Study of a Seated putto

Marty de Cambiaire

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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Il Guercino (1591-1661)
Study of a Seated putto
Circa 1620
Red chalk.
8 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. • 213 x 270 mm


Presumably inherited by the artist's nephews, Benedetto and Cesare Gennari, Casa Gennari, Bologna (judging by the number on the verso and the existence of a counterproof); inherited by descent to Carlo Gennari; sold before 1758-1759; Vienna, private collection (where it was seen and engraved by Adam Bartsch in 1805); private collection.

Further Information

Initially trained almost entirely on his own in his hometown of Cento, Guercino went to Bologna to study with Benedetto Gennari and then with Giovanni Battista Cremonini, through whom he discovered the works of the Carracci. He was immediately attracted to their modern manner and, under their influence, neglected to study the late Mannerist Bolognese masters and turned directly to realism. Supported and admired by Lodovico Carracci but also by prestigious sponsors such as Canon Mirandola and Alessandro Ludovisi (the future Gregory XV), Guercino opened a studio and a nude academy in Cento where he welcomed numerous students. Drawing played a very important role for him and his graphic work is abundant: he uses a charcoaled black chalk for his academies of men as well as sanguine, pen and brown ink. In 1618, he embarked on a trip to Venice that would reinforce his penchant for a warm and luminous chromaticism as can be seen in Saint William Receiving the Monastic Habit painted in 1620 for the San Gregorio church and now in the Pinacoteca di Bologna. Gregory XV summoned Guercino to Rome where he worked for the pope and his entourage; Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi employed him in his villa where he produced his grandest decors - Dawn, Night and Glory ¬¬¬- dedicated to the glory of the Ludovisi family. In 1623, he painted The Burial of Saint Petronilla for an altar in Saint Peter's Basilica. Back in Cento, his works now bore traces of a Roman education - an encounter with the works of Raphael, Domenichino and Reni had led him towards a softening of form. In 1627, Guercino completed Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, known as Il Morazzone's (1573-1626) decorations for the Piacenza Duomo that were left unfinished after his death. In response to requests from England and France, he occasionally accepted international commissions but refused invitations, preferring to stay at home and devote himself entirely to his art.

After his death, Guercino's nephews Benedetto (1633-1715) and Cesare Gennari (1637-1688) inherited his drawing collection. Their own heirs (including Carlo Gennari (1712-1790) appear to have commissioned heavily retouched counter-proofs from the drawings before putting them on the market. This was either for commercial purposes or to safeguard a memory of the drawings. Richard Dalton (1715-1791) acting for George III probably purchased the remaining drawings and counter-proofs during his trip to Bologna c.1758-1759, which explains the importance of the Guercino collection held at Windsor Castle. Few of the original drawings transferred into counter-proofs have survived.

According to Nicholas Turner, whom we would like to warmly thank for his expert report on which this text is largely based, our drawing can be linked to part of Guercino's decorations created c.1630 for the Villa Giovannina, an old medieval castle not far from Cento that became the Aldrovandi family's second home. The decor comprises a series of frescoes with idyllic overtones based on the literary themes of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, Guarino's Il Pastor Fido and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, as well as a number of decorative friezes featuring landscapes, playful putti and horses . The decorations, commissioned from Guercino by his patron Count Filippo Aldrovandi, were spread across eight salons on the Villa's first floor. Six of them have survived, but were repainted extensively in the 19th century. Some specialists have suggested that the decorations date from around 1617 when Guercino was at the height of his fame in his hometown. For Turner, the style of the drawings preserved at Windsor Castle, which can be related to the frescoes , would suggest the early 1630s.

Our drawing could be a fledgling idea for a group of putti in the running frieze high up on the walls of the room known as the Putti Playing room, which depicts putti frolicking on a mock parapet and engaging in all sorts of joyous and disorderly activities that parody war, hunting, drunkenness, play and love in the adult world. This type of subject, particularly the bacchanal of putti, was very much in vogue in Rome in the second half of the 1620s, as seen in two works painted by Nicolas Poussin in 1626 (one held in the Galerie Barberini and the other belonging to the Gallerie Nazionale d'Arte Antica) and also in François Duquesnoy's marble reliefs. This iconographic success tends to confirm the later dating of the Villa Giovannina decorations. Turner linked our putti to a group in the right-hand section of the frieze on the fourth wall of the room: each of the putti at the end of this section pulls on a drapery as if it were blown by the wind - a motif that is very similar to the one in our drawing. Although relatively similar to all the putti in the frieze, ours is particularly close in expression and angle of position to the putti second from the left.

There are several surviving drawings and counter-proofs in the Windsor Castle collection that depict putti playing with draperies. One of them - a drawing showing two standing putti playing with a drapery (Inv. RCIN 902385, Fig.2) and unusually preserved together with its counter-proof (Inv. RCIN 902996) ¬- can be connected to ours. It has also been linked to a group of putti holding out a towel to Venus in the Toilet of Venus , 1623, (Goethe Academy, Renaissance, California), but the motif is in fact quite different and is as close, if not closer, to the Villa Giovannina model. The RCIN 902972 and 902973 counter-proofs that also explore this same motif are related to the fresco painted on the dome of the Piacenza Duomo c.1626-1627. All this proves that between 1620 and 1630, Guercino worked this motif extensively in several variations. Another counter-proof, the drawing for which the drawing has not reappeared, should be mentioned for comparison: like our drawing, it depicts a putto seated on a block of stone playing with a drapery (Inv. RCIN 903000) .

A counter-proof was also taken from our drawing , which was sold before Richard Dalton's arrival in Bologna. We can locate it in Vienna in 1805 where the great engraving connoisseur, Adam von Bartsch (1757-1821) engraved it (Fig. 3) in the same direction, and then included it in the second volume of the Suite d'Estampes d'après les desseins de Fr. Barbieri dit Guercino qui n'ont pas encore été gravées, tirées de la Collection de S.A.R. Monseigneur Prince Albert de Pologne Duc de Saxe-Teschen, de celle de Monsieur le Comte Maurice de Fries, et autres (Manheim: Dominic Artaria, 1803 and 1807) . Of the 500 or so pieces engraved by Bartsch (catalogued in 1818 by his nephew, Friedrich von Bartsch), 420 were made after the masters and more than fifty after Guercino. The fact that our drawing was engraved by Bartsch and included in his Suite d'Estampes testifies to the interest shown in it in the 18th and 19th centuries and to its undoubtedly prestigious provenance, although this remains unknown to us. Future searches of auction catalogues may enable us to trace this further.