'Reclining Nude Woman Lifting a Curtain'

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (Cento, 1591-1666 Bologna, Italy)

The half-naked woman with cloth covering her lower body raises the left hand to lift a curtain.  

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Pen and brown iron gall ink on laid paper pasted onto card, which acts as a secondary support. An old mount made of burnished paper with drawn frame of five brown ink lines, a band of beige watercolour wash and a narrow band of gold pigment directly surrounding the drawing.
Dimensions: 20.3 x 24.3cm
Date: 1641 or 1646
Signed: Inscribed in pencil in lower right corner of old mount 31 and on the reverse in Italic ink script five inches from the top: Guercino. Also written on the reverse in pencil along the side of the mount in the top left corner: III 24.
Watermark: On old mount running off lower edge D followed by N.1|
Accession No: WAG10849

Guercino spent most of his artistic career in his native town of Cento, near Bologna in northern Italy, where he established a highly successful studio with international clients including Pope Urban VIII and King Charles I. By the 1640s he had become one of the greatest exponents of dramatic Baroque classicism in Europe. He was also a supreme master of a wide array of drawing techniques. No other artist of the period made so many drawings for his own delight and the enjoyment of others. Some drawings he made to give away as presents or for amusement. These include another Guercino drawing in the Walker’s collection, the 'Monstrous Animal and a Peasant'|, in which a grotesque animal, part human foot part chicken, startles a young man. But most were related to his paintings of classical mythology or religious scenes.

His preferred drawing medium was pen and ink as here in the 'Reclining Nude Woman lifting a Curtain', which shows a typically vivacious and vigorous line. Guercino also had a distinctive method of approaching the design process for a narrative painting. Rather than creating a full compositional drawing first and then breaking it down into studies of individual figures (as other artists usually did) he sometimes began by focussing on an individual figure within the pictorial narrative and then drawing a sequence of related sketches, before, during or even after the story to be portrayed. He was hardly ever satisfied with a design realised at his first attempt and would often experiment with figure placements and attitudes over a series of sheets to delve into the narrative further.2| In this drawing he has changed his mind and repositioned her arms several times. At one point her right arm was raised over her head and her left was down. So far it has not been possible to identify any painting or print for which the Walker’s drawing might have been executed. Perhaps a painting related to this drawing has not been discovered because the drawing may represent the precursor to the painted narrative.

The half-naked woman in the Walker’s drawing, who is raising a curtain to reveal herself, looks as though she is seductively awaiting or about to greet a visitor, who one imagines is a man just off to the right of the drawing. It has been suggested that the drawing might be related to a sketch of 'Venus and Cupid' (Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands) which was doodled on the back of a letter from Guercino in Cento and dated 28 December 164[1 or 6].3| The Dutch drawing shows Venus half-reclining under a roughly sketched canopy but in reverse to the Walker’s drawing (i.e. facing left rather than right). Guercino often made one or two sketches in a design sequence in reverse.4| In her right hand she holds a bow which Cupid attempts to take from her.5| The Walker’s drawing is not only larger and its composition is much more finished than the small sketch in Haarlem, but it also lacks a Cupid and bow, or the Dutch drawing’s playful atmosphere.

The pose of the Walker’s woman has also been thought comparable to that occurring in a 'Toilet of Venus' (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy) painted by Guercino’s nephew, Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715), in about 1660 and a related drawing in reverse from Guercino’s workshop (Royal Library, Windsor Castle).6|

Benedetto Gennari's painting shows a partly naked woman reclining with a drapery swag above her and leaning on her right arm with her left raised, not to draw back a curtain, but to adjust her hair whilst looking in a mirror held by a Cupid standing behind her. The Walker’s drawing by Guercino might have supplied Benedetto Gennari with a partial idea for a pose, but it is unlikely that Guercino’s drawing was originally intended for a ‘Toilet of Venus’, as it lacks the various other elements of the story.7| It may instead have been intended as a figure study for a painting from classical mythology or Roman history, such as the life of Cleopatra.

The repeated working over of the figure’s silhouette suggests that the drawing was not a spontaneous sketch for a pictorial idea, especially around her right shoulder and arm with dark ink cross-hatched shadows. The hatched and stippled lines and dots visible around the woman’s breasts and on her face are similar to the type of pen-work found on the drawings that Guercino created to be engraved and turned into prints. But in those examples the hatching and stippling is usually much more precise than in the Walker’s drawing. He developed this technique early in his career in 1618/19 when he produced drawings to be engraved by his Centese friend Giovanni Battista Pasqualini (1595-1631), but he continued the style into the 1640s for other non-printmaking purposes.8| A similar combination of hatching and stippling can be found on the ink drawing 'A Woman Seated' (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), which has also been dated by technique to the 1640s.9|

Later history

From the beginning of his career Guercino was recognised by other artists for his skills as a draftsman. So many of his drawings may have survived because his heirs, the nephews Benedetto and Cesare Gennari (1637-1688) and his descendant Carlo Gennari (1712-1790) regarded them not just as by-products of his paintings but as a record of his creative genius. Guercino’s drawings were particularly well collected and highly prized in eighteenth century England. An early English admirer was the painter Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) who in the 1740s recommended his pupil Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) to make careful copies of Guercino’s drawings, one of which may be in the Walker’s collections ['An angel sheathing a sword with St. Roch and St. Sebastian|'].

The 'Reclining Nude Woman' was, therefore, a very early example to attract English admiration when Thomas Coke (1697-1759) acquired it. He became one of Britain’s outstanding connoisseurs, having inherited the large estate of Holkham in Norfolk in 1707 aged just ten, and spending his formative years aged 15-21 on the European continent, where he met artists, collectors and dealers, before returning home to marry. He was finally created the 1st Earl of Leicester in 1744.10|  He filled his houses in London and later Holkham Hall, Norfolk, with a fine collection of old master paintings, classical sculpture, books, manuscripts and drawings which he began to form whilst on the Grand Tour of Italy in 1714-18. His first recorded purchase of a painting was on 5 June 1714, aged 17. His most concentrated activity for buying drawings was between 1714 and 1716, with a second flurry of purchases during the 1750s. Many drawings were bought in batches and so individual sheets were not itemised.11| Coke’s old master drawings collection (of over 300 items) was particularly rich in work by the great figures of the seventeenth century, including notable examples by Guercino, which were kept in one of five portfolios in the Library at Holkham (fitted into cupboards below the bookcases), for family and visitors to enjoy looking at during their hours of leisure.12 |A part of the library at Holkham can supposedly be seen in the background to the Walker Art Gallery’s portrait of 'William Roscoe|' painted by Martin Archer Shee to commemorate Roscoe’s visit to the library in 1814 to study and catalogue its manuscripts.

Provenance

Thomas Coke (1697-1759), created 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation) in 1744, Holkham Hall, Norfolk; sold from the Holkham collection, Christie’s, 2nd July 1991, lot 22; purchased with the aid of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund|, as part of the Holkham sale consortium February 1992.

Exhibited

  • 'Why artists draw', Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 15 May – 2 August 1992
  • 'Old Master Drawings from the Collection at Holkham Hall, Norfolk', touring between 1992-93 to the British Museum, London;
  • Birmingham Art Gallery
  • Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
  • Walker Art Gallery
  • National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
  • Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Literature

  • AE Popham & C Lloyd, 'Old Master Drawings at Holkham Hall', Chicago 1985, no.145.
  • Christie's, London, 2 July 1991, Lot 22

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Footnotes

  1. This might be paper from the Rondel company, a French company that worked for the Dutch market, see WA Churchill 'Watermarks in Paper in Holland, England, France... in the 17th & 18th centuries', 1985, no.19 (dated 1684) p. xiv, pp.20, 66.
  2. David Stone, 'Guercino Master Draughtsman. Works from North American Collections', Harvard University Art Museum,1991, p. xxiii.
  3. Inv. No. H 74, 9.7 x 16.5cm. The suggestion was made by Nicholas Turner in a letter 23 March 1992 in the Walker’s files.
  4. Stone, 1991, p.xxi.
  5. Carel van Tuyll van Serooskerken, 'Guercino Drawings from Dutch Collections', ‘s-Gravenhage, 1991, p.110, cat.no.42., illus.
  6. Christopher Lloyd’s entry for WAG 10849 in Popham & Lloyd, 1986, no.145, notes that Nicholas Turner has made such comparisons. The Royal Collection drawing is in red chalk, R.L. 2896, in D Mahon & N Turner, 'The Drawings of Guercino in the collections of Her Majesty at Windsor', 1989, no.440. The Milan painting, inv.717, in oil on copper, is reproduced in Prisco Bagni, 'Benedetto Gennari e la bottega del Guercino', 1986, p.29.
  7. An outline visible underneath the hatched lines and behind the figure’s head suggests that Guercino may originally have intended the woman’s right arm to be raised.
  8. Stone, cat. nos. 11, 75, 75a.
  9. 'Guercino as Master Draughtsman. Drawings from the Mahon Collection, the Ashmolean Museum and the City of Cento', Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, 2005, cat. no.60.
  10. Preface to Popham & Lloyd, p.ix. Thomas Coke is sometimes confused with his great-nephew Thomas William Coke, (1754-1842) the agriculturalist (and art collector), who was also called the 1st Earl after the Earldom was revived for him in 1837. T.W. Coke was a friend of William Roscoe (1753-1831), whose collection of early Italian and north European paintings and drawings forms the core of the Walker’s Old Master holdings, and he may have bought drawings from Roscoe’s bankruptcy sale in 1816, see Popham & Lloyd, p.8 n.12 and Martin Archer Shee’s portrait above.
  11. Popham & Lloyd pp.5, 6, 8.
  12. Popham & Lloyd, p.xi-xii, citing the 'New Description of Holkham... containing a full & Accurate Account of the paintings, Statues, tapestries &c' (Wells, 1826).