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New Kimbell Acquisition – in Memory of Ted Pillsbury

by Jerome Weeks 30 Apr 2010 7:52 AM

When he was director of the Kimbell Art Museum, the late Edmund Pillsbury had long sought a high-quality painting by Guercino, the 17th-century Italian master. Now the Kimbell has one — which it acquired in memory of Pillsbury, who died last month.


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The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired a rare work by the 17th century painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), who is better known by his nickname, Guercino, which means ‘Squinty’ – a handle Barbieri got because he was cross-eyed.

That didn’t prevent him from becoming a significant bridge between the works of Caravaggio and the Italian Baroque. The painting, Jesus and the Woman of Samaria, dates from 1619-20 — a relatively early work for the self-taught Guercino. Jesus and the Woman of Samaria is not well known because it has never been exhibited — it was owned for decades by a private collector in Europe and believed lost. It was known primarily through copies and an old photograph.

In this early period, Guercino was influenced by a number of older  masters, notably Correggio and Ludovico Carracci (who was from the Bologna area, like Guercino).  He may never have actually seen Caravaggio’s works in person, perhaps he knew them only by reputation and through the works of the Caravaggisti (imitators of the master). But the heavy use of chiaroscuro, the figures pushed forward and intimately close and the flat, dark, relatively undetailed background: All these are characteristic of Caravaggio. What Guercino didn’t adopt from Caravaggio was the grittiness, the depiction of real-life street characters in the persons of Mary or Jesus.

Eric Lee, the Kimbell’s director, said in a press release that he was looking forward to seeing the Guercino hanging alongside related, Baroque works by the likes of Bernini and Caravaggio. The Guercino goes on display at the Kimbell Friday at 10 a.m. (but not alongside the Caravaggio — which was lent to a major Caravaggio exhibition in Rome).

Later works by Guercino are not as valued because his style became more reserved and conventional — partly because he’d become eminently successful and ran a sizable studio. For what it’s worth, there’s an interesting, long-form biography of Guercino at GLBTQ, the gay and lesbian encyclopedia, which makes a detailed case for Guercino as gay — although almost entirely from his handling of male figures.

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria was acquired in memory of Edmund Pillsbury, the former director of the Kimbell, who died last month. The Kimbell had owned a Guercino but it was of poorer quality and was “de-accessioned” (sold off). So Pillsbury (and subsequently Lee) had long sought a high-quality Guercino to replace it for the Kimbell.

The Kimbell did not release any money figures, but according to Gaile Robinson, the sale price could have been as high as $10 million, a record for Guercino.