The Italian baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591–1666) is generally known by his nickname Guercino, which means “little squinter.” The artist’s early biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–1693) tells us that Guercino became cross-eyed in his early childhood when he was suddenly awakened from his sleep by an extremely loud and unusual noise; his fright was so great that his right eye was permanently frozen at an angle in his eye socket.
Perhaps Guercino’s own unusual appearance, recorded in several surviving portraits, helped make him a particularly curious and sympathetic observer of odd and abnormal facial features. His drawings, rendered with spare expressive lines, reveal the artist’s extraordinary ability to observe and capture on paper both the physical deformities and the psychological states of mind of many of his contemporaries. The word caricature comes from the Italian caricatura, which means something “loaded” or “charged.” Caricatures are “loaded” as they exaggerate specific features or make odd juxtapositions that emphasize differences.
A rare album, containing twenty-three caricature drawings by Guercino and an additional seven by other artists, is among the treasures on view in the current exhibition 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings. The quarto-size volume, covered in brown leather, was bequeathed to the Art Museum by Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895, who had purchased it in London in 1928. Recent research has brought to light new information on the earlier provenance of the Princeton album. The volume was most likely assembled in Bologna by a local painter some decades after Guercino’s death. The still-anonymous compiler of the album inserted at the opening of the volume an ornate title page, which includes Guercino’s portrait in watercolor and a three-page introductory essay comprising a short biography of Guercino and a brief discussion about the caricature genre.
In the first decades of the eighteenth century the album appears to be recorded in an inventory of the vast collection of drawings and prints of Francesco Maria Niccolo Gabburri (1676–1742), a Florentine nobleman, diplomat, scholar, patron, and prominent collector. According to several handwritten notations made on the flyleaf of the album, the volume later belonged to the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792).
By the time Dan Fellows Platt acquired it in London at the Saville Gallery, the volume had undergone various alterations, and several of Guercino’s caricatures had been removed. In an attempt to restore the album to its original state, Platt added seven caricature drawings executed by Guercino’s imitators or by artists from his workshop. From the time of Platt’s bequest, the album has been a highlight of the Museum’s renowned collection of Italian drawings.
Guercino’s caricatures in the Princeton album—with their extraordinary quality of execution and their intriguing historical provenance—exemplify the appeal and fascinating power that old master drawings still have for contemporary viewers.
Graduate School Class of 2012
Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant