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Guercino at Waddesdon: King David and the Wise Women

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Guercino, Moses, 1568. Courtesy of Moretti Gallery

A recently rediscovered early masterpiece by one of the great painters of 17th-century Italy, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino (1591-1666), has just gone on public display for the first time ever as part of a historic exhibition at Waddesdon Manor.

Visitors to Waddesdon Manor, an extravagantly turreted chateau set on a hilltop in rural Buckinghamshire, built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild at the end of the 19th century in French Renaissance style, usually feast their eyes on its remarkable collection of French and English paintings as well as French 18th century decorative arts. As a family, the Rothschilds were among the greatest collectors of the 19th century, their treasures spread between the Rothschild houses (which once numbered 40 across Europe).

But for now, thoughts turn to Italy with a very special, focussed exhibition, of five oil paintings by the Bolognese painter Guercino.

A native of Cento, a small town near Bologna in northern Italy, Guercino was active both in Rome and Bologna, and after the death of Guido Reni in 1642, became the leading Bolognese painter of the Baroque. Guercino’s works have a sense of bravura, a dynamism and spontaneity to them – and in my view, in his pen and wash drawings a charm and gentleness (though note, no drawings are on show). Largely self-taught, Guercino – his nickname ‘little squinter’ due to his strabismus – was influenced by the naturalism and expressive qualities of contemporaries such as the Carracci family of painters (brothers Agostino, Annibale, and Ludovico), and the chiaroscuro effects (contrasts between light and dark) famous in the works of Caravaggio (1571 – 1610).

Guercino, King David, 1651. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library

The long-lost painting of Moses turning his eyes upwards and raising his hands in praise and awe as he communicates directly with God was bought by Lord Rothschild at the end of last year to join King David in Waddesdon’s permanent collection. It is exhibited here alongside King David (1651) and two associated paintings of sibyls (The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto, and The Samian Sibyl, both painted 1651, both from the National Gallery, London). Hanging opposite, a half-length painting of The Libyan Sibyl (also painted in 1651, from the Royal Collection), another of the twelve female prophets or seers from classical antiquity, completes the group and the show’s theme of prophecy and foresight.

It was the arrival in 2022 of the painting of King David that inspired the idea to reunite it with its two historical pendant paintings by Guercino, explained exhibition curator Juliet Carey. As that exhibition was in its planning stages, “there was an extraordinary, serendipitous twist” she recalls, when “the luminous depiction of the Old Testament prophet, Moses” was rediscovered and subsequently acquired by the Rothschild Foundation just in time for the opening of the King David exhibition.

King David was originally intended for the palazzo in Cesena, near Bologna, of the Italian nobleman Giuseppe Locatelli, with The Cumaean Sibyl commissioned to be its pendant. However, when Prince Mattias de’ Medici saw the Sibyl in Guercino’s studio, he liked it so much that he insisted that he acquire it. As something of a consolation for Locatelli, the artist painted The Samian Sibyl as a replacement.

By bringing the quartet of paintings together Waddesdon hopes that visitors will be able to explore the relationship between David – the Jewish patriarch, psalmist and prophet, whom Christians believed prefigured Christ - and the three turbaned, pagan seers, who supposedly foretold Christ’s birth.

The sibyls, female oracles from classical antiquity, were often models of female authority to Baroque artists. The twelve sibyls were adopted by the Christian church as female equivalents to the Old Testament prophets.

The Cumaean Sibyl is named after the Greek colony at Cumae and presided over the oracle of the god Apollo at Cumae on the coast near Naples, and appears several times in classical literature. The Samian Sibyl is named after the Greek island of Samos, and the Libyan sibyl presided over the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert.

Guercino, The Samian Sibyl with a Putto, 1651 © The National Gallery, London

They were said variously to have prophesied that Christ would be born of a virgin. Waddesdon’s excellent little book to accompany the exhibition discusses the Biblical and Classical contexts agreeably, in addition to the story of the acquisition of the Moses.

Pippa Shirley, Director of Waddesdon says: “We are so excited to be able to display this group of paintings in a first for Guercino at Waddesdon, and to put a new acquisition on display also for the first time.  Without doubt the most significant addition the Rothschild Foundation has made to the collections since Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Boy building a house of cards in 2008, the arrival of Moses felt irresistible because it appeared just as we were planning this exhibition, with the great painting of King David at its heart.

“Bringing the two together with the group of sibyls creates an incredibly rich context of contrast and comparison, allowing us an insight into the arc of Guercino’s extraordinary career.  The sibyls in particular are emblematic of his work, as he returned to the subject of these mysterious and powerful female seers again and again. I hope that they will create the same fascination for our visitors, because the way in which all of these paintings embody ideas of faith and foresight, power and prophesy and how the past relates to the future is as relevant to us now as it was in the uncertain 17th-century world. We are immensely grateful to the National Gallery and His Majesty the King and the Royal Collection for so generously enabling this potent encounter.”


King David and the Wise Women

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

Showing until: 27 October 2024

Click here for more information and to book tickets


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