning is not recommended as the patina is attractive. The varnish has a milky finish under ultraviolet light, and therefore restorations are not visible under this illumination. The canvas has been recently lined, and there probably have been numerous small structural issues that have been mainly resolved by the lining. The paint layer is very smooth. While some of this may be caused by the varnish, the paint layer itself has probably been compromised by previous linings. The paint layer is reasonably well preserved in the illuminated areas of the figure and altar on the left. The darker colors and the sky have probably received more restoration. The varnish may need to be freshened, but there is no apparent advantage in reexamining the restoration.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This Penitent Magdalene is one of a series of five life-size paintings of saints commissioned by Cardinal Fabrizio Savelli in 1649. Savelli was appointed Papal Legate in Bologna on 1 September 1648, holding that position until 1651, and payment of 100 scudi for the painting is recorded in the artist's Libro dei conti under the entry for 21 November of 1649.1

The five pictures in the series are all vertical and of very similar dimensions. Malvasia (see Literature) lists the first three paintings in the series including a Saint Francis, now in the Chiesa di San Cetteo in Pescara, for which payment was received on 3 April 1649; a Saint Jerome, paid for on 30 August 1649 and now in the Eglise Saint-Laurent in Nogent-Sur-Seine; and the present Magdalene. Two further paintings, presumably omitted by Malvasia as they were paid for after Savelli had left Bologna, can be added to the series on the basis of style and measurements: a Saint James the Greater, now in a Private Collection in Vienna,2 paid for by a certain Paris Maria Grassi on 27 June 1651, and a Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness,3 bought on 22 November 1952 by Cardinal Albergati, Archbishop of Bologna, as a gift to Pope Innocent X Pamphilij in Rome, where it still hangs in the Galleria Doria Pamphilij.  
The Magdalene is portrayed here repenting her sins, iconographically very similar to St Mary of Egypt, the penitent harlot, and in the past the picture has incorrectly been identifed as such (see Christie's sale 1857 in Provenance). As symbols of contrition she and the other saints in the series are held up as exemplars of counter-reformation piety. She is shown in a rocky cove in the desert of Sainte Baume in Provence where legend has it that she spent the last 30 years of her life. She has with her three of her attributes, the whip, the book and the crucifix, but is devoid of her usual vase of ointment. The background is simple and does not draw our attention away from her. A shaft of light streams into the cave to illuminate the crucifix and we see that the saint has pulled down her tunic and with her right arm reaches over to whip the left side of her back. However, the right arm reaches across gently, without the force one might expect, and fits in naturally into the balanced composition. The calm of the scene is mirrored in the soft lighting and muted palette in which the highlights in her hair match the golden tone of her drapery, and the subtle plays of light and dark. Rather than through movement, the intensity of the scene is conveyed through the concentration on her face, especially noticable in the beautiful preparatory drawing (fig 1).

Though the Magdalene is the only female in this series of saints, her nudity does not detract from the psychological insight for which Guercino strives. The focus on the spiritual moment rather than on her nudity is underlined by the fact her breasts are for the most part covered. This contrasts with contemporary depictions of the nude, often portrayed through depictions of Susannah and the Elders. The sobriety of the scene is emphasized when the painting is compared to other works within the artist's own oeuvre, including other portrayals of the Magdalene such as the one in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, inv. no. 6605, (see fig 2) 4 where the saint is portrayed in a sensuous pose, bare breasted, with a hint of a smile on her lips, approaching sexual rather than spiritual ecstasy. 

Savelli was a forceful patron: it is said that the Cardinal was so keen on Guercino's work that when he visited his studio he insisted on buying an Erminia and a shepherd, now lost, which had been commissioned by another of the artist's important patrons, the Sicilian Don Antonio Ruffo. The artist was unable to refuse the cardinal, presumably, as Mahon notes,since he had already commissioned the series of 5 saints. Guercino at that point was forced to lie to Ruffo, telling him that the Cardinal's arrival in the city and his constant pressurising had forced him to put all other works on hold. He did not dare admit that the Cardinal had insisted on claiming for himself the half finished work destined for Ruffo and was thus forced to paint two versions (Ruffo's painting now hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art inv. no. 62.12), as indicated in his entries in the Libro dei Conti for the 14th and 16th of January 1649.6 

After leaving Bologna Savelli is known to have taken the pictures back to Rome with him as it is listed as hanging in his rooms.7 However, it is not known for certain how the picture made its way to England, though it was perhaps after the Savelli family became extinct in 1712. Passavant (seeLiterature) was the first to record its presence on these shores in 1836 when he described it as "remarkably fine", and Waagen saw it soon after, describing it as "more noble in character than is usual with this master, and in lightness and clearness of tone approaching Guido."8 However, the composition was only known through copies until its sale in these Rooms in 1981 when it re-emerged onto the market.9

1. See Ghelfi under Literature, p. 144, entry 414.
2. Salerno, 1988, p. 348, cat. no. 279, reproduced p. 349.
3. Salerno, op. cit. p. 359, cat. no 290, reproduced.
4. Salerno, op.cit. pp. 362-3, cat. no. 294, reproduced p. 363.
5. Mahon, 1991, p. 322.
6. See a series of letters between the artist and Ruffo quoted by Mahon and published in Bollettino d'Arte, X, 1916, pp. 62-65, 95-97.
7. See Campori in Literature.
8. See Waagen in Literature.
9. For a detailed list of known copies see Salerno, op. cit. p. 335.