A new addition to Guercino’s youthful corpus, this powerful, boldly rendered study after the male nude model is an impressive early example of his practice of life drawing, and can be precisely associated with a small but surprisingly homogeneous group of life drawings dating around 1618-1621, that is, before Guercino's two-year sojourn in Rome.
The drawings all exhibit a similar subject matter, scale, and unusual medium, suggesting that they must have been executed in a short span of time. Among this group are the especially fine sheets in the J. Paul Getty Museum 89.GB.52, Los Angeles; Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe del Comune nos. 1702 and 1703, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa; Ashmolean Museum 873A, Oxford; National Gallery of Victoria 1278/3, Melbourne; Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi 12502 F, Florence; Royal Library nos. 2415 and 01227, Windsor Castle; and collection of Evalyne S. Grand, St. Louis. Other life studies of this type have also been published, although their quality of execution often does not seem as skilled, and this has led to doubts regarding an attribution of such sheets to Guercino himself. (See Sir Denis Mahon, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri: Il Guercino 1591-1666: Disegni, Bologna, 1992, pp. 312-17, nos. 205-209; George R. Goldner and Lee Hendrix with Kelly Pask, European Drawings: 2: Catalogue of the Collections, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA, 1992, pp. 60-61, no. 20; Nicholas Turner and Carol Plazzotta, Drawings by Guercino from British Collections with an Appendix…, exh. cat. British Museum, London and Rome, 1991, pp. 36-38, 48, nos. 4, 16; Carel van Tuyll, The Burlington Magazine, December 1991 p. 868; David Stone, Guercino Master Draftsman: Works from North-American Collections, exh. cat. Harvard University Art Museums and National Gallery of Canada, Cambridge MA and Bologna, 1991, pp. 146-51, nos. 63-65; Sir Denis Mahon and Nicholas Turner, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, Cambridge and New York, 1989, pp. 80-81, nos. 149-150).
The closest comparison for the present sheet is the J. Paul Getty Museum drawing, which seems to portray the same model, but from a different viewpoint; both sheets may date closer to c. 1618, to judge from the compressed anatomy and proportions of the figure. Like the other closely comparable sheets of this type by the young Guercino, the Metropolitan Museum drawing is done in relatively cheap media, with a distinctive, fairly unusual technique, in which the black chalk was dipped into a gum solution in order to make the chalk intensely dark and dense for areas of shadow, on fairly coarse "wrapping" paper.
Although the medium of this type of drawing by the young Guercino has often been described in the literature as "oiled" black chalk or charcoal, repeated examinations under ultraviolet fluorescence and high powered magnification have demonstrated that there is no evidence of oil, or of the telltale sign of haloing occurring with oil-containing materials; the intense blackness of the chalk seems to be due solely to the gum solution (technical report by Marjorie M. Shelley, Department of Paper Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 19, 2004). Importantly, Guercino rarely seems to have used this modified black chalk technique again after the mid 1620s. Seen in a broader context, these early monumental life studies in the modified black chalk technique, which can be dated independently between 1618 and 1621 on the basis of style, vividly attest to the pedagogic aspect of Guercino's early career in that they represent the type of exercise drawing whose primary purpose was the investigation of the nude human figure, and probably without the specific purpose of a final work in mind. The practice and technique of drawing are both generally indebted to the academies of the Carracci and Pietro Faccini. Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia's closely contemporary biography of Guercino (1678), based on personal knowledge of the artist, states that Guercino was widely sought by young artists as a teacher, even in his early years, and that he founded in 1616 his own "Accademia del Nudo" in his native town of Cento, under the patronage of Bartolomeo Fabri, who set aside two rooms in his house as the site for the young artist's academy.
By 1617, Guercino seems to have had as many as twenty-three pupils, and the "Accademia del Nudo" at the Casa Fabri seems to have functioned with great success until the mid 1620s; his numerous pupils may help account for the diversity of quality among the life drawings associated with the young Guercino and his circle. As amply discussed by Nicholas Turner (1989 and 1991), at about this time, in 1619, some of Guercino's anatomical studies were also published as engravings by Oliviero Gatti, and were meant to serve for the instruction of young artists. It is clear that Guercino and his disciples must have filled the pages of bound sketchbooks, and loose quires of paper, with countless sequences of drawings of the male nude.
It is demonstrable that the present sheet was conceived of by the artist as an "academic exercise" (most probably without a final picture in mind), for the young, muscular model holds onto a curtain or hanging drapery (a prop) with his left hand, and is seated on a short block in a relatively frontal view. As is also true of the Getty drawing, the model's face is fairly idealized with fine, nearly feminine features, and long, wavy hair, contrasting with the more carefully described body of somewhat bulky proportions. The large feet, which are quite characteristic of Guercino's figural vocabulary in these early life drawings, are sketchily outlined. The form of the model's body, tightly compressed on the sheet of paper, is animated by the sharp, opposing turns of his torso and pelvis with respect to the limbs. The youth's pose conveys complex, agitated movement in repose, and is designed to show off the artist's virtuosity as an anatomical draftsman. Guercino quickly defined the athletic form of the young male model in terms of broad, very boldly articulated areas of light and shadow, and in many passages of tone he rubbed in the individual strokes of the black chalk by stumping to create a smoky effect of rendering.
(Carmen C. Bambach, 2005)