Simon Vouet was born in 1590 in Paris, the son of the minor painter Laurent Vouet (born c. 1553-1558). Evidently precocious, at age fourteen he was sent to England to execute a portrait of a "Lady of quality." In 1611, he traveled in the retinue of the French ambassador to Constantinople to make a portrait of an unknown gentleman. The next year he was in Venice, and in 1614, supported by a pension from Louis XIII, he began a fourteen-year sojourn in Rome.
Italy offered the young Vouet, already distinguished as a portraitist, a wealth of artistic stimulation as well as the sophisticated patronage of the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) and the noble Orsini, Sacchetti, Giustiniani, Barberini, and Doria families. Vouet absorbed the lessons of the most recent developments of Italian painting, notably by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Caravaggio (1571-1610). In addition to portraits, his early works in Rome included the occasional genre scene like The Fortune Teller (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada), in which the subject, format, and chiaroscuro were inspired by Caravaggio and Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622). Vouet's vigor and dynamism, penchant for glowing colors and decorative effects of drapery, sensuous surfaces of creamy textured paint and swift brushwork had already emerged in the teens as hallmarks of a personal style. He also executed important paintings for churches, including the Birth of the Virgin (Rome, San Francesco a Ripa). In 1621 he worked in Genoa for about a year, touring the cities of northern Italy on his return trip. Back in Rome, he built up his workshop to meet the demands of numerous commissions, including an altarpiece of the Circumcision for Sant' Angelo a Segno in Naples, 1622, and the decoration of the Capella Alaleoni in San Lorenzo a Lucina, 1624. The election of Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII, whose portrait he painted (lost, but known from an engraving by Claude Mellan), won Vouet the ultimate honor of an altarpiece commission for the new basilica of St. Peter's, the Adoration of the Cross with Saints Francis, Anthony of Padua and John Chrysostum (destroyed). In the same year, Vouet was elected director of the artists' association in Rome, the Accademia di San Luca. In 1627 he returned to Paris, called back to France by Louis XIII.
Vouet was named First Painter to the King, lodged in the Louvre, and flooded with major commissions, a great many of which have been destroyed, lost, or dismantled and dispersed. For the queen mother, Marie de' Medici, Vouet worked on the decoration of the Luxembourg Palace (lost), and later he was employed by Anne of Austria. For the king, he made tapestry cartoons, drew pastel portraits of the court, and contributed to the decoration of royal residences. He worked at Fontainebleau and extensively at the king's favorite residence, the Château Neuf de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where he painted an altarpiece, Trinity with the Virgin (destroyed) for the old chapel. Cardinal Richelieu, a prodigious patron, engaged Vouet's services in 1632 to contribute to the Gallery of Illustrious Men in the Palais Cardinal and to decorate his residences outside Paris (mostly destroyed). Vouet produced numerous altarpieces for Parisian churches, such as the Martyrdom of Saint Eustace, c. 1634 (part in Paris, Saint-Eustache, and part in Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts). Vouet was perpetually employed in the townhouses and country châteaux of the ministry, the aristocracy, and other men of wealth. Little survives from such ambitious projects as the fourteen mythologies for the gallery ceiling in the Château de Chilly of the maréchal d'effiat, sûrintendent des finances, the nymphaeum at the Château de Wideville, or The Story of Ulysses for the gallery of the Hôtel de Bullion.
Engravings by Michel Dorigny (1616-1665) record Vouet's extensive cycle of 1636 for the chapel of the Chancellor Pierre Séguier's Paris hôtel, in which he was assisted by Pierre Mignard (1612-1695) and Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Members of his extended family--as well as many able pupils and collaborators, including Jacques Sarrazin (1592-1660), Michel Corneille (1642-1708), François Perrier (c. 1594-1649), Charles Poërson (1609-1667), Charles Alphonse Dufresnoy (1611-1668), and Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655)--entered his large, efficient studio. Vouet disseminated his work through engravings, which now provide a record of the vast amount that has been destroyed.
Vouet was the dominant figure in French painting in the 1630s and into the early 1640s. He developed a novel palette of high-key colors and daring juxtapositions of hue, especially lemon yellow and gold, chilly hues, and hot oranges. He devised a distinctive female type, ample and mild with delicate, even features and fine pointed noses. His mastery of drawing the human figure enabled him to render difficult foreshortenings seemingly without effort. With its indeterminate perspective and spatial flexibility, Vouet's mode was perfectly adapted for the kind of interior he was repeatedly called upon to decorate, in which individual panels and canvases were incorporated into an ornamental enframement. Like many of Vouet's altarpieces of this period, The Presentation in the Temple (Paris, Musée du Louvre) of c. 1640-1641 is packed with anecdotal detail and lively figures caught in mid-action, set before an elaborate, monumental architectural backdrop.
Though Vouet was productive and sought after by patrons until his health failed in 1648, the arrival of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) in Paris late in 1640 marked a change. Poussin was named First Painter to the King, and if his short sojourn was not an unqualified success, his severe classicism made a swift and profound impact on Parisian art. Next to Poussin's rigorous perspective, controlled planar composition, precise spatial organization, and intense and varied human expression, Vouet's decorative brilliance, facility, and mellow lyricism began to be seen as shallow and undisciplined. Vouet was, in effect, displaced, as the younger generation who set up Poussin as a new ideal fought to establish the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture and to articulate an art theory. Vouet opposed the founding of the Académie. Yet his career flourished uncompromised in the 1640s, and if the new generation declared Poussin the new paragon, Vouet's chromatic harmonies, tempered light, graceful figures, and decorative acumen remained deeply entrenched in Parisian visual culture.
[Gail Feigenbaum, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the Natonal Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 454-455.]
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: 454-455.