The Conversation

Guercino, Master Drafstman: Works from North American Collection At the Sackler Museum, Harvard University. (Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 1991)

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591 – 1666), tried out several versions of Esther before Ahasuerus before settling on the one he painted in 1639 for the Bishop of Ferrara. One shows a voluptuous Esther fainting from emotion.

Another shows the king holding her hand to his heart. This is the moment when something about her touches him ‑‑ the moment when she moves him ‑‑ the moment when he is moved, changed, touched by her faith. It’s an intensely spiritual moment ‑‑ and also an intensely human one. And it’s pure Guercino.

Most of the drawings in “Guercino: Master Draftsman are compositional studies for religious paintings, but they feel fresh and immediate, because Guercino was an artist who thought with his pen and brush. In his drawings, he was working out not just the composition but the psychological moment ‑‑ not just the form, but the feeling. He re‑imaginined the traditional themes of Italian religious art and made them real. He was interested in what David Stone, who organized the exhibit, calls “the conversation.”

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child was a standard theme of Italian religious painting for centuries. But the scene was never portrayed as naturally and as gracefully as it is in a pair of In The Infant Christ Holding a Bird, and Saint Joseph, a baby is toddling after a bird, and an old man is holding out his strong, sheltering hands to catch him if he falls, and gazing at the child with a look of absolute love and total commitment.

In Saint Joseph and the Christ Child with a Vase of Lilies, an old man holds a sweet plump baby on his lap, steadying him with one sure, strong hand as the child reaches for the flower, inspiring an almost blissful feeling of tenderness and trust.

The title “Guercino: Master Draftsman” really doesn’t do justice to this lovely little show; “draftsman” seems too cold and dry a name for so warm and generous a man. Guercino drew like an angel—his gorgeous line curls and trills across the page; his brush forms shadows that suggest a sense of the roundness and fullness of life.

Guercino’s best drawings are more than drawings—they are blessings, exquisite expressions of those moments when human love becomes the love of God, and Art and Faith are one.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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