Simon Vouet
Biography of French Baroque Painter.

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Psyche Watching Amor Sleep (1626)
Musee des Beaux-Arts, France.

Simon Vouet (1590-1649)


Early Life
Career in Rome
Career in France
Influence on Versailles Palace

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A key contributor to French painting and one of the finest French Baroque artists during the first half of the 17th century, Vouet's career is composed of two main parts: his years in Italy, which ended in 1627 with his return to France, and the Parisian period, from 1627 until his death 22 years later. He began as something of a prodigy, working as a portraitist in England at the tender age of 14. At 23 he travelled to Italy, and during the period 1613-27 settled in Rome, where he acquired a considerable reputation, becoming President of the Academy of Art in Rome (1624). Strongly influenced, to begin with, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), his painting later broadened to embrace the classical style of Domenichino (1581-1641) and Guido Reni (1575-1642), whose Baroque painting remained loyal to the principles of good drawing and composition. In 1627 he was summoned to Paris by King Louis XIII (1601-43), who made him court painter. He proved exceptionally popular in Paris: his main contribution being his introduction of a muted style of Italian Baroque art that avoided both the shocking naturalism of Caravaggio, and the emotionalism of the more intense Italian Baroque artists caught up in the religious Counter-Reformation. His work encompassed all types of religious art, as well as large format history painting and royal portrait art. He was also noted for his tapestry art. His best Baroque paintings include: Psyche Watching Amor Sleep (1626, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), and Presentation in the Temple (1641, Louvre, Paris). His pupils included Charles Le Brun (1619-90) the dominant artist during the reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715).



Early Life

Vouet's beginnings, like those of so many of his French contemporaries, Claude Vignon (1593-1670), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Claude Lorrain (1600-82), and Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), were quite adventurous. Son of a painter, Laurent Vouet, of whom almost nothing is known, he seems to have been sent to England when he was very young, then to Constantinople in 1611-12 and to Venice in 1612-13.

Career in Rome

Whether or not all these surmises are correct, Vouet was certainly in Rome in 1613, and, except for the short time he spent in Genoa working for the Doria family in 1621-2, lived there until his return to France. He did however spend time in Venice, and almost certainly visited Milan, Piacenza, Parma, Bologna and Florence. In 1617 he received a brevet from the King of France and the following year a royal pension. By 1620 he had established himself as the leader of the French colony in Rome; he won prestigious commissions in the capital and elsewhere and he had important protectors and admirers. His works were highly esteemed and were included in the most notable collections of the day. In 1624 he was called upon to be President of the Roman Academy of St Luke. The same year, his reputation was boosted even further by a commission for Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, of which only some fragmentary sketches survive, and he undertook the decoration of the Church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina.

Vouet's works from Rome are well known. They include altarpieces, several of which are in situ: including The Birth of the Virgin (1618-20, Church of S. Francesco a Ripa, Rome); The Crucifixion (1621-2, Church of S. Ambrogio, Genoa); The Circumcision (1622, Church of S. Angelo a Segno, Naples); the decoration for the Alaleoni Chapel, 1623-4 in Rome, and for the Church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina; The Apparition of the Virgin to St Bruno (1626, Church of S. Martino, Naples); Apotheosis of St Theodore (1627, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden). In addition, we know of easel paintings including: The Lovers (1617-18, Rome, Gal. Pallavicini); The Fortune-Teller (National Gallery, Ottawa); St Jerome and the Angel (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); and Time Vanquished (1627, Prado). There is also a series of very fine portraits that display a beautiful free handling and a touching spontaneity.

Despite his influence on the Neapolitan School, there is no record of Vouet's presence in Naples and recent criticism has tended to reject the idea of such a visit. In fact the inscriptions on the two paintings made for Naples - The Circumcision (1622, Capodimonte Museum, Naples) and St. Bruno Receiving the Rule of the Carthusian Order (c.1624, Chapter House, Certosa di S. Martino, Naples) - record that he painted them in Rome. These works won great acclaim in Naples for their modernity and originality and had considerable influence on the local Caravaggisti. They not only contributed to a modification of tenebrism, but also prepared the ground for the acceptance of Artemisia Gentileschi's work as well as later Neapolitan Baroque painting. The link between Vouet and Massimo Stanzione (1585-1656) may have been formed when Stanzione collaborated in the decoration of the church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina during his second stay in Rome. There are also parallels between Vouet's work of 1622-25 and that of Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635).

Vouet's time in Italy witnessed a rapid development in his painting. Between 1614 and 1620 he moved away from the Caravaggism he had absorbed through Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622) and studied the work of Orazio Borgianni and Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620). After his period in Genoa he was influenced by both Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) and by the Bolognese classicists, especially Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). Through Lanfranco's influence, Vouet gradually reached a lighter, more decorative and Baroque style which was to be fully developed during his French period.



Career in France

In 1626 he married Virginia da Vezzo, one of the best miniaturists in Italy, and in 1627 revisited Venice - where he painted at least one work (see also Venetian Painting) - before travelling to Paris, where he had been recalled by Louis XIII, who duly appointed him official painter to the king. It is more difficult to follow Vouet's career in France, so numerous were the commissions he received - for church paintings, enormous decorative ensembles and votive works. Many of the ensembles, such as the set of Hommes Illustres (Famous Men) commissioned by Richelieu for the Palais Cardinal (now the Palais Royal) around 1636-8, have been split up, and all the church paintings have been removed if not lost, making it difficult to analyse the development of his style. Furthermore, more than one important studio - for example, that of Francois Tortebat and of Michel Dorigny, who married two of the artist's daughters, as well as those of Vouet's brother Aubin, Louis and Henri Testelin, Nicolas Chaperon, Charles Poerson and many others - seems to have collaborated increasingly in the execution of his paintings.

Some dates, however, help in the study of his career. Vouet lost his wife in 1638 and remarried in 1640, the year of Poussin's return to Paris. In 1648 he took an active part in founding the Academie, and he died the following year, at the time when two of his pupils, the most gifted, were fighting for supremacy: Charles Le Brun (1619-90) and Eustache Le Sueur (1616-55).

During his later years Vouet employed a more highly coloured style for his decorative art (Chateaux de Chilly, St Germain-en-Laye, Fontainebleau and Wideville; in Paris the Hotels Bullion and Seguier, and those of Perrault, Bretonvilliers and Tuboeuf). (See also: Fontainebleau School c.1528-1610.) He applied the same formula to his easel paintings, notably his many paintings of the Virgin and Child, most of them engraved and widely distributed, something of which he made a speciality.

It is, however, the large allegorical compositions Time Vanquished by Cupid, Venus and Hope, and the religious works painted for churches in Paris (The Assumption of the Virgin, in St Nicolas-des-Champs; The Martyrdom of St Eustace, in St Eustache), as well as those preserved in the Louvre (such as The Presentation in the Temple), that constitute the very best of Vouet's production. The Louvre also has a fine collection of Vouet's sketching and works on paper.

Influence on Versailles Palace

Sadly, although Vouet helped to decorate the Palais du Luxembourg, and produced numerous cartoons for the tapestry-workers of the Louvre Palace, he did not have the opportunity of contributing to the decoration of the Versailles Palace, whose construction during the mid-to-late 17th century stimulated a mini-renaissance of French decorative arts and interior design. However, he had a major impact on some of the French designers who did, including Charles Le Brun and Jean Le Pautre (1618-82).

Paintings by Simon Vouet can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

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