There is a painting by Guercino of St Luke displaying, with a gesture of triumphant accomplishment, a painting he has just executed of the Madonna and Child. An angel is shown marvelling at the image, sufficiently persuaded by its likeness that he (or she) spontaneously reaches out to touch the Madonna's garment. Guercino was enough of an art historian to know that nothing St Luke could have painted would bear serious comparison with what a 17th-century master could achieve in terms of realism, so he invented a sort of archaic style with which to represent the painting of which St Luke was so affectingly proud. One almost feels that there is a bit of boasting on Guercino's part: if only the angel could step outside the painting and look at what Guercino had achieved, then he (or she) might see how far the art of painting had progressed since the time of St Luke. But filled though Guercino's painting is with a certain sense of history, his imagination failed him when it came to St Luke's studio. He is shown with palette and brushes, painting in oils on a panel perched on an easel, very much in the way in which Guercino himself must have painted the picture that we see. It was as if only artistic representation has a developmental history, and not the materials of the artist, which are taken for granted as having been much the same in the era of Christ's infancy as they were in the 17th century.
LRB 12 May 1994 | PDF Download