The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired the painting Christ and the Woman of Samaria, dated to 1619–20, by the Italian artist Guercino, one of the foremost painters of his time. The purchase was announced today by the Museum’s director, Eric M. Lee. The painting dates from Guercino’s early, rarest, and most desirable period, when the artist achieved acclaim for the emotional power of his compositions.
“I am thrilled that the Kimbell has found an outstanding painting, such as this, from Guercino’s coveted early period,” commented Lee. “It has been a long-standing wish of the Museum to find a Guercino of this quality to enhance its exceptional collection of Baroque art. I look forward to seeing Christ and the Woman of Samaria hanging alongside the Kimbell’s masterpieces by Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour, and Bernini.”
Christ and the Woman of Samaria (38 1/4 x 49 1/8 inches) presents a close-up view of the Samaritan woman, who rests her water bucket on the well where she has come to draw water, grappling to understand Christ’s message that he is the living water, the source of eternal life. The painting has never been published or exhibited, and prior to its purchase by a European private collector had been known only through copies and an old photograph of the work that was shown to Guercino expert Sir Denis Mahon many decades ago.
“Christ and the Woman of Samaria is, I believe, the finest painting by the artist to appear on the international market in years,” said Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He noted that the work is among the handful of paintings, including the Metropolitan Museum’s Samson Captured by the Philistines, “that are generally considered to mark the culmination of his early phase, in which he achieves a quality of dramatic movement through the use of gesture, pose, and brilliant, theatrical lighting. But there is another side to this aspect of Guercino, as beautifully exemplified in the Christ and the Woman of Samaria, and that is an interest in psychological characterization; the story is told not as an unfolding drama but as a moment of revelation, in which the viewer is less an observer than an eavesdropper of a private moment, and this confers on the work a particularly mesmerizing quality.”
Keith Christiansen commented further on the painting’s subject matter and importance: “In the Gospel of John (4:5–42) we read of Jesus coming to Samaria and, wearied, sitting near Jacob’s well. A woman comes to draw water. He asks her for a drink. She is surprised that a Jew would even speak to a Samaritan, upon which Jesus responds, ‘If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.’ She does not understand, as he has nothing with which to draw water. Is he greater than Jacob, who gave them the well? ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again,’ explains Jesus. ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.’ This is the moment Guercino depicts. Christ gestures to the well, his serene face turned towards the woman, who is entranced by what she hears. But she has not yet understood, and her face is one of rapt fascination.
“The bit of landscape behind them—the tree—serves to set the scene and offer a counterpoint to their closeness to the picture plane. We seem to overhear this conversation and are situated just the other side of the well—perhaps hidden by some tree or shrub, since the two figures are unaware of our presence. But we hear their words and we too are enraptured by this momentous encounter.”
Christiansen concluded: “This is the brilliance of the picture, which unfolds before us and engages us in the same way as the description of an encounter and dialogue in a great novel. For we have moved from a staged drama to a narrative of psychological penetration.”
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591–1666)—known by his nickname Guercino (literally “squinter”) because he was cross-eyed—was born in the northern Italian town of Cento, near Bologna and Ferrara. Although he received his early training with local artists, he was largely self-taught. His early work was marked by an astonishing naturalism and ability to convey the expressive power of the human figure. He admired the Bolognese painter Ludovico Carracci, who in 1617 wrote a letter praising the young man from Cento “who paints with remarkable invenzione. He is a great draftsman and a terrific colorist: he is a phenomenon of nature and a true miracle who dumbfounds everyone who sees his works. . . even the top painters are awestruck.” The following year Guercino visited Venice, honing his talent as a colorist by studying the works of Titian and other Venetian painters.
Guercino won the attention of several important patrons, among them Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, archbishop of Bologna, and Cardinal Jacopo Serra, the papal legate to Ferrara. In 1619, Guercino informed Ferdinando Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, that he could not accept a commission from him without the permission of Serra, for whom he was occupied producing a number of paintings, including the Metropolitan Museum’s Samson Captured by the Philistines and The Return of the Prodigal Son (in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The Kimbell’s Christ and the Woman of Samaria was painted during the same remarkably creative and productive period, perhaps for Ludovisi (later Pope Gregory XV, whom Guercino followed to Rome) or for Serra. In Rome, where he remained from 1621 until 1623, Guercino painted influential works that would have great impact on the development of Roman Baroque painting. On his return to Cento, he developed a classicizing style with a lighter, clearer palette and more lucid and restrained compositions.
Guercino moved to Bologna in 1642, becoming the leading painter of that city following the death of Guido Reni. Although he turned down invitations to the courts of England and France, he maintained a prolific career, producing paintings for an international clientele including King Charles I of England. Guercino died in 1666 in Bologna. He left an impressive legacy of nearly 400 paintings and well over 1,000 drawings that demonstrate his extraordinary powers of invention.
This painting was acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in memory of Edmund (Ted) P. Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum (1980–1998), who died in March of 2010.
One thought on “Rare Guercino Painting Acquired by Kimbell”
What a lovely way to honor Dr. Pillsbury, I look forward to seeing it in person.
Fine & Decorative Arts Dept.
Heritage Auctions (www.HA.com)