Exhibition curator David García Cueto
This ambitious exhibition, which benefits from the sole sponsorship of Fundación BBVA, includes nearly 100 works loaned from more than 40 museums, institutions and public and private collections in Europe and America. The result is a complete vision of the career of this great 17th-century Bolognese artist which also draws attention to Reni’s fundamental contribution to the configuration of the aesthetic universe of the European Baroque.
Visitors to the exhibition – organised in collaboration with the Städel Museum, Frankfurt – will be able to see major works by Guido Reni rarely exhibited other than in their habitual locations. They include the impressive Triumph of Job from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, as well as more celebrated compositions such as The Immaculate Conception from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Cleopatra from The Royal Collection, London; Drawing and Colour from the Musée du Louvre, Paris; and Salomé with the Head of Saint John the Baptist and The penitent Magdalene from the Gallerie Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome (Palazzo Barberini and Galleria Corsini).
These and other masterpieces are joined by the outstanding examples from the Prado’s own collection, many of them specially restored for the exhibition, including Saint Sebastian, Hippomenes and Atalanta, Girl with a Rose and The Virgin of the Chair.
Exhibition oraganized by Museo Nacional del Prado, Städel Museum Frankfurt, Fundación BBVA
The Museo Nacional del Prado and Fundación BBVA are presenting Guido Reni, an exhibition curated by David García Cueto, Head of the Department of Italian and French Painting up to 1800 at the Prado. It brings together nearly 100 works loaned from 40 cultural institutions around the world with the aim of drawing attention to the fundamental contribution made by this Bolognese master to the configuration of the aesthetic universe of the European Baroque. The exhibition pays full attention to the most recent art-historical research and places a particular focus on Reni’s connections with Spain, evident in royal and aristocratic collecting there and in the influence of the painter’s successful models on key artists of the so-called Spanish Golden Age.
Shown together in the exhibition for the first time are the Prado’s version of Hippomenes and Atalanta and the one from Capodimonte; Saint Sebastian in the form Reni conceived it, without the large area of repainting that extended the saint’s loincloth; The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist from the Augustinian convent in Salamanca, which is a recent addition to the artist’s oeuvre; and the unpublished Bacchus and Ariadne from a Swiss private collection.
This extensive representation of Reni’s work will be displayed to establish a close dialogue with a selection of paintings and sculptures by other artists in order to reveal the principal influences that forged his artistic personality as well as his own on the art of his contemporaries. In addition, a significant group of drawings by Reni will allow for an appreciation of the complexity and beauty of his creative process.
The exhibition will also draw attention to the renewed interest in the academic study of this major 17th-century painter, whose fame and influence spread not just through Italy but also across various parts of Europe, including the Iberian Peninsula where his creations provided an aesthetic canon that fascinated successive generations of artists. Recent studies have cast new light on the painter, expanding knowledge of his life and activities in a way that facilitates a scholarly re-reading of Reni’s personality through the different historical and artistic contexts in which he lived and worked.
1 . “I, Guido Reni, Bologna”
By the late 16th century, the wealthy, cultured city of Bologna – part of the Papal States since 1506 – had become one of Europe’s leading centres of art, celebrated in particular for the activity of its school of painting. Steeped in the Counter-Reformation spirit, local artists sought to blend long-standing traditions with a number of radical innovations pioneered by the Carracci family. These painters rejected the then-fashionable Mannerist aesthetic in favour of a more natural style, enhanced by a rereading of works by great masters such as Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Veronese. In doing so, they created a beautiful, innovative language that could also convey the most profound religious sentiments.
It was against this backdrop that Guido Reni (1575–1642), the son of a local musician, was eventually to raise painting in Bologna to a level of perfection hitherto unattained. A shy, well-behaved child, he began to train as a painter in his early teens. Guided by the principles of the Carracci academy, Reni came to be known as ‘the divine’ on account of his talent for capturing spiritual qualities on canvas. He himself never regarded this skill as an innate gift, but rather as the result of enormous effort in the pursuit of beauty, a quest in which he achieved a harmonious symbiosis of line and colour. Guido’s fame gradually spread from Bologna to Rome, and thence to the rest of Italy and much of Europe. His glory extended to Spain, where collectors acquired a number of his major works, and where Reni was hailed as a model for local artists.
2 . The Road to Perfection
Guido was first apprenticed to Denys Calvaert (c. 1540–1619), a Flemish painter based in Bologna, who favoured an elegant version of late Mannerism with northern European overtones. A harsh master, Calvaert was quick to exploit his student’s talents. Under his tutelage, Reni became an accomplished draughtsman, and developed a striking, sensual approach to colour; he also acquired the business acumen of his master, who had built up a flourishing trade in small oil paintings on copper. In 1594, dissatisfied with his situation, Guido decided to further his studies under Ludovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci, who around 1582 had founded a studio – the Accademia degli Incamminati – offering practical and theoretical training for young artists. There, Reni attended classes in life drawing and learned printmaking and terracotta modelling techniques; he also started to produce his own paintings, not just as part of Ludovico’s team but sometimes working independently for private clients and the clergy, or on official commissions for the local authorities in Bologna.
3 . In Rome: Between Raphael and Caravaggio
After the Jubilee year of 1600, perhaps driven by arguments with his master Ludovico Carracci, Guido made his first trip to Rome, then the undisputed art capital of Europe. The city was to have a crucial impact on his subsequent career, for it was there that he discovered the outstanding legacy of classical antiquity; there, too, he was able to examine at first hand the work of Raphael, an artist he greatly admired. But the most remarkable feature of his sojourn in Rome was his insistence on emulating the art of Caravaggio, the most radical, ground-breaking artist then active in the city. On seeing Caravaggio’s work, Guido promptly modified his own approach, with the avowed intention of outdoing Caravaggio by imitating his very particular style, an attitude which turned him for a time into a kind of ‘anti-Caravaggio’. Reni’s interest was shared by a contemporary Spanish painter who would also go on to become a leading figure on the 17th-century art scene: Jusepe de Ribera. But this experimental phase proved transitory, just one more step in the shaping of his own identity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his superb altarpiece depicting the Massacre of the Innocents.
4 . The Beauty of the Divine Body
Reni’s talent for bringing the viewer closer to divinity was unanimously acknowledged even in his lifetime. His biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, likened him to a ‘generous eagle’ taking ‘sublime flight to the spheres’, and afterwards bringing ‘celestial ideas’ back to earth. For the writer Francesco Scannelli, Guido’s painting ‘transcended the human’ to approach the divine. Malvasia described his holy figures as ‘divinity humanised’, noting the power of certain paintings to involve the viewer in transcendent scenes. This is what made Reni such a remarkable interpreter of the life and Passion of Christ, by presenting him as a man of great physical beauty capable of harbouring a divine soul. At the same time, certain gospel themes, such as those featuring the young John the Baptist, allowed him to explore a crucial stage in human development, the physical transition from adolescence to adulthood.
5 . The Superhuman Anatomies of Gods and Heroes
In Rome, Guido saw and studied a number of landmark artworks that offered a grandiose, monumental view of the human anatomy, among them the famous Belvedere Torso and, particularly, Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In his own masterly handling of certain mythological themes, Reni opted for a similar interpretation of the male body, painting anatomies which – though plausible – bordered on the superhuman. This approach to the human body was well suited to depicting certain episodes from classical mythology, such as the fall of the giants or the labours of Hercules. His pictures on themes of this kind were mostly commissioned or collected by aristocrats keen to highlight the splendour of their own ancestry. The Spanish monarchy, too, ordered paintings of mythological scenes for self-representational purposes from artists like Francisco de Zurbarán and the Bologna sculptor Alessandro Algardi, who was to be remembered as a ‘new Guido in marble’.
6 . The Power of Saints and the Beauty of Old Age
In Baroque society, saints were assigned a crucial role in protecting the Catholic faithful and interceding on their behalf. Echoing this religious sentiment, Reni became remarkably adept at producing beautiful, moving depictions of saints, and of scenes from their lives, both as single figures and as part of more elaborate compositions. Nowhere is his skill in constructing hagiographical narratives better displayed than in his magnificent Triumph of Job, where the wealth of secondary elements serves to highlight the saint rather than undermining his importance. But it was in his representations of single holy figures – apostles, evangelists, ascetics – that Reni fully projected his own sensibility, tackling a concept at which he excelled: the lasting beauty of the body beyond youth. The exquisite care and painterly intensity lavished on these ageing faces, these sagging bodies, endows them with a singular charm. Guido’s approach – shared by other leading contemporary artists – reflects the Christian idea that the beauty of the soul outlasts the flesh.
7 . Mary, or Divinity Made Human
In the late 1620s, Reni received two important commissions for the Spanish court. The first was an Abduction of Helen, intended for the main hall at the Alcázar in Madrid, then known as the ‘Salón Nuevo’ or New Hall. Owing to a series of disagreements, the painting – which achieved considerable renown at the time – never reached Spain.
The second was an Immaculate Conception commissioned for the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, the sister of Philip IV, which was subsequently donated to Seville cathedral, where it remained until the Napoleonic invasion, providing a source of inspiration for Murillo. In producing this painting, Guido was obliged to tackle the controversial issue of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a doctrine fiercely defended by the Spanish monarchy but rejected by the Dominican order. The artist interprets this theme with the sensitivity that marks all his depictions of Mary, reflecting his own lifelong, fervent devotion to the Virgin. Reni’s brushwork brings Mary closer to the viewer, as the most beautiful human idealisation of a divine being.
8 . Bodies and Desire: The Sensuality of the Nude
Reni painted a number of male and female nudes in the course of his career, almost always within the framework of stories from classical mythology. In doing so, he made use both of life studies and of ancient statues. Some of the pupils at his studio would pose for him, and he occasionally used female models too. Nowhere is his masterly rendering of the beautiful naked body better displayed than in works like Hippomenes and Atalanta, where the superb anatomies of the young couple are captured at a moment of sensual interaction. Guido’s more serene portrayal of Bacchus and Ariadne contrasts sharply with the expressive force attained in Apollo and Marsyas, where his interpretation of the mythological account involves a violent confrontation between a beautiful male body and its coarser counterpart. Reni himself is widely assumed to have remained a virgin, having renounced all sexual relations. Although that renunciation might be viewed, from a modern perspective, as a symptom of repressed homosexuality, Guido was regarded in his day as an angelic being, a man who – like his art – was not entirely of this world.
9 . In the Realm of Cupid: Play, Love, and Tenderness
Guido shared with most Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists an interest in representing children’s bodies, and striking examples are to be found in his work. Some paintings focus on playful putti or cherubs, while others feature Cupid, the pagan god and symbol of love. His models reflect a preference for what his biographer, Malvasia, described as ‘tender and chubby’ bodies. His portrayal of these infants was closely linked to representations by contemporary sculptors, including Alessandro Algardi – whose models were very similar to Reni’s – and Giovanni Battista Morelli, a 17th-century Madrid-based Italian sculptor working mainly in stucco and terracotta.
Reni’s iconography of love also assumed female form, for example in Girl with a Rose, which hung in Philip IV’s summer study at the Alcázar in Madrid, beside a rather sensual Venetian lady by Tintoretto, in a unique pairing of contrasting yet complementary views of love.
10 . Flesh and Drapery
Reni’s paintings of goddesses, saints, and heroines of antiquity were immensely successful in the Europe of his day. Most were depicted at half- or three-quarter length, in the style of Caravaggio, thus encouraging a very direct approach by the viewer. These portrayals of women from the past, handled with consummate technical mastery and exceptional sensitivity, were not meant to convey a direct sensory experience. Guido developed his own fascinating idiom through the play of drapery, which envelops and largely conceals the figure – thus defying Mannerist precepts – and contrasts with the smooth white skin. The intense facial expressions are based on the heads of classical statues that he studied in Rome, while the rich fabrics probably allude to Bologna as a major silk-producing centre. All in all, an enigmatic sensuality – cold yet captivating – emanates from these paintings, repeated by Reni himself with slight variations, on numerous occasions, to meet the high market demand.
11 . Money, Matter, and Spirit: Reni’s Last Years and the Non Finito
In his latter years, Guido’s art underwent a change so radical that even his most fervent admirers found it difficult to understand. In a burning quest for the essential in painting, his forms disintegrated, his drawing almost disappearing and his outlines becoming blurred. At the same time, his bright and varied palette was drastically pared back and muted until it closely resembled grisaille. This process of simplification largely reflected his deliberate decision to leave many paintings unfinished, perhaps for lack of time or energy, or possibly with the intention of keeping them in that state in his studio, until he found a potential buyer for whom he could complete them. This gave rise to Reni’s non finito period, in which the weariness of old age, coupled with financial difficulties caused by his compulsive gambling, drove him to rush his work in order to pay off debts. But these paintings, while prompted by Guido’s need for cash, also reflected a self-indulgent search for the beauty of the unfinished, conveying a sense of the spiritualisation of art, which was precisely what the artist sought. When Reni died in Bologna on 18 August 1642, his fellow citizens bade him a sincere and emotional farewell.