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Simon Vouet

(1590–1649, Paris)

The Holy Family. Etching. 18.7 x 20.9 cm. 1633. Robert-Dumesnil 1. Watermark: Bunch of grapes.

The Holy Family with a Bird is the only etching that Simon Vouet ever made, and as a consequence the print is of greatest rarity. Like Rubens, the ambitious and purposeful Vouet, whose multifaceted career reflects his great social and artistic successes, understood at an early stage the publicity value of reproductive prints for his art. As early as the 1620s the artist was independently publishing engravings after his works, which he had done by his pupils such as François Perrier, Pierre Mignard and Michel Dorigny. Vouet was the holder of a privilege allowing him to engage in these publishing activities and he went about them so energetically that by 1640 the total number of copperplates in his possession came to a hundred and forty (see Jacques Thuillier, "Vouet et la gravure", in the exhibition catalogue: Vouet, Paris 1990/91, pp. 61–63).

Like Rubens, Vouet dedicated himself to etching on only one occasion. It is probable that the artist was so much absorbed by important commissions that he simply lacked time to devote himself to etching, yet the Holy Family has a lightness and deftness of treatment worthy of an experienced etcher. Not least among the charms of this vividly observed scene is its complete naturalness. A youthful and virile-looking Joseph with an anxiously twittering little bird on his right hand reaches out to the lively Christ child, while the pretty young Madonna, clad in a flowing garment, holds the child protectively. The etching technique used is basic, efficient and visually very effective. A relatively simple system of cross-hatchings of varying density is used to model the figures, while the sky is indicated with horizontal parallel hatching. Vouet’s linework is bold and vigorous, although some details of the scene, such as the foliage of the tree in the background, are rendered with a greater dynamism of line and have a finer finish. Why, in view of the self-evident brilliance of this effort, did the artist decide to leave it at that? One plausible answer might be that Vouet created this etching as a manual for the young engravers in his studio. An artistically less successful reproductive engraving after the same composition, done by Pieter de Jode II in 1632, may have induced the ambitious Vouet to take matters into his own hands and create a model that lived up to his own artistic standards (see Sue Welsh Reed, French Prints from the Age of the Musketeers, Boston 1998, no. 98, pp. 185–187).

A superb, tonal impression with small margins. Minor ageing, otherwise in perfect condition.

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