The Bolognese painter Guido Reni (November 4, 1575 - August 18, 1642) epitomizes much of the best, but also some of the more embarrassing, features of Baroque painting. He was one of the most admired artists of his day, and his theatrical and accessible paintings are the stock-in-trade of sentimental Roman Catholic wallet-cards today.
Guido was born at Calvenzano near Bologna into a family of musicians, but he was an irrepressible prodigy whom Denis Calvart took into his academy of design by the father's permission, when the child was nine. Guido's talent matured swiftly. Albani and Domenichino soon became pupils in the same academy. Guido and Albani's intimacy turned to rivalry as they matured. Domenichino also was pitted against Reni at the instigation of Annibale Caracci. Guido was still studying with Calvart when he began frequenting the rival school in Bologna run by Lodovico Caracci , whose style, far in advance of that of the Flemish painter, he dallied with. This exasperated Calvart, whom Guido, not yet twenty years of age, cheerfully left, transferring himself openly to the Caracci academy, in which he soon became prominent, being as skilful as he was ambitious.
He had not been a year with the Caracci when a work of his excited the wonder of Agostino and the jealousy of Annibale. Lodovico cherished him, and frequently painted him as an angel, for the youthful Reni was extremely handsome. After a while, however, Lodovico also felt himself nettled, and he patronized the competing talents of Giovanni Barbiere. On one occasion Guido had made a copy of Annibale's Descent from the Cross; Annibale was asked to retouch it, and, finding nothing to do, exclaimed pettishly, "He knows more than enough" ("Costui ne sa troppo"). On another occasion. Lodovico, consulted as umpire, lowered a price which Reni asked for an early picture. This slight determined the young man to be a pupil no more. He left the Caracci, and started on his own account as a competitor in the race for patronage and fame. When he left, he had already completed a renowned work, Callisto and Diana.
Guido was faithful to the eclectic principle of the Bolognese school of painting. He had appropriated something from Calvart, much more from Lodovico Caracci; he studied with much zest after Albrecht Dürer; he adopted the massive, sombre and partly uncouth manner of Caravaggio. One day Annibale Caracci made the remark that a style might be formed reversing that of Caravaggio in such matters as the ponderous shadows and the gross common forms; this observation germinated in Guido's mind, and he endeavoured after some such style, aiming constantly at suavity. Towards 1602 he went to Rome with Albani. and Rome remained his headquarters for twenty years.
Here, in the pontificate of the Borghese Pope Paul V, he was greatly noted and distinguished.
In the garden-house of the Rospigliosi Palace he painted the vast fresco which is justly regarded as his masterpiece Phoebus and the Hours preceded by Aurora. This exhibits his second manner, in which he had deviated far indeed from the promptings of Caravaggio. He founded now chiefly upon the antique, more especially the Niobe group and the Venus de Medici, modified by suggestions from Raphael, Correggio, Parmigianino and Paolo Veronese. Of this last painter, although on the whole he did not get much from him, Guido was a particular admirer; he used to say that he would rather have been Veronese than any other master. The "Aurora" is beyond doubt a work of pre-eminent beauty and attainment; it is stamped with pleasurable dignity, and, without being effeminate, has a more uniform aim after graceful selectness than can readily be traced in previous painters, greatly superior though some of them had been in impulse and personal fervour of genius.
The pontifical chapel of Montecavallo was assigned to Reni to paint; but, being straitened in payments by the ministers, the artist made off to Bologna. He was fetched back by Paul V with ceremonious éclat, and lodging, living and equipage were supplied to him. At another time he migrated from Rome to Naples, having received a commission to paint the chapel of S. Gennaro. The notorious cabal of three painters resident in Naples Corenzio, Caracciolo and Ribera-offered, however, as stiff an opposition to Guido as to some other interlopers who preceded and succeeded him. They gave his servant a beating by the hands of two unknown bullies, and sent by him a message to his master to depart or prepare for death; Guido waited for no second warning, and departed. He now returned to Rome; but he finally left that city abruptly, in the pontificate of Urban VIII, in consequence of an offensive reprimand administered to him by Cardinal Spinola. He had received an advance of 400 scudi on account of an altarpiece for St Peters, but after some lapse of years had made no beginning with the work. A broad reminder from the cardinal put Reni on his mettle; he returned the 400 scudi, quitted Rome within a few days, and steadily resisted all attempts at recall. He now resettled in Bologna. He had taught as well as painted in Rome, and he left pupils behind him; but on the whole he did not stamp any great mark upon the Roman school of painting, apart from his own numerous works in the papal city.
In Bologna Guido lived in great splendour, and established a celebrated school, numbering more than two hundred scholars. He himself drew in it, even down to his latest years. On first returning to this city, he charged about 21 for a full-length figure (mere portraits are not here in question), half this sum for a half-length, and 5 for a head. These prices must be regarded as handsome, when we consider that Domenichino about the same time received only 10, for his very large and celebrated picture, the Last Communion of St Jerome. But Guido's reputation was still on the increase, and in process of time he quintupled his prices. He now left Bologna hardly at all; in one instance, however, be went off to Ravenna, and, along with three pupils, he painted the chapel in. the cathedral with his admired picture of the "Israelites gathering Manna."
His shining prosperity was not to last till the end. Guido was dissipated, generously but indiscriminately profuse, and an inveterate gambler. Obsessive gambling grew upon him, and in a couple of evenings he lost the enormous sum of 14,400 scudi. The vice told still more ruinously on his art than on his character. It his decline he sold his time at so much per hour to certain picture dealers; one of them would stand by, watch in hand, to oversee his work. Haif-heartedness, half-per formance, blighted his product: self-repetition and mere mannerism, with affectation for sentiment and vapidity for beauty, became the art of Guido. Some of these trade-works heads or half-figures, were turned out in three hours or even less. It is said that, tardily wise, Reni left off gambling for nearly two years; at last he relapsed, and his relapse was followed not long afterwards by his death of fever. He died in debt, but was buried with great pomp in the church of S. Domenico.
Guido was personally modest, although he valued himself on his position in the art, and would tolerate no slight in that relation; he was extremely upright, temperate in diet, careful in his person and his dress. He was fond of stately houses, but could feel also the charm of solitude. In his temper there was a large amount of suspiciousness; and the jealousy which his abilities and his successes excited, now from the Caracci, now from Albani, now from the monopolizing league of Neapolitan painters, may naturally have kept this feeling in active exercise. Of his numerous pupils, Simone Cantarini , named "Il Pesarese," counts as the most distinguished; he painted an admirable head of Reni, now in the Bolognese Gallery. The portrait in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence is from Reni's own hand. Two other good pupils were Giacomo Semenza and Francesco Gessi.
The character of Guidos art is so well known as hardly to call for detailed analysis, beyond what we have already intimated. His most characteristic style exhibits a prepense ideal, of form rather than character, with a slight mode of handling, and silvery, somewhat cold, color. In working from the nude he aimed at perfection of form, especially marked in the hands and feet. But he was far from always going to choice nature for his model; he transmuted ad libitum, and painted, it is averred, a Magdalene of demonstrative charms from a vulgar-looking color-grinder. His best works have beauty, great amenity, artistic feeling and high accomplishment of manner, all alloyed with a certain core of commonplace; in the worst pictures the commonplace swamps everything, and Guido has flooded European galleries with trashy and empty pretentiousness, all the more noxious in that its apparent grace of sentiment and form misleads the unwary into approval, and the dilettante dabbler into cheap raptures. Both in Rome and wherever else he worked he introduced increased softness of style, which was then designated as the modern method. His pictures are mostly Scriptural or mythological in subject, and between two and three hundred of them are to be found in various European collections, more than a hundred of these containing life-sized figures. The portraits which he executed are few — those of Sixtus V, Cardinal Spada and the so‑called Beatrice Cenci being among the most noticeable. The identity of the last-named portrait is very doubtful; it certainly cannot have been painted direct from Beatrice, who had been executed in Rome before Guido ever lived there. Many etchings are attributed to him, some from his own works, and some after other masters; they are spirited, but rather negligent.
Of other works not already noted, the following should be named:
- in Rome (the Vatican), the "Crucifixion of St Peter," an example of the painter's earlier manner
- also in Rome, in the church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina, "Christ Crucified"
- in Forli, the "Conception"
- in Bologna, the "Alms of St Roch" (early), the "Massacre of the Innocents," and the "Pietà," or "Lament over the Body of Christ" (in the church of the Mendicanti), which is by many regarded as Guido's prime executive work
- in the Dresden Gallery, an "Ecce Homo"
- in Milan (Brera Gallery), "Saints Peter and Paul"
- in Genoa (church of S. Ambrogio), the "Assumption of the Virgin"
- in Berlin, "St Paul the Hermit and St Anthony in the Wilderness"
The celebrated picture of "Fortune" (in the Capitol) is one of Reni's finest treatments of female form; as a specimen of male form, the "Samson Drinking from the Jawbone of an Ass" might be named beside it.
One of his last works of mark is the "Ariadne," once in the Capitoline Museums . The Louvre contains twenty of his pictures, the National Gallery of London seven, and others once there have now been removed to other public collections. The most interesting of the seven is the small "Coronation of the Virgin," painted on copper, an elegantly finished work, pretty rather than beautiful. It was probably painted before the master left Bologna for Rome.