With the exception of Valentin de Boulogne's baptismal record, bearing a disputed date of either 1591 or 1594, the artist's early life is undocumented. The son of a painter and stained glass worker, Valentin likely received his first training with his father in his native Coulommiers, near Paris. He may subsequently have studied with an artist in Paris or in Fontainebleau. It is not known when he departed for Italy, where he resided the remainder of his short life. Joachim von Sandrart remarked (1675) that Valentin reached Rome before Simon Vouet (1590-1649), who arrived around 1614. A 1611 document mentioning a "Valentino Francese" might suggest that Sandrart is indeed correct, but the subsequent nine-year lapse in documentation of the French artist leaves some doubt whether this is the case. He is first mentioned in Rome in 1620, when he was included in the census. Shortly after this date, he is noted in the company of the Flemish and Dutch artists, among whom were Cornelis van Poelenburgh (1586-1667) and the Caravaggesque Dirck van Baburen (c. 1590-1624), who had formed the Bentvueghels ("birds of a feather") to counter the academic approach to artistic instruction of the Accademia di San Luca. Upon joining the Bentvueghels, Valentin received the nickname "Innamorato," though he never married, preferring to live alone. If remaining somewhat isolated from Italian artists in these years, Valentin nevertheless actively formed his personal manner upon the example of Caravaggio (1571-1610) and of his follower Bartolomeo Manfredi (c. 1587-1620/1621). The type of genre subjects--tavern scenes featuring soldiers, young men, and gypsies--which first appeared in the early works of Caravaggio, and which were then reinterpreted with dramatic chiaroscuro and popularized by Manfredi, held special appeal for Valentin. None of the works from his early Roman years is documented, but it is believed he produced his Card Sharps (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen), The Fortune Teller (Toledo Museum of Art), and Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (The Cheats) (NGA 1998.104.1), probably in this order, between 1615 and 1620. Biblical subjects painted in the same years, such as The Crowning of Thorns (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), were also interpreted in this low-life idiom, with protagonists and bystanders resembling the cast of characters in his genre paintings.
The closer ties Valentin began to forge with other French artists after 1620 yielded an invitation by Vouet, Principe of the Accademia di San Luca, to organize with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665,) the festival of the academy's patron saint in 1626. The names of Valentin and Poussin would again be linked two years later, and the styles of the two French artists inevitably compared, when Cardinal Francesco Barberini commissioned each to paint altarpieces for neighboring altars in St. Peter's, Valentin's Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian and Poussin's Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus (both Vatican City, Vatican Museums). The Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian was the most important of Valentin's few official public commissions, but his private commissions were numerous, especially from the ruling Barberini family and members of their circle. The Four Ages of Man (London, National Gallery), c. 1627-1630, one of several other works commissioned by Barberini, demonstrates Valentin's talent for painting allegorical subjects in a naturalistic key.
Valentin seems to have moved increasingly from genre paintings to Biblical subjects during the third decade of the century. He painted many half- or three-quarter-length figures of saints or prophets as well as the more occasional narrative scenes including Christ Expelling the Merchants from the Temple (St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum) and The Judgment of Solomon (Paris, Musée du Louvre), both c. 1626. But Valentin never entirely left off producing genre paintings, as attested by hisFortune Teller and Concert with Eight Figures (both Paris, Musée du Louvre), both c. 1628, and what is thought to be his very last painting, the Gathering with a Fortune Teller (Vienna, Liechtenstein Collection). Only one vivid anecdote pertaining to Valentin has come down to us, one which significantly has linked his name forevermore with his low-life tavern scenes. Recounting the artist's early death in 1632, Giovanni Baglione wrote that Valentin passed a night in a tavern during the heat of the summer. The great quantity of tobacco and excess of wine he consumed produced within him an overwhelming internal heat. On passing the Fontana del Babuino, Valentin leaped in, hoping to cool himself down. The cold water only consolidated the heat and he contracted a terrible fever, from which he died in a few days. Valentin left no money to cover the costs of an honorable funeral, but he was laid to rest at the expense of the great encyclopedic collector and member of Cardinal Francesco Barberini's household, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), whose features Valentin recorded in a now lost portrait.
[Philip Conisbee and Frances Gage, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collection of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 413-414.]
Brejon de Lavergnée, Arnauld, and Jean Pierre Cuzin. Valentin et les caravagesques français. Exh. cat. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1974.
Mojana, Marina. Valentin de Boulogne. Milan, 1989.
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: 413-414.