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Guercino (Cento 1591-Bologna 1666)

A recumbent male nude c.1618-19

RCIN 991227

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As a young man Guercino ran a life-drawing studio in the town of Cento, emulating the Carracci academy in Bologna, fifteen miles (25 km) to the south. The model drawn here posed often for Guercino and appears in several drawings and paintings of the period. The technique of oiled charcoal on toned paper had been a favourite of the earlier artist Pietro Faccini, whose drawings Guercino is reported to have admired.

The dominant influences of Guercino’s first years were the works and methods of the Carracci in Bologna, and between 1616 and 1618 he ran an academy of life drawing in a patron’s house in Cento, emulating the Carracci academy in Bologna. The technique of oiled charcoal on toned paper was favoured by the Carracci’s contemporary and rival Pietro Faccini, whose drawings Guercino is reported as having admired. The stickiness of this medium prohibited fine detail and led to breadth of form and heavy shadows, perfectly attuned to Guercino’s rich early figural style.

The youth drawn here modelled often for Guercino around 1618 and appears in several of his drawings and paintings, notably Erminia discovering the wounded Tancred of c.1618-19 (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome) and St Sebastian Succoured of c.1619, in which the reclining poses of Tancred (facing the other way) and St Sebastian are similar to that here, without corresponding exactly. Three studies for the latter composition demonstrate that Guercino arrived at the final pose of St Sebastian in quick pen sketches, before presumably making a careful study from the life in the pose to be used in the painting. It is thus likely that the present sheet is not a rejected working study for that painting, but an independent life drawing, possibly executed in Guercino’s academy as a demonstration piece for his pupils.

Guercino was careful to preserve his drawings. On his death the thousands of sheets in his studio passed to his nephews, and by the mid-eighteenth century most had descended to Cesare’s grandson Carlo Gennari. Some were framed, a number were kept loose in portfolios, but the majority were mounted in albums, explaining the fine state of preservation of many of Guercino’s drawings. From the 1740s this inheritance began to be dispersed, and groups of drawings were sold to, among others, John Bouverie, William Kent, and Richard Dalton, librarian to George, Prince of Wales, who purchased about forty drawings in 1758. This first tranche was followed by much larger (though undocumented) acquisitions for the Royal Collection, probably by Dalton on one or both of his return visits to Bologna in 1759 and 1763. George III ultimately owned around 400 sheets by Guercino himself, 200 by his assistants and another 200 offsets of his chalk drawings, mounted in sixteen albums. The present sheet was not mounted among those, instead forming part of an album of unusually large drawings, but it is nonetheless likely that it shares the provenance of the bulk of Guercino’s drawings now in the Royal Collection.

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007