A painter dear to Louis XIV
Hovering 6 meters high in the king’s bedroom at Versailles, this Saint Matthew normally escapes the crowds of visitors. Thanks to the restoration of this ceremonial room, here is the evangelist descended among us for a few months, in an exhibition bringing together the masterpieces that surrounded the rest of the monarch.
It was in 1684 that Louis XIV had this “salon where the King dresses” fitted out before installing his bedroom there in 1701. Facing east, it offered an ideal parallel between sunrise and of the sovereign before his courtiers. The living room was decorated with fifteen paintings, including six works by Valentin de Boulogne (out of the eleven present in the royal collection). This shows how dear this artist, who spent his entire brief career in Rome, was to Louis XIV. He was the only Frenchman, along with Nicolas Poussin, retained in 1677 in the engraved series of masterpieces in the King’s Cabinet. The sovereign, by thus honoring Valentin in his room, “also affirmed in his own way the place taken by the French in the concert of European art”, notes Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, in Valentin de Boulogne, catalog of the 2017 Louvre exhibition (dir. Annick Lemoine and Keith Christiansen).
A series of four evangelists
At Versailles, Saint Matthew sits enthroned alongside Saint John, Saint Luke and Saint Mark, each accompanied by his attribute, the eagle, the ox and the lion, in accordance with the vision of Ezekiel (1, 4-13). This series, painted by Valentin, ten years after his arrival in Rome, for an unidentified sponsor, was bought by the Parisian financier François Oursel and, after his death, by Louis XIV.
His monumental figures are typical of the artist’s maturity, then in his thirties. Giving each evangelist a dominant color, he also declines through them the different ages of life. The greenness of the young Saint John, the painter’s probable self-portrait, contrasts with the old age of Saint Matthew, the first of the Evangelists according to tradition, here adorned with a fiery red, like the blood of his martyrdom.
To paint this figure, Valentin was inspired by a Roman model that can be found in several of his paintings, such as The Dream of Saint Joseph. There is no idealization in this old man with a weathered and wrinkled face, dirty nails, greasy hair. Marked by the imprint left in Rome by Caravaggio, our painter converted very early to Italian naturalism, favoring figures from the people and magnifying them with plays of chiaroscuro. Doesn’t this angel, with her round face and her messy locks, look like a street urchin? Valentin plays with the contrast between this youthful messenger, with his gaze drawn upwards from which the light falls, a source of divine inspiration, and his hoary, tired companion, lost in his thoughts.
Brushed with a soft brush, the books abandoned on the table, the large sheet covered with indecipherable writing and the silky iridescence of the angel’s wing are enchanting. “Valentin alternates precise details and a looser way, to render the folds of the coat for example”, observes Béatrice Sarrazin, the curator of the exhibition. He also structures his composition around powerful diagonals. One of them follows the arm of the dozing saint, while another rises, in the opposite direction, along the arm of the angel. At their intersection, a cross forms, a discreet reminder of the passion of Christ. In the tender union of these two hands, that of the aged disciple and that of the divine envoy, Valentin is still inspired by Caravaggio. Not from his Saint Matthew and the angel painted for the Saint-Louis-des-Français church in Rome, but from his first painting of the evangelist, who unfortunately disappeared in Berlin in the bombings of 1945. Known by a black photograph and white, the work already intertwined the arms of the saint and the angel, who even tenderly guided the pen of the evangelist. Valentin gives it a more serious interpretation, quite characteristic of his art. At home, the angel wears a worried expression, while his hand tries to hold open a page of the Gospel, which threatens to close. As if he sensed that his companion’s time is running out.