Ahead of the sale of three previously unpublished Simon Vouet portraits for King Louis XIII of France, specialist Hélène Rihal tells the story of the artist‘s place at court
In 1627 the 26-year-old King Louis XIII (1601-1643) of France sent a summons for Simon Vouet (1590-1649), the French artist who had risen to prominence in Rome as an accomplished follower of Caravaggio. Vouet had become president of the Accademia di San Luca, and won Papal commissions for Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The monarch, who had come to the throne just before his ninth birthday, wanted the best artists in Europe working in his court. He also wanted to learn how to be an artist himself.
In return for his personal tutelage, and injecting what one art historian described as the ‘painfully provincial’ art of France at the time with a shot of Baroque extravagance, Vouet was offered a deal by Louis that he couldn’t refuse: a sizeable studio and the title of ‘Premier peintre du Roi’.
The artist duly returned to Paris, where he began work on commissions of stately oil portraits and tapestry cartoons for palaces and châteaux in and around the city.
Vouet also began sketching a series of intimate pastel portraits of the king’s courtiers and friends. He made these drawings in front of the king because, according to the contemporary chronicler André Félibien, Louis ‘took pleasure in seeing him make them’.
‘It is easy to imagine Louis inquisitively watching Vouet over his shoulder, as the artist sketched away in his court,’ suggests Christie’s Old Master drawings specialist Hélène Rihal. ‘Maybe Louis even studied alongside him, pastel in hand.’
On 27 May three previously unknown pastel portraits, made by Vouet during the years in which he taught the king how to draw, come to auction at Christie’s in Paris.
The first, of an anonymous sitter cloaked in black (above), might be evidence for a lesson in the French tradition of drawing ‘trois crayon’ — using red, black and white as the main colours on the paper — argues Rihal.
The second, below, which is dated to 1634, is a brilliant study of a 75-year-old man, capturing his enquiring demeanour, piercing eyes and scraped-back hair.
The third portrait names the sitter: Cardinal Jules Mazarin, one of the most important figures in Louis XIII’s court. The picture is dominated by his sumptuous red robes, the folds of which Vouet gently highlighted with his white chalk stick.
The three portraits offered in Paris have been in the same family since the end of the 18th century, and have never previously been published or presented at auction. ‘They’re a fascinating find,’ says Rihal.
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Back in 1982 the art historian Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée announced the discovery of around 30 similar pastel portraits that had been made by Vouet while he mentored Louis XIII. These works can now be found in the Louvre, the Uffizi, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And what of Louis’s own talents as an artist? Evidence survives that suggests the monarch was a fastidious student. A portrait made by the king which is now housed in the Louvre (above), shows similarities with how Vouet composed, drew and coloured his works.
Rihal’s appraisal is generous: ‘The result, I would say, is not too bad for a king!’