Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino
Cento 1591-Bologna 1666
A Young Woman Carrying an Infant on her Shoulder, followed on Foot by another Child

DATE: 1620s
MEDIUM: Red chalk on laid paper, laid onto a light linen canvas backing
SIZE: 156 x 135 mm. (6¼ x 5¼ in.)
PROVENANCE: Probably Casa Gennari due to the canvas mount (see entry below).
Unidentified 18th century collector’s inscription on the verso of the mount in pen and black ink ‘Guercino/ No.7’
Three unidentified stamps, one a caduceus dry stamp recto, another black ink stamp recto, a third stamp on the verso of the canvas.
Probably Sir Robert Mond, thence by descent to the previous owner till 2010; with Crispian Riley-Smith Fine Arts Ltd; Private collection, U.K. from 2010 till 2015; with Crispian Riley-Smith Fine Arts Ltd; Private collection, U.K. from 2015 till 2021.
Verso of drawing

Condition: The red chalk is fresh and clear. The paper is laid on a 17th century canvas, in line with the provenance of Casa Gennari, see below. There is black spotting throughout the drawing, visible in the photograph, and time staining. The canvas is showing through the paper in the left-hand margin, and upper right margin. The canvas support is laid onto an 18th Century mount.

Nicholas Turner dates the present drawing to 1620s when Guercino was working in Reggio Emilia and was inspired by a painting by Annibale Carracci. He writes about our drawing:

‘Unlike the majority of his drawings, it does not seem to be preparatory for any paintings. Rather, the sketch was inspired by two figure groups in Annibale Carracci’s great canvas of Saint Roch distributing Alms, commissioned in 1587-88 by the Confraternita di S. Rocco of the church of S. Prospero, Reggio Emilia, and completed in 1595; it is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Annibale was the great founder of the Bolognese School of painting and his St Roch was famous in its day. In effect, Guercino seems to have created this drawing, both in homage to Annibale and as a way of stimulating his own imagination.

The two figure groups that caught Guercino’s interest are the standing woman carrying a child to her shoulder on the left of Annibale’s canvas and another similar standing woman with her baby, immediately to the right of centre. Since Guercino’s figures are in reverse to those in the two groups, it seems likely that he based his drawing on the large etching after Annibale’s St Roch, traditionally attributed to Guido Reni and datable to 1610. Far from being a slavish copy, Guercino, very interestingly, covered his tracks by choosing only certain parts from each figure and mixing them up together.

Perhaps the most prominent of the various details covered by Guercino from Annibale’s prototype is the prominent head of the young woman, figures splayed open as she presses her infant to her breast by the back (the woman is taken from the figure on the left of Annibale’s canvas; and on the right in the print) [see figure 2]; another borrowing from the same source is the emphatic shadow of her face and that of her child; and yet another, the strong highlight across the side of her child’s nude body as she carries him.

But in Guercino’s drawing the pose of this same infant supported by his mother also depends on that of the other baby in the arms of the other young woman in the second group, to which I have already referred, to the right of centre of the painting (left of centre in the print). This time it is not the face but the back of the baby’s head that is turned towards the spectator and one of the baby’s arms is extended outwards, with the hand placed flat on his mother’s shoulder, exactly as we see here in the drawing, but in reverse.

As for Guercino’s figure of the child running desperately behind his mother, as if trying to keep up, there is no direct equivalent in Annibale’s painting, though he may be loosely inspired, in reverse, by the boy half standing and half seated in the lap of the canvas.

Other than from it style, there is no way of determining precisely when Guercino may  have made this drawing. But as it happens, he was in Reggio Emilia in 1624-5, immediately following his return from Rome, in connection with his important commission to carry out the great altarpriece of the Crucifixion, with the Madonna, the Magdalen, St John the Evangelist and S. Prospero, for the church of the Madonna della Ghiara at Reggio. He would then have seen Annibale’s great picture and could well have been re-inspired by its composition, even if he had already known the print after it.

In my opinion, the style of the drawing seems to fit very well with Guercino’s of the mid-1620s. The figure types, especially the plump little putti, the emphatic chiaroscuro and the free, looping movements of the lines as the artist applies the medium to the paper are consistent with the sketches he made for his Madonna, the Magdalen and St Prosper at the foot of the Cross, in pen and ink, in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the foreground putto assisting St. Prosper in supporting the model of the city of Reggio, like the two infants in the present drawing, is similarly rotund, and apparently without any neck; the swooning Virgin’s drapery loops and swirls like that of the dress of our young woman; and, finally, the pronounced shadow across the brow of the Magdalen in the Teyels Museum drawing [see Figure 3], who gives succor to the Virgin, is an exact match to that covering most of the right-hand side of the mother here.

There is obviously further work to be done on the drawing’s provenance, and most especially the unidentified collection marks. Also relevant to this point is the fact that the sheet is laid down on to canvas. Many of the drawings shown on the walls of the two properties belonging to Guercino’s heirs, the Gennari-the Casa Gennari, Bologna, and their country villa outside the city, Bel Poggio- were laid down on to canvas, so this feature may indicate such a provenance for this drawing. But I am unable to determine whether or not the canvas is datable from c.1700, or from a later period.’

I would like to thank Nicholas Turner for inspecting the drawing first hand and for writing this entry in 2010. Mr Turner saw the drawing again in 2017, when it was in the collection of the present owner, and this is a summary of further comments made on 30 August,

‘Having revisited the drawing at your suggestion, I do find that the loose handling could indeed point to the early 1620s. I was especially struck by the similarity of the looping linework in the skirts of the woman in your drawing, which flow in the opposite direction to her left thigh, and those in the cloak slung over the lap of the seated mourner in a pen drawing for the Petronilla altarpiece (1622-23) in the Uffizi. In my opinion, an even closer parallel may be observed between the figure type of the women in your drawing and the Virgin in the Assumption of the Virgin in the SS.Rosario, Cento, datable c.1622. Taking the similarities even further, the two nude putti to either side of the Virgin’s shoulder echo the two infants in the drawing, especially the one in the upper left of the painting’.

Copies of both reports are available on request.

David Stone has commented ‘at the moment I don’t feel strongly that it is, in fact, by him’.

  1. Nicholas Turner examined the drawing on 2 March 2010, and written communication 7 March 2010.
  2. Written communication, 16 March 2010.