His real name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (February 8, 1591 – December 22, 1666) but due to a childhood accident, he was known as ‘Il Guercino’ – ‘the squinter’ or ‘the cross-eyed’ depending on the translation. A very successful artist during his lifetime, most of his paintings are competent – some are quite good – but don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know who he is – hardly anyone does. He’s not in the art history books, you’re unlikely to encounter him in a museum and you didn’t hear about him in college classes.
Guercino’s paintings bring good prices and are solid investments People spend a lot of money on them – tens of millions – and they aren’t bad. It’s not Caravaggio and it would be hard to claim any real excitement about the paintings but still good, solid work. Yes, this one below looks like a collage – the guy in the middle clearly doesn’t belong there but still – it’s good, journeyman work.
When you consider Guercino’s drawings, however, it’s a completely different story. The drawings are fiercely fought over among collectors and sell for ten’s, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is a recognition among collectors that like many artists, Guercino was a better draftsman than a painter. His paintings are serviceable, but his drawings are superb.
Guercino’s drawings go places few other artists even approach. Far beyond a command of chiaroscuro, the freedom of his drawing is astonishing. His handling of dynamic range surpasses nearly any other Baroque artist, with the exception of Tiepelo – see below. And I would argue that Guercino’s freedom in drawing exceeds even Tiepelo’s.
Tiepelo, however, was able to carry the feel and accomplishments of his drawing into painting in a way that Guercino never could, and is, for that reason more valued. Guercino the draftsman is, in that light, the poor man’s Tiepelo, but that should not devalue his achievement and collector’s don’t.
Which brings me to my next, more important point. Instead of following art history through the eyes of academics and critics – follow collectors. Go to auctions, not just Sotheby’s and Christie’s but the many other auction houses around the country and the world. Watch Antiques Road Show – look at the works that come up, look at the valuations and follow the sales. You’ll see things at pre-auction exhibitions that you’ve never seen before, by artists you’ve never heard of, that you’ll never see again. Auctions are like earthquakes that bring things to the surface that have been hidden in private collections for decades or centuries, about to disappear again forever. For many amazing things, auctions will be your only chance to ever see them.
And you’ll be amazed at the hot fury among collectors over pieces made by artists you know nothing about. If you’re an artist, watch those collectors and take heart – you don’t have to be famous to be valued. If your work is good, people will notice – and remember.