Little documentation about Cagnacci survives, so it is often through the scandalous elements of his personal life rather than his artistic practice that we are able to locate him.
Cagnacci was born in Santarcangelo, Romagna, seventy miles southeast of Bologna. He perhaps trained there with a local artist, but by 1618 he was in Bologna, where he may have studied briefly with Ludovico Carracci. Cagnacci made two visits to Rome between 1618 and 1621, and on Easter Day 1622 he was documented there in the house of fellow artist, Guercino. From 1622 until 1627 no records about Cagnacci survive at all.
Cagnacci’s first documented work dates from 1627, when he was commissioned by the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament of Saludecio, a small town between Urbino and Rimini, to decorate a chapel in a parish church. He is described in this contract as ‘Guido Cagnacci pittore di Rimini’ (‘painter from Rimini’), where he appears to have lived for much of the 1620s. Indeed, in 1628 he was recorded in the criminal records for attempting to run away with a rich widow in Rimini. In 1636, he is again documented in Rimini, this time when an unmarried woman with whom he’d had a relationship signed over all her belongings to him.
Around 1640, Cagnacci was again in Bologna, where he began to paint the seductive, half-length female figures for which he is best known. These paintings are indebted to Bolognese artist Guido Reni, but Cagnacci went further than Reni in the overt sensuality of his figures. From 1649, Cagnacci was resident in Venice, working entirely for private patrons, amongst whom these sensual half-lengths were very popular. Contemporaries joked at Cagnacci’s expense that he only produced half-lengths because he could not paint feet.
Cagnacci was called to Vienna in 1658 and it was there, around 1660–61, that he painted his 'Repentant Magdalene'. Dying in Vienna in 1663, Cagnacci was largely forgotten until the 1960s, when the rehabilitation of his reputation began in earnest. He is now recognised as one of the most accomplished and unconventional artists of the Italian Baroque.