In 1629, Diego Velázquez visited Italy to study the work of its famous Renaissance masters. The young Spanish painter also made the time to go to the small town of Cento and meet Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as il Guercino (“the Squinter”) (1591-1666), an Italian contemporary whose great success had garnered him an international reputation. During this trip, Velázquez certainly studied Guercino’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph and its exceptional depiction of naturalism and light.
Today, that artwork—part of the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection—stands in the Getty Museum’s painting conservation studio, where it is undergoing extensive conservation treatment. When the project is completed, the painting will be temporarily on display at the Getty Center before it returns to newly renovated galleries in Dublin. As the Getty Museum’s and NGI’s conservators remove layers of grime and discolored varnish, they are making it once again possible to really see and appreciate, just as Velázquez did, the full expression of the subject, composition, and style of this moving work of art.
The painting’s subject is taken from the book of Genesis (48:1-22), which recounts how Jacob, when old and infirm, called his son Joseph to him and adopted Joseph’s sons as his own. Then, he unexpectedly gave the right-handed blessing—typically reserved for the firstborn—to the younger son, Ephraim. Joseph protested, but Jacob replied: “I know it, my son, I know it: he [Manasseh, the older son] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations” (48:19).
Guercino chose to depict the peak of the action, the story’s tensest moment, to achieve maximum dramatic effect. The painter gives the people great substance by having them occupy most of the picture space, where they are close to the spectator and have the most visual impact. The drama of the scene is further intensified by being set at dusk, with the last glimmer of daylight disappearing behind the tree at left. The composition is illuminated from the upper right, casting the faces of Joseph and Ephraim almost completely in shadow.
Jacob, whose muscular and bold form belies his moribund state, turns to Joseph as if in reprimand. His foreshortened right hand gestures in a way that relates exactly to the words from the biblical text: “I know it, I know it.” He is compelled to this action by Joseph’s astonished response: he raises his head and opens his mouth in protest, grasping his father’s left arm and pointing at his sons. The expressions of the two children are also poignant. The younger boy bends his head reverently as he receives the unexpected blessing, while the other, his face bathed in light, looks up in disbelief.
Some preparatory drawings in pen and wash have fortunately survived and give us some sense of how Guercino developed the final composition of Jacob Blessing. A sheet in the Art Institute of Chicago movingly depicts Jacob’s determination, showing a much simpler composition than appears in the final painted version and positioning the boys on the right as opposed to the left. The composition of another sketch is closer to the painted version: the sheet held by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow shows the central figure of Jacob turning his head toward Joseph at right, his hands directed toward the two little boys at left.
The approach to the narrative subject matter and the skillful orchestration of emotion, form, and color is typical of this phase of Guercino’s career, which we know quite a bit about thanks to the reliable and detailed account given by Carlo Cesare Malvasia in Lives of the Bolognese Painters (1678). When Guercino painted Jacob Blessing, his style was characterized by strong contrasts of light and shadow, and figures that portray a wide variety of gestures and facial expressions. It is a style quite reminiscent of the manner of Caravaggio and his closest associates in Rome, even though Guercino developed it independently in his native Emilia. In the work of painters also from that region, such as Scarsellino, Bononi, and Ludovico and Annibale Carracci, Guercino had crucial examples that inspired his loaded brushstroke and strong chiaroscuro, his bold plasticity and rugged naturalism, and his interest in the exploration of human psychology.
Guercino’s first public works in Cento and Bologna attracted the attention of several influential patrons. Among them was Cardinal Jacopo Serra (1570-1623), the pope’s representative in Ferrara, who commissioned from the artist a group of paintings between 1619 and 1620. These included Jacob Blessing, St. Sebastian Succoured by St. Irene (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), Return of the Prodigal Son (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), Samson Captured by the Philistines (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Elijah Fed by Ravens (London, National Gallery). Serra appears to have given Guercino a free hand: the varied group of masterpieces share no consistency of format and no obvious connection in subject matter.
As much as we know about Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, living with the work for several months will give us the unique opportunity to look at it closely and learn more not only about Guercino’s painting technique, but also about his creative process. Look for future posts on our findings.
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