Simon Vouet (the Italian years 1613/1617)

Simon Vouet (The Italian Years 1613/1617).
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 21 November 2008 to 23 February 2009.
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 27 March to 29 June 2009.

1. Vouet exhibition from
the first floor of the Musée des Beaux-Arts
de Nantes
Photo : D. Rykner

The Simon Vouet retrospective organized at the Grand Palais by Jacques Thuillier in 1991 is still vividly remembered. Since then, studies on the painter, his circle and his students have abounded, defining the image of the artist and his workshop ever more clearly. Many of his paintings resurface regularly as we have pointed out on this site [1]. However, Vouet’s Roman period is undoubtedly the least familiar, and the retrospective in Nantes and Besançon arrives at just the right time. The exhibition is all the more successful in that for the first time it allows a comparison of several paintings which have recently reappeared, many of which are unknown to historians (often too numerous) who do not follow the art market. The beautiful presentation (ill. 1) despite the almost violent light, enhances the works in a fine way with visitor circulation flowing smoothly. Thus, we would not hesitate to encourage classical art lovers to attend the exhibition.

Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Self-portrait, 1626 or 1627
Oil on canvas - 45 x 36.5 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Alain Basset

It begins with a series of portraits by the artist (ill. 2). The attribution of a painting from the Koelliker collection (cat. 1), a Self-portrait which reappeared in 2001, wavered between Vignon and Vouet. The acknowledgement to the latter seems correct if one compares this canvas with the others around it. On the other hand, the model does not seem to us to be the same one as that in the paintings from Amiens and the Uffizi (cat. 2 and 3). The nose, the shape of the skull appear to be very different and it is hard to imagine that it could be the same person. It is not always easy to compare painted portraits, but there is a very real doubt here [2]. Some old copies after Vouet reflect lost compositions or else a painting which could not travel to Nantes. We refer our readers back to the review of the exhibition in Strasbourg in 2005, Eclairage sur un chef-d’oeuvre (in French on LTA), for a description of the two paintings from Lons-le-Saunier and Caen (cat. 8 and 9) which do not stand up in quality once again to other canvases by Vouet. They appear very weak, especially in comparison to such masterpieces as the two examples of The Fortune Teller from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and from Ottawa (cat. 12 and 13) or the no less beautiful Death of Lucretia (ill. 3 ; cat. 17) from Potsdam.

Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Death of Lucretia, c. 1619
Oil on canvas marouflé on wood - 120 x 171 cm
Potsdam, Schoss Sanssouci
Photo : Stiftung Preußische Schlösser
und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg

Attributed to Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Saint Simon
Oil on canvas - 65 x 50 cm
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : A. Gullard

Two décors painted by Vouet are still in their original location in Rome. Although neither of the two canvases from San Lorenzo in Lucina has travelled to the exhibition, in Nantes the visitor will enjoy seeing The Nativity of the Virgin from San Francesco in Ripa (cat. 18).
Among the disputed works there are two heads of apostles : a Saint Simon (ill. 4 ; cat. 22) (only “attributed to Vouet”, it is true) and a Saint Andrew (cat. 23) which do not seem to be painted by the same hand. The Saint Andrew has a particularly striking quality but the execution appears to be different from acknowledged works by Simon Vouet. The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (cat. 24), on the other hand, is a work with a proven attribution [3] but, alas, is in poor condition. The angel coming down from heaven is directly taken from Caravaggio’s in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew from Saint Louis des Français.

5. Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Saint Jerome with an Angel, c. 1620-1621
Oil on canvas - 145 x 180 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : Courtesy of the board of Trustees,
National Gallery of Art, Washington.

6. Simon Vouet (1590-1648) ?
or Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649) ?
Angel Explaining the Divine Mysteries
to Mary Magdalene next to Christ’s Tomb

Oil on canvas - 136.6 x 112.4 cm
Rome, private collection
Photo : D. R.

We will bypass mentioning some magnificent and well-known works, such as Intellect, Memory and Will from the Pinacoteca in the Capitole (cat. 20), the Portrait of Giovan Carlo Doria from the Louvre (cat. 26) and, especially, the very beautiful Saint Jerome and the Angel from Washington (ill. 5 ; cat. 21), to take a closer look at another one of these enigmatic paintings, published several times recently under the name of Vouet by Eric Schleier (who also wrote the catalogue entry). This Angel Explaining the Divine Mysteries to Mary Magdalene next to Christ’s Tomb (ill. 6 ; cat. 29), is it really by Vouet, or shouldn’t we attribute it to Charles Mellin instead ? The figure of Mary Magdalene is close to that in the Palazzo Barberini (cat. 46 in the Mellin exhibition). As for the angel, his profile is similar to the one wearing a purple robe and carrying a spear in Capodimonte, attributed with certainty to Charles Mellin (cat. 37 in the Mellin exhibition). Eric Schleier’s entry does not in fact offer a convincing argument in favor of the supposed provenance of the work. One should be careful when making hasty conclusions which consider an old mention of a painting (“A Mary Magdalene and two angels”) proof enough that this is the work in question. There most certainly was not only one painting in 17th century Rome representing Mary Magdalene and two angels. And even if this was indeed the painting in the Raggi collection, there are no documents to prove that it was painted by Vouet. Art history should learn to rid itself of this bad habit which consists in transforming a hypothesis into certainty which is then passed on from one author to the next (this caution, which is no other than scholarly rigor, should also encourage a more frequent use of the term “attributed to” which is in no way dishonourable [4])

7. Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Head of the Virgin, c. 1623
Oil on canvas - 45 x 30 cm
Private collection

Among works which have recently resurfaced, there are several canvases in small format representing heads. One of these, illustrating the Virgin, reappeared at Drouot on 5 December 2007 as simply “attributed” to Vouet and here is ascribed to the painter in a very convincing manner (ill. 7 ; cat. 32). Another one (Head of a Young Woman, cat. 34), presented at the Galerie Aaron in 2005, claims the characteristic of being one of the only studies of a live model to have reappeared, and prepares a painting held at the Blanton museum in Austin. Finally, a head of a young man (cat. 43) is a painted study for the soldier handing the poison to Agrippina (or Sophonisba), in a painting held in Kassel. We regret that these last two works could not have been juxtaposed with the final compositions.

8. Remaining pieces from the Modello of Saint Peter in Rome
Photo : D. Rykner

The exhibition assembles all the fragments and studies relating to the commission of a painting executed on stucco for Saint Peter’s in Rome. The idea for the composition and the story of how it was destroyed are told in the catalogue. The visitor can see the four remaining pieces of a grand modello (ill. 8) one of which is held in Besançon (cat. 41c), a second in an English collection (cat. 41a ; it recently reappeared at Drouot, see the conclusion of this article) and the last two (cat. 41b), from the Ciechanowiecki collection which were acquired a few years ago by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see the interview of Patrice Marandel, curator of LACMA). The study for the upper part of the composition is also on exhibit (cat. 40). Its very free and easily identifiable style enabled the attribution of a small unpublished painting from a Parisian collection representing The Ecstasy of Saint Francis de Paul (cat. 42). The angels in the upper portion are indeed very close. However, one wonders about the authenticity of a study representing Saint Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow (cat. 39) which would seem to be a project for a painting of Saint Peter which was never executed. Although this work is indeed very “Vouet-like”, the style is extremely different from that of the two bozzetti mentioned above, not to mention the presence of what are incredible weaknesses for Vouet (the right hand of the woman holding a child in the middle of the painting, the unnaturally long arm of the sick figure on the right…).

9. Virginia da Vezzo (1597-1638)
Judith and Holophernes, c. 1624-1626
Oil on canvas - 98 x 74 cm
Rome, Apolloni Collection
Photo : Galleria W. Apolloni – Roma

Several figures of women, half-size, reveal Vouet’s virtuosity in painting fabrics. Next to Saint Catherine of Alexandria (cat. 49) which recently resurfaced (see news item of 18/9/06 only in french ), in which we learn that a signature was discovered, along with the date of 1626, there is notably another admirable representation of this saint (cat. 46), until now unpublished, a Saint Agnes (cat. 47) and a Saint Mary Magdalene (cat. 51 ; LACMA). A Saint Cecilia (cat. 48), an unedited replica (held in a private collection in Nantes !) of a painting at the Blanton Museum in Austin, is probably due to the painter’s workshop and shows, alongside less accomplished pieces (notably the hands), remarkable qualities in the robes, worthy of the master himself.
The exhibition ends with a small section on Vouet’s circle in Rome. We do not know if he really had students there as was the case later in Paris. In any case, he had a workshop where his wife, Virginia da Vezzo, was an active participant. Visitors can see for the first time the only acknowledged painting by Virginia (ill. 9 ; cat. 91), with the artist’s name given in an engraving which reproduces the canvas. The quality found there raises questions : did Vouet’s wife contribute in producing some of her husband’s paintings ? In this last section, there is also a beautiful unpublished Mary Magdalene, by Jacques de Létin (cat. 89) from a private Swiss collection as well as another canvas (Judith and Holophernes ; cat. 90) attributed with reservations to this artist, vigorously executed, from the Luigi Koelliker collection, one of the biggest lenders to the exhibition. For conservation reasons, the ten drawings which were selected will only be exhibited at the stop in Besançon. Let us simply point out that none of the sheets seems to date with certainty to the Italian period.

10. Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Angels Carrying the Instruments of
Christ’s Passion

Oil on canvas - 131 x 77 cm
London, private collection
Photo : D. Rykner

The catalogue offers a very modern layout, finely thought out at times (the cover picks up the bright orange found in several of Vouet’s paintings), at others annoying (the reduced margins or the violet border devoted to students). Its conception, with essays which are accompanied by real entries, corresponds to the expected standard of an exhibition catalogue. Unlike the entries, the essays do not really provide any new information, limiting themselves in general to summarizing existing information (sometimes without reference notes [5]) The mediocre quality or the very reduced size of some illustrations are also a drawback. The publication is nonetheless indispensable while we await the catalogue raisonné of Vouet’s paintings which Dominique Jacquot has promised.

Let us conclude with one regret : on November 8th, at the Hôtel Drouot, a painting (ill. 10 ; cat. 41a) was sold as being anonymous whereas we had recognized it as a Simon Vouet and published it immediately on this site (see news item of 8/11/06 only in french), accompanied with documentary elements justifying this attribution. It appears obvious that we were not the only ones to have judged correctly. The buyer and losing bidder, as well as Pierre Rosenberg and other visitors had hit upon the same name, evident enough to anyone who knows a bit about 17th century painting. But The Art Tribune was the first to mention it and provide the information concerning this discovery, practically live. It thus does not seem normal that Eric Schleier preferred to ignore this short article completely, although it was easily accessible. It would be high time that internet publications be treated at last just like any other, especially since the copyright set up by the Bibliothèque Nationale Française now guarantees their permanence.

P.S. The exhibition will be covered in a review by Arnaud Brejon de Lavergnée in the Burlington Magazine. Research (or scholarly) curators : Dominique Jacquot and Adeline Collange, assisted by Emeline Bourdin.

Collective work, Simon Vouet (les années italiennes 1613/1627), Editions Hazan, 2008, 208 p., 30 €. ISBN : 9782754103220.

Didier Rykner, mercredi 3 décembre 2008


[1] See news items of 18/9/06 (in French on La Tribune de l’Art), 8/11/06 (in French on LTA), 9/6/08.

[2] Dominique Brême (oral communication) who worked extensively on the portraits, confirmed our impression, underscoring that in his opinion the painting from Lyon and the one from the Koelliker collection do indeed represent Vouet, unlike those from Amiens and the Uffizi.

[3] The composition was known from the engraving by Claude Mellan. It is reproduced and the painting auctioned off at Drouot in 1992 is quoted in the catalogue for the exhibition in Strasbourg, Eclairages sur un chef-d’œuvre. Loth et ses filles de Simon Vouet, p. 92 and 161-162.

[4] This is the case, for example, for the copy after The Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio, reproduced in fig. 1 in Adeline Collage’s essay about which we would have liked to know, besides the measurements, the reasons why this painting is ascribed with certainty to Vouet. It does not seem to have been published previously, and its mention in the text does not say much more about it.

[5] The notes of page 152 can be found on… page 150.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : Giovanni Bellini

Next article in Exhibitions : Renaissance faces. Van Eyck to Titian