Art in Focus – Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1620) by Il Guercino

More than any other individual, he was responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of 17th-century Italian Baroque painting

Guercino (1591-1666), Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, c.1620, oil on canvas. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1620), is an acknowledged masterpiece by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino (1591-1666). Guercino zeroes in on a decisive moment. Joseph has brought his sons to be blessed by his father, who is blind and infirm. Making a cross with his arms, Jacob places his right hand on the younger, Ephriam. Joseph is startled, as tradition decreed he bless the elder, Manasseh, first. But Jacob explains that his action was deliberate and that Ephriam is destined for great things, which proved to be the case.

How was it done? The dramatic chiaroscuro and the confrontational, close-up viewpoint recall Caravaggio. Guercino's vigorous, communicative style was largely shaped by influences closer to home, in Emelia (he pointed to Ludovico Carraci as a major influence when he moved to Bologna in 1615), but there is a strong case for an awareness of Caravaggio in his entire approach here. The spot-lit quality and the gloomy expanses of deep shade invite the descriptive term tenebrist, even though it is a little vague. Guercino certainly ratchets up the drama in a scene that could warrant a less fraught treatment as, for example, in Rembrandt's much mellower account of the subject in 1656.

Where can I see it? Back after an intensive 19 months of research and conservation at the Getty Institute, the painting is the centrepiece of a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland (until May 27th), which includes much documentary material. Thereafter, it will be on view close to Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ.

Is it a typical work by the artist? It is typical of this stage of Guercino's development, but then his greatest exponent in the 20th century, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), identified no less than six distinct stylistic phases in his career, with The Blessing coming early on. Later, his palette lightened in terms of both colour and tone, and his pictorial language became more classical and temperate. Largely self-taught, Guercino was technically very capable from an early age. His name was in fact, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, but he was cross-eyed as he suffered from the eye condition strabismus, earning him his nickname, Il Guercino – The Squinter.

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The painting was gifted to the NGI by Sir Denis in 2008 (having been on loan from 2000). A couple of years later he donated his archive to the gallery. More than any other individual, he was responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of 17th-century Italian Baroque painting, though he was greatly encouraged by such figures as Kenneth Clark, Otto Kurz and Nikolas Pevsner. It was the latter who singled out Guercino as being worthy of further study. The Blessing was the first Guercino Mahon bought. He acquired it in Paris in 1934 for £120 (he was an obsessive record-keeper and the cheque is included in the show) before he set off travelling in Europe, and especially in Italy, to learn as much as he could about the painter.