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Kimbell Art Museum acquires rare Guercino

Posted 7:50am on Friday, Apr. 30, 2010

FORT WORTH -- The Kimbell Art Museum has added another 17th-century Italian baroque jewel to its collection, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, c. 1619-20 by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino. The dramatic depiction of Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from Jacob's well will be on view beginning today.

Guercino (gwer-CHEE'-no), a nickname meaning "squinter," was a self-taught artist and child prodigy. He was born in the small town of Cento in 1591, found early fame and had a long, extremely productive career, dying in 1666 in Bologna.

"We've been looking for an early Guercino for a number of years," said Kimbell Director Eric M. Lee, noting that several had been brought to the museum for tryouts but none were quite right. "This one is perfect: the period, the scale, the composition, the quality, the condition. It is absolutely perfect."

The painting has been in a European private collection for decades and was thought lost. It came to light several years ago, and New York art dealer Adam Williams persuaded the family to sell to the Kimbell. While the institution will not divulge the amount paid, art experts speculate that this magnificent early work could set a record for Guercino, possibly pushing the sales figure past the $10 million mark.

"It is the finest painting by the artist to appear on the international market in years," said Keith Christiansen, chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Recently, late-period Guercinos have sold for double their auction estimates. One is slated for a July sale at Christie's that is expected to fetch upwards of $12 million, which could suggest that an even higher amount was spent on the earlier work. An enormous premium is placed on the much rarer early Guercinos.

"There is a huge difference between early and late Guercinos," Lee said. The early works are heroic and emotional; the later ones are more staged and classical."

Guercino's shift from a dark, emotive baroque style to the more brightly colored classical style happened gradually but early in his career. Some historians point to his stay in Rome in 1623-25 as the turning point. David M. Stone, a Guercino expert and professor at the University of Delaware, thinks it had as much to do with the popularity of Guido Reni, another popular Italian painter at the time, as a demand for more mannered classical works.

Guercino had a large studio with many assistants, and he painted what the market demanded as well as revisiting some of his best compositions.

"He was good at telling religious stories," Stone said.

There are several versions of Christ and the Samaritan woman attributed to Guercino, and many copies that bear the attribution "from the studio of" or "in the style of."

"There are at least six out there," says Stone, including one at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

A dramatic comparison between Guercino's early and later styles can be seen by comparing the Kimbell's new purchase with Guercino's mid-career version of the same subject, Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, 1640-41 , in Madrid's Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, at www.museothyssen.org/thyssen/ficha_artista/252.

The later work is brighter, the colors more vivid, the draperies more crisply articulated, but the figures look posed and mannered. Even the jug held by the Samaritan woman looks like a studio prop, not a functional well bucket. There is more intimacy between the figures in the early work, and the composition makes them seem caught in a private moment, Christ beseeching and the woman intently listening.

Lee says the Guercino will hang with the Kimbell's other two iconic Baroque works, Georges de La Tour's Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, and Caravaggio's Cardsharps. They are of a similar size, and the new religious work is a beautiful contrast to the two genre paintings.

"I can't think of a better Guercino to hang next to Cardsharps," Stone said. "What makes this a great acquisition for the Kimbell is the way you can compare the different personalities of Caravaggio and Guercino. In Cardsharps you have tough urban men in contemporary costumes. The smooth surfaces of the Caravaggio couldn't be more different than the painterliness of Guercino's rustic figures. He makes his woman look earthy, like a real woman from Cento, not idealized.

"What you are seeing are two of the great geniuses of the 17th century."

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic. 817-390-7113

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