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Sébastien Bourdon was born in 1616 in Montpellier, the son of the minor painter Marin Bourdon, who was a Protestant. Six or seven years later, Sébastien was sent to Paris to stay with an uncle, probably to escape the hostilities of the Thirty Years' War: the Protestant stronghold of Montpellier was laid siege by Louis XIII in 1623. He was apprenticed to a painter by the name of Barthélemy (probably Jean Barthélemy) for seven years, after which he worked briefly in Bordeaux. His biographer Guillet de Saint-Georges reports that Bourdon joined the army, only to be released from his enlistment by an officer who recognized his abilities as an artist.
By 1634 Bourdon was in Rome, where he would remain until 1637. There he was closely associated with the Netherlandish genre painters the Bamboccianti, and especially with Pieter van Laer (c. 1592-1642) and Jan Miel (1599-1663), whose paintings inspired Bourdon to produce works such as The Lime Kiln (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). Yet Bourdon's paintings transcend their sources. Even his low-life images of ragtag encampments were infused with elegance and poetry through his refined execution, firm compositional structure, and nuanced treatment of light and color. Bourdon's ability to imitate and assimilate the pictorial styles of other painters was not limited to the Bamboccianti. He also produced copies and pastiches of works by Benedetto Castiglione (c. 1610-1663 / 1665), Claude Lorrain (1604 / 1605-1682, cats. 19-22), and his friend Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). Early sources suggest that some of these were passed off as originals.
Stopping en route in Venice, Bourdon returned to Paris where he produced small-scale depictions of gypsies, smokers, card players, and the like. He soon began painting animated Biblical narratives that recall the earthiness of Castiglione and a Venetian freedom of handling. Bourdon was granted lodgings in the Louvre in 1641. Two years later he received from the goldsmiths' guild the prestigious commission to paint The Crucifixion of Saint Peter for Notre Dame (in situ). This commission was one of an annual series by the Parisian guild, known as "Mays." This large, vigorous composition of pitched diagonals signals a new direction for the artist. In the 1640s Bourdon began to absorb the lesson of Nicolas Poussin's (1594-1665) rigorous classicism, which was becoming an increasingly authoritative force in Parisian art. Bourdon was one of twelve founding members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1648.
Bourdon again fled political unrest in 1652, and at the behest of Queen Christina of Sweden, who appointed him her First Painter, he left for Stockholm. There he was commissioned to design the funerary decorations for King Gustavus Adolphus, but the mausoleum was never realized, and Bourdon's stay in Sweden was cut short by Christina's abdication in 1654. He portrayed Queen Christina at least three times, including an equestrian portrait in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. He seems to have been primarily engaged in painting court portraits, such as that of Countess Ebba Sparre in the National Gallery of Art (1952.5.34). Bourdon's emerging inclination to thaw the cool, formal deportment typical of the French portrait tradition became increasingly evident in his later work in France, and quintessentially in The Man with Black Ribbons of c. 1657 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre).
Bourdon was enthusiastically received upon his return to Paris in 1654, and in 1655 he was named recteur of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. For the high altar of the cathedral in his birthplace of Montpellier, Bourdon executed The Fall of Simon Magus (in situ) in 1657. During the same sojourn, he produced the series of The Seven Acts of Mercy (Sarasota, Ringling Museum of Art), which he later engraved. However, hostility on the part of rival local artists prompted him to return to Paris the next year.
Following Bourdon's return from Stockholm, Poussin's classicism would rein in the volatile temperament that had led him to experiment with a range of styles. History paintings in which landscape assumed ever greater prominence were now Bourdon's preferred mode of expression. The self-conscious theoretical program of the Académie royale, which stressed the teaching of linear and aerial perspective and analysis of color and light-subjects upon which Bourdon himself lectured-disciplined the landscapes of the late 1650s and 1660s. Yet Bourdon's landscapes remained untainted by pedantry. The decoration in 1663 of the gallery of the Hôtel de Bretonvilliers (destroyed) with scenes of the story of Phaeton was a major undertaking. Surviving preparatory drawings and engravings record a scheme permeated by Poussin's mature classicism. A paucity of dated works has made it difficult to chart Bourdon's chronology after his return from Sweden, when he seems to have moved to an ever more rigorous classicism. Bourdon died in 1671 just as he was about to commence work on his only royal commission, the ceiling of the king's bedroom in the palace of the Tuileries. He was fifty-five years old, married twice, and father of sixteen children.
Bourdon was criticized by some of his contemporaries and later by modern writers for a failure to develop and maintain a distinct personal style, but his brilliant virtuosity and eclectic inspiration were at the same time sources of strength at a moment when Poussin cast a strong shadow over history painters in France. Effortlessly the master of Italian, Netherlandish, and French manners, Bourdon was never a tepid imitator of his sources. With his delicacy of execution and dazzling color harmonies, his sheer skill and increasingly analytic approach to picture construction, he was an exemplar of mid-century Parisian painting at its finest.
[Gail Feigenbaum, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 39.]