The Italian painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) is known for the gentle, highly decorative form of baroque classicism he developed.

Guido Reni was born in Bologna on Nov. 4, 1575. He began his apprenticeship under the mannerist painter Denis Calvaert and then entered the new, more progressive art school run by the Carracci. Their influence was to prove decisive. The Carracci opposed mannerism and urged instead a return to the generalized realism of the great masters of the High Renaissance, above all to Raphael, Titian, and Veronese.

Reni's personal life is a delight to those who insist that artists must be peculiar. He was, according to contemporary reports, neither heterosexual nor homosexual but absolutely sexless. His obsessive fear of women reached the point where he believed their slightest touch might poison him. The discovery of a woman's blouse that had found its way into his laundry left him terrified. Even in his own day there was thought to be a relationship between the asceticism of his life and the subdued, withdrawn quality of his art.

During the first years of the 17th century Reni spent much time in Rome. At first the fame of Caravaggio overwhelmed him. In the Crucifixion of St. Peter (ca. 1603) Reni tried as best he could to imitate Caravaggio's rough peasant types and deep shadows. At the same time, through the rather formal poses of the figures and the careful symmetry of the composition, he attempted to maintain his native Bolognese classicism.

But Reni soon abandoned this uneasy compromise. By 1609 he had replaced Annibale Carracci as the leader of baroque classicism in Rome. The Aurora fresco that Reni painted in the Casino of the Pallavicini-Rospigliosi palace in Rome (1614) is justly famous for its crisp, Hellenistic elegance.

After Reni returned to Bologna in 1614, his formalism became still more accentuated. In Atalanta and Hippomenes (ca. 1625) the coldly impersonal nude figures, though shown in the act of running a race, are frozen like fragments of ancient marble statues that have been cemented into a wall so as to form abstract linear patterns.

Late in life Reni developed what 17th-century critics called his second manner. In paintings such as Cleopatra and Girl with a Wreath (ca. 1635) we no longer see elaborate arrangements of poses or garment folds. Their place is taken by a play not of line but of color, of paint laid on thinly in loose, open brushstrokes. The many pale, commingled hues are all grayed over, so that their color harmonies, at times almost painfully delicate, can be read only with intensive study. Reni died on Aug. 18, 1642, in Bologna.

Further Reading on Guido Reni

The standard work on Reni is in Italian. In English, see the sections on him in Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1962; 2d ed. 1965), and in E. K. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painting (1962; 2d ed. 1969). The chapter on Reni in Robert Enggass and Jonathan Brown, Sources and Documents in the History of Art: Italy and Spain, 1600-1750 (1970), gives an interesting picture of Reni's strange personality as seen through 17th-century eyes.

Additional Biography Sources

Malvasia, Carlo Cesare, conte, The life of Guido Reni, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.