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Exhibition celebrates the work of a powerful artist and the work of a great collector
An angel in flight, c.1648. Red chalk, 27.3 x 26.8 cm. LI032.31© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

OXFORD.- An adventurous and brilliant draughtsman, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino (1591–1666) was one of the 17th century’s greatest artists. He drew constantly, with a passion that revealed itself in the vigour and intensity of his preparatory studies. He explored, in drawings, different possibilities for literary and religious subjects, landscapes, and scenes of everyday life – which stand alone as independent works of art.

Born in Cento, near Ferrara, Guercino received his nickname, ‘squinter’, as a boy and spent much of his career in his home town. As a young painter, he was inspired by the art of the Carracci in nearby Bologna, particularly their dramatic use of light and shade and the tender naturalism of their style. Following a period spent in Rome in 1621–3, Guercino became interested in a more classical, restrained style of painting, but his preparatory drawings continued to reveal an experimental and energetic approach. We find him dashing down rapid ideas which often went through radical changes before he was satisfied with a composition. Other sheets show delicate explorations of figures, gestures and expressions as he developed his designs in luminous pen, ink and wash studies or in sensuous chalk drawings.

The core of the display comes from the collection of Sir Denis Mahon CH, CBE, FBA (1910–2011). An internationally renowned art historian, connoisseur and collector of Italian Baroque art, Sir Denis was also a tireless campaigner for the arts in the UK – free admission to museums being amongst the causes he championed. His ground-breaking research on neglected Baroque artists in the 1930s and 1940s went hand in hand with buying paintings and drawings by the same unfashionable artists. His drawings by Guercino came on loan to the Museum in 1984 and twelve paintings from his magnificent collection have been on loan at the Ashmolean since 1997.

Guercino: A Passion for Drawing celebrates both the work of a powerful and individual artist and the work of a great collector. Sir Denis Mahon’s expert eye and generosity, encapsulated in this display, gives audiences the chance to see and understand works from one of the greatest periods in European art history.

Sir Denis Mahon CH, CBE, FBA, who died in April 2011, amassed a superb collection of Guercino drawings from the mid 1930s until the early 1960s. He placed it on loan at the Ashmolean in 1984 with the intention that the drawings should be accessible to a wide audience, and should eventually become part of the permanent collection. Sir Karl Parker, Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean from 1934 to 1962, acquired Guercino drawings for the Museum which delightfully complement those of Sir Denis Mahon. A selection of the Ashmolean’s Guercino drawings will also be on display, so that visitors can enjoy the full range of the artist’s expressive powers and fertile imagination.

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