Biography/Paintings of Italian Baroque Painter.

Pin it

William of Aquitaine Receives the
Cowlof St.Bishop Felix (1620)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

Guercino (1591-1666)
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri


Early Career
Mature Career
Paintings By Guercino

Additional Resources

Classicism and Naturalism in Italian 17th Century Painting.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For an overall guide, see:
Fine Art Painting.
For more about oils, see:
Oil Painting.


Ranked among the top Old Masters in the era of Baroque art, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was better known as Guercino or Il Guercino, the Italian for 'squinter', a nickname given to him because of an eye defect incurred when a child. A largely self-taught artist, he became one of the most distinguished Italian Baroque artists of the 17th century, and a leading figure of the Bolognese School (c.1590-1630). In his early career he forged his own unique style of Baroque painting, most notable for its chiaroscuro and dramatic tenebrism. Later, sensitive to artistic fashions in Rome, he pursued a more Classical manner, combining disegno and Venetian colorito. He is most noted for his frescoes, altarpieces and small-scale copper pictures, but above all for his unique skill in drawing. His style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio (1571–1610) but even more so by the fresco mural painting of early Baroque painter, etcher and printmaker Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), cousin of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Guercino's influence was widespread, and his followers included Mattia Preti (1613-99), the Calabrian fresco painter who played a key role in the development of Neapolitan Baroque painting during the mid-17th century.



Early Career

Guercino was born in 1591 in Cento, a small village near Bologna. Despite the fact that he remained in Cento most of his life, it did not stop his fame from spreading. Trained in the rudiments of drawing and painting by local artists, by the age of 17 he was associated with Benedetto Gennari (1563–1658), an early Baroque painter of the Bolognese School, who was primarily active in Cento and Ferrara. Guercino was particularly influenced by Carracci, one of whose finest altarpieces was installed in Cento. This prompted him to move to Bologna in 1615 where he studied the frescoes directly in Carracci's workshop. About this time, Guercino emerged as an individual artist and was producing a quantity of portrait art, as well as various religious paintings and friezes. Examples include: A Donor Presented to the Virgin (1616, Royal Museum, Brussels); Erminia Finds the Wounded Tancred (1616-18, Doria-Pamphili Gallery, Rome) and Susanna and the Elders (1617, Prado Museum, Madrid). Within a year Guercino had already gained considerable success and decided on a study trip to Venice. After this, he painted what many consider the masterpiece which best represents his personal style - William of Aquitaine Receiving the Cowl of St.Bishop Felix (1620, Pinacoteca, Bologna). Painted as an altarpiece for the Church of San Gregorio in Bologna, contemporary critics declared it a 'large splash' of light which overshadowed all paintings around it - including even an altarpiece by Carracci. Guercino took great care with this painting, making many preparatory sketches. The composition structure is highly original; the figures are placed around the sides of the painting, leaving an empty void in the middle; in addition, he manages to combine disegno (drawings) and colorito (colouring techniques) with great mastery. In producing this exquisite work of religious art, Guercino became the favourite artist of Cardinal Ludovisi, who in 1621 was elected Pope Gregory XV and promptly summoned Guercino to the Vatican.



Mature Career

Arriving in Rome in 1621, Guercino soon began work on his first papal commission - the Portrait of Paul Gregory XV (1622, J Paul Getty Museum, LA), which for many years was lost in history and mistaken for the work of Titian. In Rome the prevailing style was still Classicism, exemplified by the St Cecilia frescos (1613-14) by Domenichino (1581-1641). It appeared initially that Guercino was set to challenge it. He did so with his Aurora, (1622) a fresco painting on the ceiling of the entrance hall of the Pope's country house (Casino Ludovisi). In this work, the 30-year old Guercino unleashed all his artistic flair charging the composition with movement and energy. The illusionistic quadratura technique was applied with the help of the great quadraturista Italian Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). The whole thing was a direct challenge to the Aurora (1613-14) by Guido Reni (1575-1642) at the Casino Rospigliosi which is coldly classical. Where Reni planned his fresco like an easel painting attached to a ceiling, Guercino’s personification of Dawn charges across the sky in her chariot and the artist manages to demonstrate a wonderful sense of illusionism. However, by 1623, the artist appears to have lost confidence in his style. Pope Gregory XV died the same year, and Guercino seemed to doubt his ability to win commissions in Rome. He returned home to Cento and set up an extremely successful international mail-order business. His studio produced collectors' paintings and large altarpieces which were then shipped around Europe. He was known for his rapid style of work and produced no less than 106 large-scale altarpieces and at least 144 paintings in his lifetime. However, after his departure from Rome, his paintings, though still distinctive, became more academic and closer in nature to those of his rival Reni, as if Rome had given him more of a classical feel. His figures became more delineated and he employed less use of chiaroscuro.

The Roman appetite for classical-style painting during the 17th century was evident from the popularity accorded to Guercino's contemporary, the Frenchman Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who arrived in Rome in 1624.

On the death of Reni in 1642, Guercino returned to Bologna, where he took over as director of the Bologna Academy of Fine Art, and assumed the mantle of the city's leading artist. He died in 1666, having amassed a considerable fortune.

Famous Paintings By Guercino

Paintings by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino) can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world. They include:

- A Donor Presented to the Virgin (1616) Royal Museums, Brussels.
- Erminia Finds the Wounded Tancred (1616-18) Doria-Pamphili Gallery, Rome.
- Susanna and the Elders (1617) Prado Museum, Madrid.
- The Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels (1617-18) National Gallery, London.
- Et in Arcadia Ego (1618) Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.
- Return of the Prodigal Son (1619) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- The Resurrection of Lazarus (1619) Louvre, Paris.
- William of Aquitaine Receives the Cowl (1620) P.N., Bologna.
- The Doubting of Thomas (1621) National Gallery, London.
- The Woman Taken in Adultery (1621) Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
- St Peter Freed by the Angel (1622) Prado, Madrid.
- Portrait of Paul Gregory XV (1622) J Paul Getty Museum, LA.
- Aurora fresco (1622) Casino dell'Aurora, Rome.
- Venus, Mars and Cupid (1633) Galleria Estense, Modena.
- St Romuald (1640-41) Pinacoteca Comunale, Ravenna.
- The Flagellation of Christ (1644) Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
- Hersilia Separating Romulus and Tatius (1645) Louvre, Paris.
- Semiramis Called to Arms (1645) Private Collection.
- Saul Attacking David (1646) National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome.
- St Peter Weeping before the Virgin (1647) Louvre, Paris.
- Virgin and Child with Four Saints (c.1651) Louvre, Paris.
- St Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin (1652) Nelson-Atkins Museum, MO
- St Anthony of Padua with the Infant Christ (1656) Private Collection.
- Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael (1657) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

The best collection of Guercino's drawings can be seen at the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. They include caricatures and genre scenes as well as landscapes - typically pen-and-ink drawings - which provide ample evidence of his exceptional draughtsmanship.

• For more about Baroque paintings and drawings, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important Baroque pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.