Recto: an ink drawing version of the subject of "Christ Among the Doctors"; Christ appears at top of a pyramid of figures. Verso: an ink wash version of the subject; Christ is seated at the left end of a group of figures.
Guercino’s genius as a draftsman is brilliantly expressed in this two-sided sheet whose variant compositions were long presumed to have been made in preparation for a lost or unexecuted altarpiece. The subsequent discovery of two related drawings—one in the Getty Museum and the other in the Princeton University Art Museum—signals the artist’s commitment to resolving the conflict between the centralizing and directional tendencies inherent in the recto and verso of the drawing on view here. Seen together, the creative progression among the four studies is clear: the series began with the Mount Holyoke recto and evolved first with its verso and then from the Getty sheet into the Princeton composition. While the Getty drawing is clearly autograph, the weaker quality of the Princeton sheet suggests the presence of another hand, in all likelihood a student in Guercino’s renowned workshop. However the motive behind this purposeful series of sketches continued to remain a mystery.
Only later, with the chance discovery of a painting with the same composition as the Princeton drawing, was the mystery solved. The painting, which hangs in the church of San Francesco in Ferrara, is a documented work of the virtually unknown artist Antonio Bonfanti.
We may never know the exact circumstances of the commission which presumably originated with Guercino himself, but clearly the master furnished Bonfanti—who most likely was his apprentice at the time—with studies for what turned out to be the most ambitious work of his career.
Since the commission for the altarpiece was awarded by a clergyman who died in 1627, the drawings should be dated at some point before then, during the years when Guercino was at the very height of his fame.
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