Lot 34
  • 34

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

500,000 - 700,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino
  • The Penitent Magdalene
  • Oil on canvas
  • 44 3/4 x 36 3/8 inches


Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840), 1st Prince of Canino and Musignano (according to Northwick sale catalogue entry)
John Rushout (1770-1859), 2nd Baron Northwick, Thirlestane House, Cheltenham
Sale: Phillips, London, July 26 - August 30, 1859, lot no. 1818 (Estate sale of the above)
John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax (1800-1887), Olantigh Towers, Wye, Kent
His nephew, Wanley Ellis Sawbridge Erle-Drax, Olantigh Towers, Wye, Kent (by descent from the above)
Sale: Christie's, London, February 19-21, 1910, lot 29 (sold by the above)
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, January 29, 2015, lot 73
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman


Detroit Institute of Arts, 2015 (on loan)

Catalogue Note

This moving representation of the Penitent Magdalene is a superb example of Guercino’s masterful mature style.  David Stone endorses the attribution, dating the painting to circa 1648-1655 (private written communication with David Stone, dated December 8, 2014). Close comparisons – in terms of drapery, brushwork and facial type – can be made with the Samian Sibyl in the Palazzo Reale, Genoa, from 1653, and the Astrology in the Blanton Museum, Austin, from circa 1650-53 (D. Stone, Guercino, Catalogo Completo, Florence, 1991, p. 291, no. 283; and p. 292, no. 284, respectively).  The artist depicts the Magdalene’s hair with remarkably fine strokes, highlighting the thick, waving tresses at her head and shoulders, down to the individual hairs that uncoil across her abdomen.  The crucifix at left is bound to the broken branch of a tree stump, a device repeated in his Saint Francis in the Desert in the church of San Cetteo, Pescara (L. Salerno, I Dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, p. 331, no. 260, reproduced).  The figure of Christ is shown from below and behind, and the shadows of the musculature in his torso and legs are expressed with impressive naturalism. 

In the Libro di Conti, Guercino’s account book¸ there is an entry for a half-length Magdalene which Stone tentatively suggests may be identifiable as the present lot (B. Ghelfi and D. Mahon, Il libro dei conti del Guercino 1629-1666, Bologna, 1997, p. 164, no. 477).  On 12 January 1654, Guercino noted the receipt of payment from a Signor Moscardini for a Magdalene painted for a noble Venetian patron: Dal Sig:Moscardini si e riceuto per il pagamento della Mezza Figura, di S: M: Madalena, per un nobbil Veniciano…” (Ibid.).  While the payment was made in January, Stone proposes the painting would likely have been finished a month prior, in December of 1653. The artist received 60 ducatoni for the canvas, the same amount paid to him by Signor Ludovico Fermi in 1649 for a half-length painting of the same subject: “Dal Sig.re Lodouico Fermi si è riceuto ducat.ni 60- per il Quadro della Santa maria madalena…” (Ibid., pp. 142-43, entry no. 407).  The Fermi Magdalene is now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (inv. no. P203; D. Stone, op.cit., p. 258, cat. no. 248, reproduced).

The composition of this painting can be compared to another half-length Magdalene, recently offered at auction (Sale: Köller, Zurich, September 23, 2011, lot 3073).  In the Zurich picture, the Magdalene faces the light source at left, looking down at the crucifix which itself casts a shadow across the figure of Christ.  By contrast, in the present painting the Magdalene is lit from the right, the light falling fully onto the face of the crucifix and figure of Christ.  Rather than looking down at the cross, here the starkly lit figure of Christ looms over the Magdalene.  She turns away from her study of the scripture in order to contemplate the crucifix, her hand raised and a tear rolling down her cheek in an expression of anguish.  In the Zurich painting, the skull is placed in the foreground, again in full light, while here it is veiled in shadow at right, a more foreboding symbol of memento mori.

The treatment of drapery in this painting is of particular interest.  Guercino used charged flashes of white pigment to highlight the edges of the thick folds, conveying the texture of the heavy fabric with efficacy.  As Stone indicates, the artist employed the same method to describe the weighty folds of cloth surrounding the bed in his Death of Cleopatra, now in Palazzo Rosso, Genoa (fig. 1).  The Cleopatra is likely identifiable as the painting listed in Guercino’s Libro dei Conti, commissioned by Monsignore Abbate Carlo Emanuele Durazzo, for which the artist received payment on 24 March 1648 (B. Ghelfi and D. Mahon, op. cit., p. 138, no. 387).

We are grateful to David M. Stone for endorsing the attribution and date following a firsthand inspection.