Born in 1591 in Cento, near Bologna, a small town with no significant prior artistic tradition, Guercino was largely self-taught. His natural gifts soon came to the notice of the earlier generation of Bolognese artists, including Ludovico Carracci, who extolled the rising young artist in a letter of 1617. Over the next decades Guercino was to become celebrated as one of the greatest painters of his day. His works were highly sought after, and he is known to have turned down offers from King Charles I of England, King Louis XIII of France and possibly King Philip IV of Spain (who may have sent Velázquez as his agent), to leave Italy and become a court painter in their respective capitals. Apart from an important, formative trip to Rome early in his career (in the years 1621-1623), he spent his whole life in his native Cento or in nearby Bologna, to which he moved in 1642. He painted prolifically, producing works of great poetry that combined the contemplative naturalism of Bolognese classicism with dramatic, Caravaggesque tenebrism. Guercino's early works are distinguished by bold, saturated colouring, large-scale figures and dynamic compositions. In his late works, the compositional tension becomes more subdued, and his attention turns towards an understated elegance of forms and harmony of palette, in which Ellis K. Waterhouse saw the attainment of 'a mastery of tender and tranquil colour' (Italian Baroque Painting, London, 1962, p. 115).
This picture, which dates to circa 1619-20, before Guercino left for Rome in May 1621, is an early autograph version of a composition that clearly met with success. A picture of this subject by Guercino is listed in at least three documents in the seventeenth century: the will of Stefano Scaruffi of Reggio Emilia in 1621; the testament of Marchese Paolo Coccapani in 1647; and a later letter addressed to Don Antonio Ruffo, the renowned Sicilian collector, in circa 1670. A version in a New York private collection, which came to light when offered at auction in 1981 (Sotheby’s, London, 8 April 1981, lot 70) has generally been considered as the prime, with another canvas given to Guercino in the National Gallery of Art, Dublin, formerly owned by Sir Denis Mahon. An intriguing aspect of the picture offered here was the discovery of another composition underneath: an x-ray revealed a Saint Matthew and the Angel, most probably by Guercino. The profiles of the figures beneath, together with the treatment of the drapery, are consistent with works by Guercino from the same period, 1618-20.