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Guercino’s Two studies for Ahasuerus


A red chalk drawing in the National Gallery of Victoria hitherto referred to as Two turbaned men (fig. 1), and given an unsubstantiated attribution to Guercino, can now take its place securely within Guercino’s oeuvre. 

The task of clarifying the status of drawings with unsubstantiated and often inaccurate attributions to the prolific seventeenth-century Bolognese draughtsman must be addressed in virtually all collections in which Guercino is represented. The popularity of Guercino’s drawing in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, along with certain idiomatic qualities inherent in his style, led to wide-spread imitations of his drawings and even to forgery.1 The initial work of defining a corpus of the artist’s oeuvre was undertaken by Denis Mahon in 1968. Mahon identified the work of one particularly prolific forger who operated with great success in the second half of the eighteenth century when the demand for drawings by Guercino, especially landscapes, was at its height. The production of the forger consists of pastiches of freely borrowed motifs appearing in fourteen engravings of Guercino’s landscapes made by Jean Pesne in Paris in the 1670s and a further series of engravings made in Bologna by Ludovico Mattioli in the 1740s. See D. Mahon, II Guercino Catalogo Critico dei Disegni, Edizione Alfa, Bologna, 1968, pp. 182–5. 

Of seven drawings in the National Gallery of Victoria associated with Guercino three appear to be autograph.2 The earliest of the group, the pen and wash Hercules slaying the Hydra, was identified by Denis Mahon as a study for a termini for the fresco cycle of the Casa Provenzale; the drawing was therefore by Guercino rather than Annibale Carracci, to whom it had been attributed, or Ludovico Carracci, to whom Bodmer gave it in 1934. The black chalk Study of a reclining male nude may belong with the group of six black chalk studies of male nudes catalogued by Mahon and which he dates to Guercino’s immediate pre-Roman period, that is, about 1620. The finished compositional pen and wash drawing The Madonna appearing to St John and St Gregory is closely associated with Guercino’s altarpiece of the same subject of 1630; the drawing is clearly not by Guercino but a studio copyist. Similarly, while many elements of the pen and ink drawing Landscape with figures are typical of Guercino, the clumsiness of the handling suggests that it, too, is a studio copy, while Girl standing is a quite conscious experiment in Guercino’s manner. The unfinished red chalk drawing St Joseph and the infant Jesus is probably an abandoned engraver’s copy. It may represent some initial work for the ‘Collection of Prints engraved by Bartolozzi and others, from Original Pictures and Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty’, issued in 1803. For a more detailed discussion see Ruth Pullin, Guercino in the National Gallery of Victoria, BA (Hons) thesis, Monash University, 1983. One of these three is the chalk study referred to above. It was previously thought to be a study of two oriental figures but is in fact two studies for the one figure. This drawing, it can now be argued, is a study for the figure of Ahasuerus in Guercino’s painting Esther before Ahasuerus 1639 (University of Michigan Museum of Art), (fig. 2).3 The date of the painting is confirmed by the account book kept by Guercino’s brother. See H. C. Barrows, ‘Observations on Guercino’s Esther before Ahasuerus’, Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 5, 1970–71, p. 35. 

The painting represents the moment in the Old Testament story when Esther appears before the Persian king Ahasuerus to intercede for the lives of her people, the Jews. Ahasuerus had agreed to Haman’s wish to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Even though Esther, concealing her Jewish background, had been chosen by Ahasuerus as the new queen she went before the king at the risk of her life. Anyone appearing before the king without having been summoned risked death; only those to whom the king’s golden sceptre was extended were reprieved. 

Guercino chose the climactic moment of the story for his painting. The text to which most painters probably referred came from ‘The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther’ in the Apocrypha: 

Thus lifting up his countenance that shone with majesty, he looked down very fiercely upon her: and the queen fell down, and was pale, and bowed herself upon the head of the maid that went before her. Then God changed the spirit of the king into mildness, who in a fear leaped from his throne, and took her in his arms, till she came to herself again…4 Quoted in Barrows, p. 28. 

Though painters have depicted various aspects of the story, the appearance of Esther before Ahasuerus is one of the most popular, partly because of the emotional and dramatic potential of this particular moment but also because of the association of Esther with the Virgin and her traditional role of intercession. Veronese, Tintoretto, Domenichino and Artemisia Gentileschi all represented this aspect of the story. Guercino may well have been familiar with Tintoretto’s version of this episode.5 This was the subject of one of the six paintings by Tintoretto which Velasquez acquired in Venice for the king of Spain. Mahon records that Velasquez visited Guercino in Cento in 1629 on his journey south, and Guercino may therefore have known about the Tintoretto. See Madlyn M. Kahr, The Book of Esther in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1979, p. 121, and D. Mahon, II Guercino Catalogo Critico dei Dipinti, Edizione Alfa, Bologna, 1968, p. 134. 

In Guercino’s version the dramatic focus of the painting is Ahasuerus and his reaction to the swooning Esther. The king, whose power is established through his slightly elevated position, reveals his compassion for the queen in his startled movement towards her, one hand drawn back to his breast in a gesture of alarm, the other reaching forward to offer her the sceptre. The play of hands and gesture suggests the complexity of the evolving emotional drama. Guercino’s studies for the composition, including the Melbourne drawing, focus on this aspect of the painting. 

Guercino’s direct response to the narrative is evident in the small group of studies known for the painting. In seeking to heighten the dramatic potential of the story Guercino drew a number of ideas for the composition. His modus operandi involved the compulsion to register every option for the composition on a sheet of paper and then to visualise all possible variations upon it, reversing the figures from left to right and experimenting with inversions and transpositions of the elements of the composition. This working method is characteristic of his early and middle years though later Guercino seemed able to commit to paper a compositional idea close to the final painting relatively quickly.6 Mahon argues that Guercino underwent a stylistic volte-face after his trip to Rome in 1621–23 and that he consciously reined in his intuitive manner for one of greater classical restraint. Later in his career, Mahon maintains, this classical habit came to him more readily. See D. Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, Greenwood Press, London, 1947. His practice of spontaneously setting down a range of images from which he would select and develop those with promise makes it difficult to determine a sequential order. Whatever the order of the group of studies for Esther before Ahasuerus it appears that the Melbourne drawing stands at the critical point in determining the pose of the king, Ahasuerus. 

The attitude of the king, pivotal to the text, is also central to Guercino’s thoughts about the composition. In figure 3, a pen and ink drawing (Windsor Castle), the king manoeuvres the sceptre, symbol of her safety, into Esther’s hand in a gesture that is complex, awkward and contrived. In contrast with the tension and energy communicated through Guercino’s line as it frenetically describes the forms and builds up the density of drawing, the fluent use of wash in figure 4 creates a quite different mood. The wash subtly underscores with greater narrative conviction the interplay of gesture and expression which informs this drawing. However the king, in looking obliquely up towards Esther, is robbed of the textually significant element of awe and majesty.  

Consideration of two individual studies of Ahasuerus indicates the distance Guercino had travelled in the resolution of the pose of the king.7 Studies focusing on Esther also exist: one in Christchurch, Oxford (cat. no. 997), and one in the collection of Kathi Baer, Georgia. One pen and ink study (fig. 5) establishes the dress and physiognomy of the king but the pose suggests that the dramatic and psychological role of Ahasuerus was as yet unformed in Guercino’s mind. Alternatively he may have been experimenting with the king in a frontal position as opposed to the profile of the painting. (Esther is oriented frontally to the picture plane; in this both figures conform with the order and classicism of Guercino’s middle and late years.) 

A second drawing for Ahasuerus (fig. 6) is so close to the painting that it may well be a final study for the figure. The Melbourne drawing stands between the two. In it the figure on the left conveys the sense of the artist’s response to the text, ‘then God changed the spirit of the king into mildness, who in a fear leapt from his throne’. The figure seems to rise, pushing on the arms of a chair as it does so. In the figure on the right the evolution towards a more compassionate and concerned demeanour is apparent. The hands have begun to move towards the position adopted in the painting itself: the right hand is positioned as if to hold a sceptre and the left has risen in a gesture of alarm. In the Melbourne drawing neither figure wears the coronet of Ahasuerus; the coronet seems to be optional throughout the studies and does not appear in figure 6, the drawing closest to the final work. More importantly, in the chalk drawing Guercino is on the brink of realising the psychology and pose dictated by the narrative. Details of costume are of little interest to him at this point. 

This type of dual study, in which two variations of one head are placed adjacent to one another, is not isolated in Guercino’s oeuvre. In a later drawing, a study for The Purification of the Virgin (1654–55), Guercino experiments with the expression of the Virgin, eyes open or lids lowered, in two adjacent profiles. Like the Melbourne drawing, it is a study in red chalk.8 Due studi per la testa della Madonna, Paris, Institut Neerlandais, Lugt Collection, Mahon, Disegni, no. 168.

The Melbourne drawing is the only one of the group of studies for Esther before Ahasuerus to be rendered in red chalk and this is not unusual since Guercino often reserved his use of red chalk for studies of drapery or individual figures. There is a freedom and assurance in the sweeping lines which describe the cloaks and turbans. Guercino’s characteristic and intuitive feeling for the fall of light and shadow gives the turbaned heads a three-dimensionality unexpected in a drawing of a relatively informal nature. The drawing has the confidence of a great draughtsman relaxed in his handling of the medium. 

Rather than representing two turbaned oriental figures, as previously surmised, it is clear that two studies for the one figure appear in the Melbourne drawing. Further, it seems likely that these two studies are for the figure of Ahasuerus in Guercino’s painting Esther before Ahasuerus of 1639. This connection suggests a possible date and a firm attribution for the drawing.9 I would like to thank Denis Mahon and Nicholas Turner for their assistance in establishing the attribution of this drawing. 

  

Ruth Pullin, Education Officer, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1989).

Appendix 

The drawing came into the Gallery’s collection from the Sticht collection in 1923 and can be traced back through the great collections of W. Bates, W. Young Ottely, J. Richardson Senior and P Η. Lankrink. Another collector’s mark, apparently representing the letter ‘R’, is unidentified. The watermark has been identified as Heawood 1620, Rome, 1647. However the watermark in this page is substantially smaller than that catalogued by Heawood. The smaller fleur-de-lis appearing in this paper does not appear in Heawood but it is likely to be from the same period, though slightly earlier. Earlier fleur-de-lis watermarks tend to be smaller.   

Notes 

1          The initial work of defining a corpus of the artist’s oeuvre was undertaken by Denis Mahon in 1968. Mahon identified the work of one particularly prolific forger who operated with great success in the second half of the eighteenth century when the demand for drawings by Guercino, especially landscapes, was at its height. The production of the forger consists of pastiches of freely borrowed motifs appearing in fourteen engravings of Guercino’s landscapes made by Jean Pesne in Paris in the 1670s and a further series of engravings made in Bologna by Ludovico Mattioli in the 1740s. See D. Mahon, II Guercino Catalogo Critico dei Disegni, Edizione Alfa, Bologna, 1968, pp. 182–5. 

2          The earliest of the group, the pen and wash Hercules slaying the Hydra, was identified by Denis Mahon as a study for a termini for the fresco cycle of the Casa Provenzale; the drawing was therefore by Guercino rather than Annibale Carracci, to whom it had been attributed, or Ludovico Carracci, to whom Bodmer gave it in 1934. The black chalk Study of a reclining male nude may belong with the group of six black chalk studies of male nudes catalogued by Mahon and which he dates to Guercino’s immediate pre-Roman period, that is, about 1620. The finished compositional pen and wash drawing The Madonna appearing to St John and St Gregory is closely associated with Guercino’s altarpiece of the same subject of 1630; the drawing is clearly not by Guercino but a studio copyist. Similarly, while many elements of the pen and ink drawing Landscape with figures are typical of Guercino, the clumsiness of the handling suggests that it, too, is a studio copy, while Girl standing is a quite conscious experiment in Guercino’s manner. The unfinished red chalk drawing St Joseph and the infant Jesus is probably an abandoned engraver’s copy. It may represent some initial work for the ‘Collection of Prints engraved by Bartolozzi and others, from Original Pictures and Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty’, issued in 1803. For a more detailed discussion see Ruth Pullin, Guercino in the National Gallery of Victoria, BA (Hons) thesis, Monash University, 1983. 

3          The date of the painting is confirmed by the account book kept by Guercino’s brother. See H. C. Barrows, ‘Observations on Guercino’s Esther before Ahasuerus’, Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 5, 1970–71, p. 35. 

4          Quoted in Barrows, p. 28. 

5          This was the subject of one of the six paintings by Tintoretto which Velasquez acquired in Venice for the king of Spain. Mahon records that Velasquez visited Guercino in Cento in 1629 on his journey south, and Guercino may therefore have known about the Tintoretto. See Madlyn M. Kahr, The Book of Esther in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1979, p. 121, and D. Mahon, II Guercino Catalogo Critico dei Dipinti, Edizione Alfa, Bologna, 1968, p. 134. 

6          Mahon argues that Guercino underwent a stylistic volte-face after his trip to Rome in 1621–23 and that he consciously reined in his intuitive manner for one of greater classical restraint. Later in his career, Mahon maintains, this classical habit came to him more readily. See D. Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, Greenwood Press, London, 1947. 

7          Studies focusing on Esther also exist: one in Christchurch, Oxford (cat. no. 997), and one in the collection of Kathi Baer, Georgia. 

8          Due studi per la testa della Madonna, Paris, Institut Neerlandais, Lugt Collection, Mahon, Disegni, no. 168. 

9          I would like to thank Denis Mahon and Nicholas Turner for their assistance in establishing the attribution of this drawing.