The Italian painter Guercino (1591-1666) was probably the first Italian artist to create works that can be called fully baroque in the stylistic sense of the term.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino because of his squint, was born early in February 1591 in Cento, a little town near Bologna. He went to Rome during the reign (1621-1623) of Pope Gregory XV, who was from Bologna; when the Pope died, Guercino returned to Cento. There he stayed until 1642, when he moved to Bologna, where he spent the rest of his life. He died on Dec. 22, 1666.

There had never been any important artists in Cento, and Guercino apparently taught himself, working largely from engravings and such paintings as were available locally. He said that the picture that influenced him most was Ludovico Carracci's Madonna with St. Francis in a local church. From it Guercino learned about deep, rich colors, applied loosely in the Venetian way, and about the new, more intimate manner of interpreting religious themes.

The protobaroque style that Guercino took in part from Carracci he carried much further in his own early works. Elijah Fed by Ravens (1620), for example, is filled with movement and excitement. The seated prophet, clad in loose, voluminous draperies, turns sharply so that lines of force seem to radiate outward in all directions, like a star. Everything seems unstable, in flux. Light and dark flicker over the surface, breaking up form, reducing clarity. Deep shadows swallow up details, and where light strikes, the surface gleams.

Guercino's Purification of the Virgin (1654) shows how very different his late work was. The mood is now one of calm and withdrawal. The figures are arranged like building blocks in planes parallel to the surface of the painting. A soft, even light fills the interior space, creating transparent shadows that do not obscure the forms they overlay. The emphasis is on dignity and maximum clarity.

This change in style, which began during the early 1620s, was a result of pressure on Guercino both from the art critics he encountered in Rome, who were strongly classical in their orientation, and from the people who bought his paintings, who were often conditioned in their likes and dislikes by the critics. Francesco Scannelli, who knew Guercino well, wrote in 1657:"More than once [Guercino] had heard complaints from those who had paintings that were done in his first manner that … parts of the body were hidden because of too much darkness. For that reason they considered that some parts were unfinished. They asserted that often they could not make out the face, and sometimes even the specific action, of the figures. And thus to satisfy as best he could most of the people, especially those who asked for paintings and had the money to pay for them, he had made paintings in the lighter [that is, less baroque and more classical] style."

Further Reading on Guercino

The best analysis of Guercino is in Denis Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory (1947). A good, brief essay on him is in E. K. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painting (1962; 2d rev. ed. 1969).