(b. 1591, Cento, d. 1666, Bologna)

A Donor Presented to the Virgin

Oil on canvas, 309 x 192 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Guercino, one of the best known Bolognese artists of the generation after the Carracci, painted this altarpiece in 1616 for the church of San Agostino in his native town of Cento between Bologna and Ferrara. However uncertain the identification of the young donor with the son of a benefactor of the church (Giuseppe Gaetano Righetti?) may be, what is certain is that this is a key work in the master's youthful oeuvre. In it he follows a balanced compositional structure that had been developed earlier by the Carracci. The painting differs from a preparatory sketch - kept at Brera in Milan - by a stricter application of symmetry: both in the upper register, with the Madonna and the angels at the same height, and below, where Saints Louis of France, Joseph, Francis of Assisi and Augustine, the patron saint of the church in question, direct Mary's attention on both sides to the donor, and in the other direction point his devotion upwards to her in a double arc.

The balanced structure is echoed in the dialogue between the heavy pillar and the view into an airy distance in the middle, enlivened by the very varied lighting, gestures and expression of the figures. The drawing is accurate and the colour range sonorous, consonant with Guercino's reputation as both a great draughtsman and an excellent colourist, a reputation that he already enjoyed as a young man. Ludovico, the eldest of the Carracci, already praised Guercino for this, adding that he was a wonder of nature, who filled with amazement everyone who saw his work.

Despite its major impact on European art, the fame of Bolognese painting did not last. To a certain extent it was the victim of its success, when a sugary variant came to dominate the official religious art of the 19th century in the relatively uninspired form of the Saint-Sulpice style, placing the Bolognese school in an unfavourable light amongst leading 20th century artists and art historians. Whilst gaining new advocates after the Second World War, insufficient light has been placed on its role in the art history of the Low Countries. An unprejudiced viewing, not of a sugary, derivative work, but of an original masterpiece like this one, clearly shows this relative lack of attention to be unjustified.