Valentin de Boulogne was born near Boulogne (from whence he takes his last name) in Picardy. He came from a family of artists, but little else is known of his early life and training. Although he is not firmly documented in Rome until 1620, he most likely settled there in 1613 or 1614. He spent the rest of his short life in Rome, where he worked for prominent patrons, such as Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who obtained for him the commission of an altarpiece for Saint Peter's in competition with Valentin's compatriot Nicolas Poussin (the two altarpieces are now in the Vatican Museums). Like Poussin and many other artists from north of the Alps, Valentin lived and worked in the area around the Piazza del Popolo, inside the northern gateway to the city. There he fell under the influence of Caravaggio, two of whose masterpieces—The Martyrdom of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul—hung in the neighboring church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Although Caravaggio had died in 1610, his influence remained strong in Rome for the next two decades. Valentin was inspired by Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, the bold contrasts of light and shade that lent such visual drama to his works. Like Caravaggio, the young Frenchman was also drawn to the realistic depiction of his cast of characters, whether they were figures in a religious narrative or in scenes from contemporary low life.
The subject of Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice is inspired by one of Caravaggio's most famous paintings, The Cheats (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth). Like Caravaggio's prototype, Valentin's painting shows a group of rough mercenary soldiers, types who idled about Rome in the seventeenth century waiting for employment and who are identifiable by their armor, worn piecemeal, and assorted livery. They are gaming at a table in a tavern or a dark alley, where two roll dice while two others, center and left, play cards. As the more finely dressed youth in a feathered cap at the left examines his cards, a fifth figure in the shadows behind him signals to his accomplice in the center the hand of the young dupe. Valentin presented a raw and sinister scene of contemporary street life, which is at the same time a moral admonition of the incaution and profligacy of youth. The crowding of the figures into the picture space adds to the tension of the scene. The painting is indebted to Caravaggio not only for its subject, but also for the vivid sense of actuality with which Valentin invested his protagonists, for the strong chiaroscuro, and for the thinly and rapidly brushed execution. As was Caravaggio's practice, this work is painted alla prima, directly onto the prepared canvas without underdrawing or any other apparent preliminary work. This approach enhances the sense of spontaneity and the feeling that the spectator is catching a glimpse of illicit low life.
(Text by Philip Conisbee, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000.)
Borros de Gamançon, Périgeux, mid-1800s. private collection, near Bordeaux, by 1989; (sale, Drouot Richelieu, Paris, 11 December 1989, no. 58, as Les tricheurs); Jacques Chevreux, Paris; purchased 17 November 1998 through (Eric Turquin, Paris) by NGA.
- Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ': Saints and Sinners in Baroque Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, brochure, no. 9, repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Caravaggio and Hs Followers in Rome, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2011-2012, no. 20, repro.
- Mojana, Marina. Valentin de Boulogne. Milan, 1989: 58.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 180-181, no. 141, color repro.
- Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 88, 414-419, color repro.
- Mack, Rosamund E. "When Armor was Art: Exploring Images of Armor in the National Gallery of Art Collections." Washington, 1990: verso, color repro.