Vouet and Research : the debates about the Roman paintings

Vouet and research : debates on the Roman paintings

1. Colloque Vouet au
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
Photo : O. Bonfait

On the third day of the Simon Vouet colloquium which took place in Nantes from the 4th through the 6th of December 2008, the participants were invited to visit the exhibition following the example of the Poussin encounter (see this article and the other). Many specialists joined in at this time (ill. 1). Almost all of the French and foreign authorities on Vouet, as well as several historians of 17th century French painting in Italy thus found themselves alongside the show’s curators, Dominique Jacquot and Adeline Collange, to discuss the works, attributions, dates and iconography ; Stéphane Loire led the visit. Exchanges were particularly animated, proving once more that art history is indeed not an exact science. Some paintings were in fact sharply debated and the impression at times was that there were as many opinions as people in the room. Nevertheless, a few lessons clearly stand out from this day’s work which concluded with a slide show of paintings presenting problems and which did not appear in the exhibition. We will of course leave each author to present his own discoveries, either in the colloquium proceedings edited by Olivier Bonfait and Hélène Rousteau-Chambon which should appear very shortly (for the stop at Besançon), or in independent publications.

2. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)
The Bravo
Oil on canvas - 83 x 68.5 cm
Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : All Rights Reserved

In an unexpected manner, the exhibition enabled a painting which until now had been thought to be a copy after a Vouet held in Brunswick, The Bravo (ill. 2 ; cat. 16) to be rehabilitated. Property of the Musée de Tours, this work which is well known and has been exhibited several times had in fact never been seriously considered. Thanks to Dominique Jacquot there is now a new attribution to Claude Vignon, an idea which came to him as he was taking the canvas out of its crate to hang it up. Once mentioned, this name seemed obvious to all the participants, including Paola Bassani Pacht, a specialist on the artist, despite her earlier misgivings. Still, preconceived notions had to be eliminated first in order to look at the work as it really is. It is known that Vouet and Vignon were close to each other in Rome and this is probably a copy of the latter’s, after the Brunswick painting, done by Vouet.

Some paintings were brought into question almost unanimously. This was the case notably for two canvases from Lons-le-Saunier and Caen representing respectively a Young Woman Playing a Tambourine and a Young Man with a Fig (cat. 8 and 9), with both making the same obscene gesture with the right hand. According to some, only the second might still benefit from a certain doubt. The Penitent Mary Magdalene (cat. 14), firmly supported by Dominique Jacquot, did not in any way convince the participants.

The two heads of saints presented side by side, Saint Simon and Saint Andrew (cat. 22 and 23) also raised a lively debate. Most likely the work of different hands, the Saint Simon is problematic and the Saint Andrew is considered by many as having no rapport to Vouet. Only Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, who had shown it for the first time in 1974 during the exhibition on French Caravaggesque artists, still believe that it is indeed a work by Vouet. Jean-Pierre Cuzin underscores the analogies with the Saint Jerome and the Angel in Washington. Dominique Jacquot thinks the quality is very high but does not see when it could fit the Roman production.
An Angel Explaining the Divine Mysteries to Mary Magdalene next to Christ’s Tomb (cat. 29, reproduced backwards) did not draw unanimous approval. Eric Schleier persists in seeing here Vouet’s hand, but most participants expressed their perplexity. In our review, we had put forth a possible attribution to Charles Mellin, a name which was pronounced timidly by a few other people as well. Philippe Malgouyres (unfortunately absent that day) told us that the work had nothing to do with Charles Mellin. If this name then seems to be eliminated, the painting now remains an enigma. Some others even raised the hypothesis that it might not be French but could belong to the Emilian or Florentine schools…

The Saint Catherine from the Koelliker collection (cat. 45), a very beautiful painting, is not accepted by all. Certain participants saw in it a Florentine, or Siennese work — understandable given the colours. Others accept its Vouet-like character but attribute it to his circle or his workshop. Let us point out here that the nature of Vouet’s workshop in Italy remains a mystery to most. Should it be seen in the strict sense of the term as during the Parisian period ? Or was there only a collaboration or a few assistants ? No answers have been found so far. The two paintings from the Musée de Bourges, Saint Catherine and Saint Mary Magdalene (cat. 37 and 38) are, it seems, a bit less beautiful than the originals held at the Palazzo del Quirinale. They are nevertheless of excellent quality and the idea that they are workshop replicas seems largely accepted.

3. Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
Roman Charity
Oil on canvas - 132 x 125 cm
Bayonne, Musée Bonnat
Photo : RMN

In any case, the participants agreed on one point : Vouet could paint in very different styles changing quickly in a short period of time. This makes it difficult to establish a precise chronological order and may explain why it is hard for specialists to come to a consensus on this point as well. Vouet’s stay in Genoa splits his Roman period evenly in half. The debates often came back to the crucial question : before or after Genoa ? Here also there was no unanimous opinion on one or the other solution and we will not transcribe here the lengthy discussions on the subject so as not to bring on any unnecessary indigestion. The question of dates dealt mostly with the paintings which obviously seem to be from Vouet’s production, such as The Death of Lucretius (cat. 17), The Nativity of the Virgin (cat. 18) from the church of San Francesco in Ripa (and for which the quality of the restoration was criticized by almost everyone), Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene (and not Saint Irene as is often mistakenly said ; cat. 28), Intellect, Memory and Will (cat. 20) as well as Saint Jerome and the Angel (cat. 21), a painting considered by many to be the masterpiece of the exhibition.
An acknowledged work nonetheless was discussed for its date, in an attempt to determine if it was executed before or after Vouet’s return to Paris in 1627. This is Roman Charity (ill. 3 ; cat. 19) from the Musée Bonnat, put on deposit by the State in 1876. Opinions differed widely on this point. In any case, everyone agreed that the painting was not very well known until now and that its presence at the exhibition has fully reaffirmed its quality.

4. Simon Vouet (1590-1648)
The Virgin in Adoration before the Child
Oil on canvas - 118 x 132 cm
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen
Photo : All Rights Reserved

Other works which are rarely exhibited or seen were admired by all. This is the case for The Virgin in Adoration before the Child from Rotterdam (ill. 4 ; cat. 31) which some think might have been slightly cut off on the right side, also for The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria from a Swiss private collection (cat. 24) despite its problematic condition and for the Head of Virgin (cat. 32) from a private collection, which reappeared last year at the Hôtel Drouot.

The study of Saint Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow (cat. 39) about which we expressed our doubts is nevertheless widely (but not unanimously) accepted by the participants as indeed being a work by Simon Vouet in preparation for a first painting, which was never executed, for Saint Peter’s in Rome.
Concerning this commission for Saint Peter’s, the bozzetto of the definitive work (cat. 40) was rightfully admired, (all present expressed the wish that the work might be examined scientifically and x-rayed in order to better understand its original purpose) and the presentation of the remaining fragments was highly appreciated as being one of the salient points of the exhibition.

In the last section of the show, several paintings have strangely enough been brought into doubt. Eric Schleier supports the Saint Catherine (cat. 47, private collection) saying — justifiably so — that certain zigzag strokes can also be found in acknowledged works such as Angels Bearing the Instruments of the Passion (cat. 41a). The thesis of a workshop production, or even of a work not related to Vouet was nevertheless widely shared. The Saint Agnes (cat. 48, private collection) might also be from the workshop whereas the Saint Mary Magdalene from the LACMA (cat. 51), with its undisputed quality, could be by another painter in Vouet’s circle.
Despite the rediscovery of the signature and the date of 1626, the Saint Catherine which recently reappeared in the United States (cat. 49), bothers some specialists who have pointed out the (obvious) lack of proportion between the head and the rest of the body. The rather aggressive cleaning (which we had already pointed out in our article on Maastricht last year) was underscored by some participants. As for the painting from Lyon, Psyche Watching Love Asleep (cat. 44), its present status as a copy (it is in fact presented as such) rather than an original in bad condition, seems to be permanently established.

After a short time spent in front of the admirable Judith painted by Virginia da Vezzi (cat. 91), the small group ended its visit to the exhibition with the series of self-portraits. Unavoidably, the identification of the various canvases as being by only one painter did not seem to convince anyone. The question of Vouet’s self-portraits seems to require entirely new thinking.

We would like to conclude this article by returning briefly to the subject of the catalogue essays which we treated much too quickly in our review. Some saw a severe criticism there, something which was not at all our intention. Although it is true that there are few new documentary discoveries in the articles, they do make a real contribution by offering in the case of some a fine compendium of current knowledge on Vouet in Italy, in others very useful interpretations. The one by Eric Schleier, on patrons, brings together information which is scattered about in publications both in Europe and the United States which escaped perhaps the notice of the artist’s specialists. The essay by Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée, although the conclusions are necessarily mixed as none of the artist’s sheets from Italy can be identified for sure, nonetheless does a valuable job on a particularly complex subject. The iconological studies by Olivier Bonfait and Anne-Bertrand-Dewsnap throw further light on two types of themes treated by Vouet and more generally by the Caravaggesque school, The Fortune Tellers and the Portraits, whereas the curators, Adeline Collange and Dominique Jacquot offer two essays efficiently summarizing the information on Vouet’s Italian years. Finally, Pierre Rosenberg goes over the points which separate — but those which also unite — Vouet to Poussin.

At the end of the visit, Dominique Jacquot reminded everyone in smiling that he and Adeline Collange had wanted to organize a retrospective which would raise questions. They did indeed fulfill their wish. Although the exhibition does not solve all of the problems still concerning Simon Vouet’s career in Italy, it can at least be proud of not masking over any of the difficulties involved. It also provides the chance to pay tribute to the museums in Nantes and Besançon which have organized the show, once again proving how dynamic certain regional museums can be.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 19 décembre 2008

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