This vibrant study for a figure forcefully advancing with his sword drawn relates to a painting described by Guercino’s biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia as The outraged Mars restrained by a young Cupid (Felsina Pittrice, Bologna, 1678, II, p. 384: ‘Marte furibondo ritenuto da un Amorino’). According to Malvasia, the painting was left in the artist’s home at the time of his death. For many years the work was thought to be lost and the composition was known only from an engraving by Giacomo Giovannini, entitled Amore pronto a combattere, or ‘Love ready to fight’ (fig. 1; see L. Salerno, I dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, p. 415, ill.). In recent years a painting of the same subject, though somwhat different in composition, has been rediscovered and identified with Guercino’s lost canvas mentioned (fig. 2; see F. Gasparrini and M. Marini, Il Guercino ritrovato. Quando amore ferma la guerra, Rome, 2011). Some scholars, however, doubt if the painting is autograph, which is difficult to judge given its current condition (Turner, op. cit., no. 360).
The drawing is a characteristic step in Guercino’s complex preparatory process, based on the production of a multitude of sketches for the different elements of a composition. At least eight different drawings representing Mars related to the painting are known today, most of them in pen and ink, and a few in chalk (all listed in Brooks, op. cit., p. 79, n. 3). In some of the drawings, as here, Mars is depicted alone, while in others he is shown with the young Cupid restraining him. Particularly close to the figure in this drawing is that in the study at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (inv. 6895; see Mahon and Turner, op. cit., p. 193, under no. 661, ill.) which portrays Mars in the same posture – full-length, facing to his right, with his legs apart, dressed in armor with a cloak thrown over his left upper arm, holding a sword in his right hand with the point towards the ground – but executed in red chalk.
The drawing has a long and prestigious provenance, coming directly from the workshop of Guercino, managed by his heirs after the artist’s death in 1666. The sheet used to be mounted on one of the distinctive paper mounts known as ‘Casa Gennari mounts’, but it was lifted off it around 1953 (Mahon, op. cit.).
Fig. 1. Giacomo Maria Giovannini, after Guercino, Mars in armour and ready for battle held back by a cupid. Etching. British Museum, London.
Fig. 2. Attributed to Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino, Cupid restraining Mars. Private collection.