The Syndicat National des Antiquaires has just awarded its art book prize to Nicolas Régnier by Annick Lemoine. It rewards a remarkable monographic study, both erudite and pleasantly readable, which is the fruit of many long years of research and of a very subtle knowledge of the period. This publication offers many new findings on the artist’s life as well as his work. This is one of Arthéna’s best volumes, thus continuing an editorial policy which can never be praised enough.
Régnier was thought to be born in 1591 according to a mistaken reading of a birth certificate. In fact, he might have been born in 1588, certainly before 1593 in any case. After his first training under Abraham Janssens in Antwerp, documented only by Sandrardt, the young painter left for Italy. He stopped in Parma in 1616-1617 before arriving in Rome.
Unfortunately, there are no known works from his early years. Thanks to his master Janssens, and also perhaps Lionello Spada whom he must have met at the Farnèse court in Parma, Régnier soon became familiar with the Caravaggesque movement. Once in Rome (between May 1617 and Easter of 1620), he shared lodgings with David de Haen and Dirk Baburen, both of whom belonged to this school.
Along with Valentin de Boulogne, Régnier was one of the main adepts of the Manfrediana Methodus, a term which designates a Caravaggism reinterpreted through the prism of Bartolomeo Manfredi’s style. Régnier quickly oriented his manner towards a pursuit of refinement and gracefulness, which Annick Lemoine calls “a poetics of seduction” or “a Caravaggism of seduction”. In this, he is in direct opposition to the Northern Caravaggisti such as Honthorst and Baburen, whose art reflects an almost caricatural earthiness. After settling down in Venice, Régnier’s style became even more suave, influenced by the Bolognese painters, particularly Guido Reni who became one of his principal models. Examples of this are notably his two Saint Sebastian (cat. 44 and 45).
Nicolas Régnier (c. 1588-1667)
Carnival Scene, c. 1630
Oil on canvas - 130 x 189 cm
Varsovie, WIllanow Palace Museum
Photo : Musée de Varsovie
Régnier painted all of the genre subjects typical of the Manfrediana Methodus : scenes of trickery or fortunetelling (cat. 30, 31, 48…), concerts (cat. 39, 144) or assemblies of soldiers (cat. 7). The most original ones are the carnival scenes (the exact subject is enigmatic) known through two examples (cat. 22 and 62), the most beautiful being undoubtedly the one on the book cover and which dates back to the Venetian period (ill. 1).
The Roman portraits, comparable to those of his contemporaries Vouet, Tournier and Vignon, generally represented unidentified models, probably from his close circle. He pursued this Caravaggesque vein in Venice, as shown by the painted figure of Gabriel Naudé (cat. 78), recently identified and held in the Bibliothèque nationale collections. The many court portraits which he produced afterwards are, however, very different. They were not well known or highly considered before their publication, including many unedited ones, in this book. Annick Lemoine also reveals that Régnier was painter to the king, no doubt in his capacity as a supplier of paintings purchased by Mazarin.
Although no example of an independent still-life by him has been found, it is possible that he may have painted some. Annick Lemoine connects his art to the works of the Master of Still-life Acquavilla (by comparing it particularly to the Allegories of the Seasons held in Princeton - cat. 8 to 10) without going so far as to identify him as the same artist.
Nicolas Régnier (c. 1588-1667)
Saint Matthew and the Angel, c. 1620-1622
Oil on canvas - 108 x 112.4 cm
Sarasota, John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art
Photo : John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art
Attributions of Caravaggesque paintings are often complex, as many of them moved among different painters, depending on the whim of the artists. The absence of signatures as well as any preparatory studies, either drawn or painted, makes identification dependent on connoisseurship unless archival or other documentary proof is found. _ Saint Matthew and the Angel from Sarasota (ill. 2 ; cat. 15) exhibited in 1982 , is thus definitively ascribed to Régnier, in a roundabout manner : Annick Lemoine publishes copies of a series of four evangelists one of which is painted after the Saint Luke in Rouen and another one after this painting from Sarasota. Furthermore, it would seem that this canvas was cut since originally it was a vertical format.
3. Nicolas Régnier (c. 1588-1667)
Supper in Emmaüs
Oil on canvas - 282 x 222 cm
Potsdam, Stiftung Preussische Schlösser
und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg
Photo : Staatliche Schlösser und
The artist’s environment is thoroughly studied : his patrons, including Vincenzo Giustiniani who owned nine of his paintings such as the important Supper at Emmaüs from Potsdam (ill. 3 ; cat. 33) ; his family : Régnier’s four daughters, known for their great beauty, were painters, and one married the Venetian Pietro della Vecchia, another one Daniel van Dyck, an interesting but not very well known artist.
Régnier’s half-brother was Michele Desubleo. The book does not question a rather strange fact : these two artists from the same family, both born in Maubeuge then living in Rome, are considered as having different nationalities, one French, the other Italian. The author shows how close the artists are in style : their works, such as the Death of Sophonisba, can be easily confused. Some paintings attributed to Desubleo have now been rendered to Régnier (for example a Saint John the Baptist at the Fountain-Cesena, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, cat. 36) ; others have inversely been reattributed to Desubleo, such as cat. 7 in the rejected works. Régnier’s activities as an art dealer and expert are also studied by Annick Lemoine with one amusing anecdote which recounts how the painter commissioned fake paintings from his son-in-law Pietro della Vecchia, known to have frequently executed pastiches after famous painters. Another tidbit of information comes in the form of a pseudo Self-portrait by Titian (Washington, National Gallery), today acknowledged as a copy by Pietro della Vecchia after a canvas which at the time belonged to Nicolas Régnier. Were these pieces sold as copies or were they part of a veritable counterfeiting business ? Annick Lemoine does not say either way but seems to favor the second hypothesis.
Nicolas Régnier (c. 1588-1667)
Oil on canvas - 294 x 142 cm each
Venise, Scuola grande di San Marco
Thanks to this publication Régnier definitely appears as a major 17th century artist and we feel he deserves to have an exhibition organized in his honor. Among the most important paintings, there are The Card Players and Fortune Teller from Budapest (cat. 48), The Supper at Emmaüs from Potsdam mentioned above and the Self-portrait with Easel from Cambridge (cat. 37). The Mary Magdalene Doing Penance from Detroit (cat. 47) and the Allegory of Vanity from Stuttgart (cat. 50) are typical of the elegant Caravaggism of the late Roman period during which he came back to certain themes already treated a few years earlier and to which he added what was an already pre-Venetian refinement. The works painted in Venice also include several masterpieces : the Carnival Scene from Warsaw quoted above (ill. 1), David and Goliath from Dijon (cat. 62), the Young Woman at her Toilette from Lyon (cat. 67), Amnon and Tamar from Stuttgart (cat. 100), The Baptism of Christ from the San Salvatore church in Venice (cat. 81), the Mary Magdalene Doing Penance from the Kunsthistorisches Musuem in Vienna (cat. 135) of which there are several replicas and one of his last works, The Annunciation from the Scuola Grande di San Marco (ill. 4 ; cat. 168). Other canvases are of lesser quality due to the increased collaboration of the workshop.
Among the paintings lost in Germany during the war, some are probably intact and might eventually be found. This is the case for Homer, Blind Playing the Violin (cat. 28) which seems to have reappeared as a copy of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, on a Russian internet website listing recovered art works. Alas, no address appears. Interestingly enough, a version of this painting which surfaced recently was acquired by Potsdam in 2002 (cat. 29). Let us also point out the unfortunate disappearance from an Italian church of a beautiful Saint Jerome shown at the Grand Palais during the exhibition Les Caravagesques français . We reproduce a photograph (ill. 5 ; cat. 58) here of this stolen painting in the hopes it can be found one day.
Nicolas Régnier (c. 1588-1667)
Saint Jerome, c. 1626-1628
Oil on canvas - 110 x 100 cm
Lozzo Arestino (Padova), church (stolen work)
Attribution to Nicolas Régnier rejected by
Saint Matthew and Angel
Oil on canvas - 165 x 141 cm
Sale Sotheby’s New York, 25 January 2007
Photo : Sotheby’s New York
Despite the book’s exceptional quality, a few minor bits of criticism are in order. In the catalogue, it might be wise to avoid making attributions of certain paintings based on works which have not been absolutely acknowledged. Thus, cat. 4 is, true, close to 1 and 3. But these last two paintings are themselves still dubious, so the connection is not really convincing. Moreover, in Caravaggesque circles, the same models (perhaps the artists themselves) were probably used by all the different painters. Just because the same person appears in another painting does not mean he was represented by the same artist both times.
The author draws a parallel between literature and painting, raising interesting interpretations but which at times sound contrived. One example is in The Card Players and the Fortune Teller from Budapest (cat. 30), where the angle formed by the antique relief, similar to the one found in The Concert with the Bas-relief by Valentin from the Louvre, represents according to Annick Lemoine a “y”, which in the 17th century was a symbol of the choice between good and evil. Can we really be sure that the painter wanted to show a “y” here ? The argument does not seem obvious and there is no proof given for this interpretation.
One of the rejected works (cat. R.38bis) was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2007 but is not reproduced in the book. We provide an illustration here (ill. 6).
Since the pioneering exhibition in 1974, the French Caravaggesque have become better known : Valentin has had a monography devoted to him in Italian , Tournier had an exhibition in Toulouse in 2001  and the Roman Vouet is currently being exhibited at the Musée de Nantes (see article). Annick Lemoine’s book, which benefits from extensive research in Italian archives, is a superb example of the trend to rediscover  this school.
Annick Lemoine, Nicolas Régnier, Editions Arthéna, 2008, 448 p., ISBN : 978-2-903239-37-4.