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Work Saint William of Aquitaine at the Feet of Saint Gregory

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Saint Guillaume agenouillé devant un évêque

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo S. Nagy

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Grollemund, Hélène

This drawing is closely related to the famous painting of Saint William of Aquitaine Receiving the Cowl, painted by Guercino in 1620 for the church of San Gregorio in Bologna (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). A series of about twenty preliminary drawings enables us to trace the complex genesis of this painting. This drawing, like four others in the Louvre, shows the composition in its totality.

A gradual development

Guercino executed a large number of drawings in preparation for this famous picture: pen and wash studies of the overall composition, or detailed studies in ink or black chalk. The most important of these are preserved in the Louvre, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Windsor Castle, in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, and in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. The most elaborate study belonged to Dominique Vivant-Denon, who had an engraving of it produced in the third volume of his collection Monuments des arts du dessin (1829). The four Louvre studies reveal the way in which the figure of the bishop, shown receiving Saint William of Aquitaine, a soldier renouncing military life in order to become a monk, was gradually moved from the right to the left of the composition. Here, the saint is dressed in armor and holds a ceremonial cross, symbolizing his entry into religious life. The cross was left out of the final painting, perhaps because it might have suggested a knight leaving for the Crusades or entrusting a religious object to a bishop. The main group is to the left of the composition: this was the solution that was ultimately adopted, although it was quite unlike the compositional layout envisaged in the drawings in New York and in the Denon collection.

A critical appraisal

Like another study for the overall composition now in Frankfurt, the four Louvre drawings all belonged to Pierre-Jean Mariette. However, only one of these is mentioned in the sale, almost certainly this drawing, the most important in the series, which Mariette had every reason to prize and of which he maintained that he had had a copy engraved by Vincenzo Vangelisti in 1767, when it formed part of his collection. "It cannot be said that Guercino is a good draftsman," Mariette wrote, "far from it indeed. He can even be criticized for being extremely mannered. Nevertheless his work is at least as appealing as that of a more rigorous draftsman. His lines are fluid and sensuous, his compositions are large and noble, his use of chiaroscuro is intelligent and characterized by marvelous effects." Despite this lukewarm assessment, typical of Mariette's mistrust of anything he considered too clever or a bit contrived, he nonetheless collected forty-two pictures by Guercino, including a variety of landscape studies, which he personally considered to be the finest of the artist's works.

Bibliography

Viatte F., Le cabinet d'un grand amateur P.-J. Mariette 1694-1774 : Dessins du XVe siècle au XVIIIe siècle, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1967, n 69
Mahon D., Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591-1666), cat.exp. Bologne, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, 1968, n 57-76
Loire S., Le Guerchin en France, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1990, n 32

Technical description

  • Giovanni Francesco BARBIERI, known as Guercino (Cento di Ferrara, 1591-Bologna 1666)

    Saint William of Aquitaine at the Feet of Saint Gregory

    Circa 1620

  • Pen and brown ink on brown and gray wash.

    H. 34.5 cm; W. 27.1 cm

  • Roger de Piles collection; Crozat collection; sold 1741, lot 544.Mariette collection; sold 1775, lot 142; purchased for the Cabinet du Roi.

    INV6883

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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