Giovanni Francesco Barbieri GUERCINO (Cento 1591 - Bologna 1666)

A Young Man with an Owl on a Stick Sold

Pen and brown ink and brown wash.
Inscribed B. del Guercino and numbered L20 on the verso.
225 x 155 mm. (8 7/8 x 6 1/8 in.)



The present sheet belongs with a group of character studies, probably drawn from life, which Guercino produced throughout his career, and which reflect the artist’s acute observation of the people he saw around him in his native town of Cento. Another of the artist’s biographers, Giovanni Battista Passeri, in a visit to Guercino’s studio, noted that he saw there ‘a number of drawings by his hand, of dances, festivals, and weddings, all decorously conducted in his Rocca di Cento, imitating the ideas, the demeanour and the appearance of these rustics, and of these foretane of the country, which were, in truth, curious and well-captured.’ Often sympathetic yet sometimes verging on caricature, Guercino’s genre drawings were not generally intended as studies for paintings but were produced rather as visual exercises and for his own amusement.

Nicholas Turner has written of Guercino’s genre drawings that ‘they are characterized by a rapid touch, an economy of means, and a remarkable acuteness of observation, many of them clearly based on scenes taken directly from life. The foibles of the men, women, and children of all rank who were his unwitting subjects are captured with great immediacy, which has always given these drawings a special appeal. Although the nobles, gentlefolk, and clergy, largely from his native Cento, came under his powerful scrutiny, the most frequent subjects were the peasant folk, or contadini, for whom it seems the painter had a particular affection.’

The vigorous and confident pen and wash technique of the present sheet provides a fine example of the gustosa facilità for which Malvasia praised the artist’s drawings. The effect of bright sunlight is created by the contrast of dark areas of different shades of brown wash, applied with the point of the brush, with the reserve of the paper left untouched to form highlights.

The inconography of the drawing is difficult to elucidate, although the presence of the owl, as a symbol of wisdom, may indicate that the man is a fortune-teller. (It has also been suggested that the man may be trying to ward off the malocchio, or evil eye, while owls were sometimes tied to poles at attract small birds such as larks by bird-hunters.) A similar subject is found in a recently identified early painting by Guercino of A Landscape with Rinaldo Corradino on a Mule, datable to c.1615-1617, which appeared at auction in 2003 and is now in the Pinacoteca Civica in Cento. The painting depicts Rinaldo Corradino - a close friend of Annibale Carracci, who made several caricature drawings of him - riding a mule and holding in front of him a staff on which rests a small owl. As Fausto Gozzi has noted of this painting, ‘[Guercino] is faithful to his story of Ronaldo Corradino’s journeys by mule, from one village to the next, laden with the apparatus of his work [including] a little owl, symbol of wisdom and therefore useful for foretelling the future in peasant markets.'

While Guercino’s genre drawings are hard to accurately date, the present sheet is likely to date from the early 1630’s8, and almost certainly to the twenty-year period when the artist was working in Cento, following his brief stay in Rome and before he transferred his studio to Bologna in the early 1640’s. As one scholar has aptly noted, ‘Given that Guercino traveled little and spent so much of his career in provincial Cento, it is no surprise that his caricatures and genre scenes reflect local life rather than political subjects. A gentle, sensitive humor and humanity characterize his work in this field and indeed pervade his entire graphic output.’

An unidentified collector’s mark faintly stamped at the lower right
Anonymous sale, London, Christie’s, 1 April 1987, lot 12 (as Attributed to Guercino)
Marcello Aldega, Rome, and Margot Gordon, New York, in 1988
Private collection.

David M. Stone, Guercino: Master Draftsman. Works from North American Collections, exhibition catalogue, Cambridge and elsewhere, 1991, p.223, no.171, illustrated pl.K.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri GUERCINO

A Young Man with an Owl on a Stick


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