Philippe de Champaigne trained first in his native Brussels with Jean Bouillon and the portraitist Michel de Bordeau before entering the studio of the landscape painter Jacques Fouquieres in 1620. He followed Fouquieres to Paris in 1621, working in the studio of Georges Lallemant (1580-1636), a painter of the late Fontainebleau school.
Under the supervision of Nicolas Duchesne (d. 1628) in 1625, Champaigne collaborated with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) on decorations for the Luxembourg Palace, the residence of the queen mother, Marie de' Medici (1573-1642). Champaigne married Duchesne's daughter Charlotte after returning to Brussels in 1627 and later succeeded Duchesne as painter to the queen mother, for whom he decorated the church of the Carmelite convent on the rue St. Jacques. In the early 1630s, Champaigne began to paint for Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who would become one of his most avid patrons, in the Galerie des Hommes Illustres in the Palais Cardinal, where he worked alongside Simon Vouet (1590-1649). He also began to work for Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643), whom he portrayed in 1635 crowned by Victory against the background of La Rochelle, where the Protestants had been defeated a few years before (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Two years later the king commissioned him to paint the Vow of Louis XIII for the high altar of Nôtre Dame (Caen, Musée des Beaux-Arts). He was soon established among the foremost painters in Paris, and the deaths of his great patrons Richelieu in 1642 and Louis XIII the year after did not impede his success.
Champaigne's majestic full-length portrait of Richelieu, of 1635-1640 (London, National Gallery), reveals his distinctive fusion of Flemish and French traditions. He had learned from the example of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) how to handle brilliant color and paint dazzling highlights, and the cardinal's hauteur recalls Anthony van Dyck's (1599-1641) Genoese portraits. From the outset Champaigne was distinctive for his intense observation of material detail, such as the nicks and veins in building stones in his architectural settings or the textures of fabrics. He was no less attuned to the meticulous surface modeling and complex shifts of smoothly applied color to depict with precision the hands and features of his figures. An invariable dignity and sense of composure characterize both his portraits and his history paintings, which became increasingly clear in design and concentrated in contained emotion.
Under the regency of Anne of Austria (1601-1666) in the 1640s and 1650s, Champaigne was employed for projects at the Palais Royal, and at the monastery and church of the Val-de-Grâce, on which he worked intermittently until 1660. His career flourished. In 1648 he was commissioned to paint the official group portrait of the mayor and aldermen, The Echevins of the City of Paris (Paris, Musée du Louvre). He continued to portray men of influence and power such as Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) and Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661). Although his output was sufficiently diverse to encompass the flushed and lively Montmort Children, in which Champaigne's often overlooked skill in landscape is also in evidence, and the Unknown Man (Paris, Musée du Louvre), a severe trompe l'oeil stone window framing the half-length sitter, naturalism was prominent throughout.
During the 1640s Champaigne began a lifelong connection with the Jansenists at the Convent of Port-Royal. Among his many portraits associated with the severe Catholic order is the Ex-Voto of 1662 (Paris, Musée du Louvre), depicting the miraculous cure of his daughter, a nun at the convent, through the intercession of the Prioress Mother Agnès Arnauld. The two nuns, one on her sick bed, the other kneeling in prayer, are presented in a perfectly calibrated geometric relation, isolated in a bare stone cell, plain and solid figures encased in the carved folds of their white habits, their faces content and sincere. An Ecce Homo for Port-Royal (Musée National des Granges de Port-Royal), in which the suffering Christ is rendered with the precision and immediacy of a contemporary portrait, further indicates the depth of Jansenist spirituality in Champaigne's work.
Under Louis XIV Champaigne continued to be sought after for royal projects, including the decoration of the dauphin's apartments in the palace of the Tuileries. During this period he also seems to have entrusted considerable portions of his larger commissions to his studio, and particularly to his gifted nephew Jean- Baptiste de Champaigne (1631-1681), who helped him complete the decorations at the refectory of the Val-de-Grâce and at the royal château of Vincennes. In his last years he reserved his efforts for portraits of his family and friends as well as for religious subjects.
Even though he was consistently and prolifically employed as a history painter for the entire length of his long career, Champaigne is best remembered as a portrait painter. This modern prejudice is attributable to the vivid presence his austere presentation and penetrating naturalism lends to his sitters. But Champaigne was one of the greatest religious history painters of the seventeenth century. His precision, objectivity, intelligibility, and clarity were constant and enduring in all genres, even his rare still lifes and landscapes.
[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: 53.]
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: 53.