Guercino, A Thoroughly Modern Baroque Master

WADDESDON, England — Many English country houses seem to be doffing their caps toward Walt Disney without acknowledging it. On the front lawn of Waddesdon Manor, a baronial pile of almost absurd panache and horizontal out-flungness a little way from London, which was created by the first Baron Rothschild late in the 19th century to resemble a 16th-century French chateau, is a giant, unusable teapot made by a Portuguese artist out of filigreed metal. Full of holes, of course. Elsewhere, tucked away behind the lawn, exotic birds with powerful Amazonian shrieks, hide away in a Victorian Rococo aviary. 

Indoors there is much serious art to sober one’s mood. The late Jacob Rothschild was quite a connoisseur. Take the Red Ante-Room, with its walls of rich red damask, reached by an ever upwardly spiraling marble staircase. Or the adjacent White Room, a dining room whose roped-off central table heaves with silver service. A chorus line of candelabra look down upon it. 

For the next few months a group of five paintings by Guercino, one of the great artists of the Italian baroque, will be on display in this ante-room. Four are very large paintings indeed, tucked into a relatively small room. How did they manage it? A man in communications tells me with some passion about wall-stress: how the walls had to be strengthened to take the great weight of the paintings, and a chandelier removed from the ceiling altogether in order not to impede the sight lines.

Guercino’s subject matter is biblical. A portrait of King David (1651), alluring and martial — his very sandals are armored — is flanked by two sibyls. David faces us, challengingly, showing his leg rather brazenly as he draws attention to the text of one of his own psalms. The sibyls are in a much more contemplative mood. Once cave-dwelling shriekers and bellowers of prophecy, they seem positively calm. And comely too. David, whose presence keeps them apart, looks kingly, composed, and confident. His beard foams. His turban adds size, moment, and a certain gravitas to his head. The line from the psalm toward which he points, somewhat didactically, raises issues that define the very nature of this show. His words seem to herald the coming of Christ, hundreds of years into the future. 

King David has been subject to some manipulation by the fathers of the Christian church. By the mid-17th century, when Guercino made this painting for a Christian nobleman, paganism as represented by the twin sybils, and a third sybil on the opposite wall, and Old Testament history as represented by the easeful magnificence of King David, had been thoroughly Gospelled.  

Indeed, the third sybil, she who hangs opposite David’s duo, travels a step further in the direction of modernity. Her reading is kept to her chest, facing toward her. Reading is a private matter. Nor do we have any idea from what she reads. It could be a novel. In her very privacy, she looks a much more sensuous being. Her head leans against the back of her hand. She is much more woman than prophetess. Is there more than a whiff of Romanticism, with its endless tales of self-absorption and subjectivity, on the wind?

Guercino, “The Samian Sibyl with a Putto” (1651), oil on canvas (© The National Gallery, London)

Guercino at Waddesdon: King David and the Wise Women continues at Waddesdon Manor (Waddesdon, Aylesbury, England) through October 27. The exhibition was curated by Waddesdon Senior Curator Juliet Carey.

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