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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Simon Vouet

Religious scenes, especially crucifixions, became not just an art commodity
for churches in the 17th-century, but in the homes of the devout as well.
Fine art today (that is, artist-created items which hang on a wall or stand in a corner) is thought of, and treated as, a luxury item. That hasn't always been the case, however. One of the reasons we have such a great number of art antiquities still with us today is that in the past, there was such a relatively great number of working artists (as compared to the size of the general population) and that art was considered a commodity, not quite as important as food, clothing, and shelter, but not far behind. In the days before architectural engineering permitted large windows and fewer interior walls (basically before the 20th-century), virtually all structures had vast expanses of empty, naked, often ugly, blank walls. Paintings and framed etchings (in the case of homeowners of modest means) served the purpose of, first of all covering these vast expanses, and secondly, drawing attention to themselves and away from other wall not so gifted with such frame beauty. Not only do we have fewer blank walls today, but photography and modern printing technology have become the commodities largely replacing etched prints and paintings. Thus we have fewer artists per capita and an elevated status (and cost) of artist-created art. In the distant past, such art commodities were exported like wine, olive oil, grains, wool, and other basic human needs. In fact, in a manner of speaking, artists themselves were exported (or exported themselves) in migrating from one major city to another in search of a more lucrative market. One such artist (one of many, of course) was the French painter, Simon Vouet.

Paintings and etchings (often portraits), not only covered the cracks in the
plaster, but also served to distract attention from those they did not cover. 
Simon Vouet was born in 1590, and grew up in Paris, the son of the painter, Laurent Vouet, who taught him the rudiments of art. Simon's brother, Aubin Vouet, and his grandson, Ludovico Dorigny, were also painters. Simon Vouet began his painting career near the top of his profession as a portrait painter (there were far more portraits painted back then than since the advent of photography). And, as his early self-portraits (above, left and right) attest, he was very good at what he did. The fresh-faced image (above, right) was painted when he was just twenty-five, shortly after he joined the entourage of the French ambassador to Constantinople (portraits were often given as gifts by diplomats at the time). From there he traveled to Venice and then on to Rome around 1614.

St. Jerome and the Angel, 1625, Simon Vouet, oozing Caravaggio from every stroke. Had Vouet arranged the angel to the right side, in the strong light,
this work might have been mistaken for that of the Italian rapscallion.
In Rome, Vouet spent the next thirteen years soaking up everything there was to know about the prevailing Mannerist style of painting and especially the newer Baroque style growing in popularity at the time. He was such a "quick study"--an academic and intellectual "sponge"--his work seems almost more Italian than some of that actually painted by Italians at the time. He especially had a good grip on the painting style and lighting effects of Caravaggio, as well as the colors of Paolo Veronese, and the foreshortened perspective of Carracci, Guercino, Lanfranco and Guido Reni. Vouet's immense success in Rome led to his election as president of the Accademia di San Luca in 1624. It also landed him a wife in 1626, as he married the model for many of his Madonnas.

David with the Head of Goliath,
1620-22, Simon Vouet
In 1627, Simon Vouet hastily departed Rome to return to Paris. When the king of France (Louis XIII) calls you home, you take the first boat back to see what he wants. What he wanted was for Vouet to bring home to France the Baroque style of painting (though the actual term had not been invented yet). Vouet's new style (whatever word they used to describe it) was distinctly Italian. He adapted this style to the grand decorative schemes of the era of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu to become the "Premier peintre du Roi". The king commissioned portraits, tapestry cartoons, and paintings from him for the Louvre Palace, the Palace of Luxembourg and the Château de Saint Germaine en Laye. In 1632, he worked for Richelieu at the Palais Royal and the Château de Malmaison. In fact, just about every royal enclosure in Paris today bears evidence of his work.
Sleeping Venus, 1630-40, Simon Vouet
Vouet became the fresh, dominating force in French painting, producing numerous altarpieces and allegorical decorations for private patrons. Vouet's sizeable workshop produced a whole school of French painters for the following generation. Through Vouet, French Baroque painting retained a classicizing restraint, although Vouet was not as classical as his contemporaries, Nicolas Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne. His most influential pupil was Charles le Brun, who organized all the interior decorative painting at Versailles and dictated the official style at the court of Louis XIV. Ironically, le Brun jealously excluded Vouet from the Académie Royale in 1648 even though this important stylistic "importer" was responsible, far more than any other single artist, for shifting the art world center of gravity during the 17th-century from Rome to Paris, where it was to remain for some three hundred years.

The Brazen Serpent, Simon Vouet


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