With his unique and unmistakable style, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, (Cento 1591 – Bologna 1666), is one of the protagonists of Italian Baroque painting.
His early works are characterized by a strong, masterly use of light and shadow, intense color contrasts, and a style of painting a macchie, with splodges of color, which sprang from Venetian tonalism.
Guercino looked towards painters from Ferrara, like Scarsellino and Bononi. However, he was strongly influenced by Ludovico Carracci’s art. From the latter, this Cento-born artist developed a way of understanding art as popular communication, a humanization of the divine, a language of gestures and looks, and the simple, naturalistic representation of feelings.
His works before 1621 underscore his great skill as a colorist as well as his dynamic compositions, unique sensitivity in rendering the figure-space relationship, an unpretentious realism of faces and gestures, and the atmospheric vibrations of Guercini’s characteristic landscapes.
In 1621, Guercino was invited to Rome by the new pope, Gregory XV. During his two years in the Eternal City, the artist carried out works characterized by bold compositions, unusual perspective views, dynamic gestures, and illusionist visual effects. Yet he nonetheless vigorously faced the attractions of classicist painting, particularly Domenichino.
The results of this influence can be seen in his works from the late 1620s, a transition period during which simplified compositions, more controlled gestures, serene and harmonious spaces, and aristocratic features were introduced. These works reflect Guido Reni’s idealism and anticipate the master’s late pictorial period of classicism, which began in the 1630s.
In works from this late period the contrasts of light and dark and the “gran macchia”, large splodges of color, were eliminated. The gestures became noble, somber, and composed. Perfect features, grace, idealization, and serenity dominated the solemn, monumental compositions.
Guido Reni’s death (1642) was what pushed Guercino to move to Bologna. There, the artist intended to fill the void left by Guido’s passing and to thus inherit the commissions. Guercino died in Bologna in 1666. He was buried in the church of San Salvatore, where he still rests today, next to his brother Paolo Antonio.