Of similar dimensions to the present work, the Apolloni version was sold at Bonhams in 2001 as by a follower of Simon Vouet and has recently been published as a self-portrait by Virginia Vezzi (1596–1638).2 Virginia, daughter of the painter Pompeo Vezzi and active in Rome as a painter in her own right, married Simon Vouet in 1626 and the following year moved with him to Paris.3
On the question of whether the Apolloni painting – and by extension the present painting – is or is not a portrait of Virginia, opinions have differed. Both Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée and Barbara Brejon rule out the model as being Virginia, whose features are known from an engraving by Mellan of 1626, even taking into account a gap of several years.4 In their view, the veil, the colours of the garments – blue and red – are strong indications that the subject depicts the Virgin and is neither a portrait of Virginia, nor a self-portrait. Nor is the young woman wearing contemporary dress.5
The question of the attribution has been complicated by the presence of a long inscription on the Rennes drawing, dated 1636, which reads: ‘Virginia de Vezzo Sim.s Voüet Regis Christianissimj/ Pictoris conjux charissima clarissima Inuentrix & Pinxit/ Maria Meteseau Parisiensis Puella rarissima delineavi[t]/ Parisijs A.D. 1636. Et Renato Nobilj dono dedit.’6 Marie Métezeau (c. 1625[?]–1670), daughter of the architect Clément Métezeau, learnt to draw with Virginia Vezzi, as stated by André Félibien in his Entretiens: Virginia ‘montra à desseigner à quelques Demoiselles; entre autres, à une des filles du sieur Metheseau, Architecte du Roy’.7 The inscription prompted scholars to identify the Apolloni version as the prototype by Virginia, then copied by Marie. However Jacques Thuillier’s suggestion that the drawing might in fact be done after a drawn model by Virginia needs further consideration, for the Rennes drawing could in fact be based on a drawing or pastel, rather than on a painting.8
The appearance of this painting, which is of higher quality than the Apolloni version, has reopened the question of these works’ attributions, their subject and their interrelation. The only certain autograph and datable painting by Virginia Vezzi is her Judith with the head of Holofernes (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes; fig. 2),9 engraved by Claude Mellan in 1626.10 Comparison with the present painting shows that the two differ significantly in handling, even taking into account the gap in date between Virginia’s work in Rome in the mid-1620s and her putative production in Paris in the mid-1630s. It should also be noted that there is a lack of evidence for her activity as a painter during her years in the French capital between 1627 and 1638, the year she dies; and an absence of any record of paintings by her in the inventory taken of the contents of Vouet’s home after her death.11
Here, the subtle modelling of the veil and hair differs from Virginia’s more dense application of paint. Vouet’s handling has a lightness evident, for instance, in the rendering of the facial features in the present work. The stylization of the almond-shaped eyes, the outlined contours, the sinuous mouth, the round cheek and the dimpled chin are all features found on the face of the Nantes Judith and in the Rennes drawing but not to such a marked degree in this painting. This work is, on the other hand, closely comparable to a preparatory pastel study for a saint or veiled figure of the Virgin by Vouet, Woman wearing a white veil, at the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Datable to the 1630s – close in date to this painting – it highlights the similarities between the two (fig. 3).12
In the opinion of Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée and Barbara Brejon, authors of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings and drawings of Simon Vouet, the careful rendering of the modelling of the face, with numerous highlights on the bridge of the nose and on the forehead; the idealization of the face; and the softness of the colours, are closer to Simon Vouet than to Virginia Vezzi, even if one takes into account that a dozen years probably separates Virginia’s Judith and this bust-length study for the Virgin. They stop short of a full attribution to Vouet due to the way the eyes are painted, which in their view do not have the subtlety that is generally found in other works by the master. This leads them to draw two possible conclusions: either Vouet painted this devotional image – a field in which he was both prolific and successful – inspired by a work by Virginia; or Virginia, in her work, revisited a painted composition of his, translating it either into a painting or a pastel, later copied by Métezeau.
Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée and Barbara Brejon will include the painting in their forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Simon Vouet, as ‘attributed to Simon Vouet’. We are most grateful to all those consulted about this painting for their opinions.
1 Inv. 794.1.2691; black chalk and white heightening, 31.5 x 20.5 cm.; reproduced (before conservation) in Vouet, J. Thuillier (ed.), exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 6 November 1990 – 11 February 1991, p. 38; and (after conservation) in Dessiner pour créer, G. Kazerouni (ed.), exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, Ghent 2014, no. 51, p. 127.
2 London, Bonham’s, 11 July 2001, lot 122; oil on canvas, 60.3 x 50.2 cm.; there identified as a Portrait of Virginia da Vezzo wearing a red dress with a blue cloak and a cream shawl. Adeline Collange published the Apolloni painting as a presumed self-portrait of Virginia da Vezzo; A. Collange in Simon Vouet, les années italiennes 1613/1627, exh. cat., Nantes and Besançon, 2008–09, p. 25, fig. 5; Guillaume Kazerouni also attributes it to Virginia but hesitates between identifying it as a portrait of a woman or a self-portrait; G. Kazerouni in Rennes 2014, reproduced p. 126, fig. 1, as Portrait de femme (Autoportrait?).
3 On Virginia’s biography, see O. Michel, ‘Virginia Vezzi et l’entourage de Simon Vouet à Rome’, in S. Loire (ed.), Simon Vouet: Actes du colloque international, Grand Palais, 5–7 February 1991, pp. 123–33.
4 Inventaire du Fonds Français (IFF), Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Mellan, no. 205.
5 Compare her, for instance, with the attire of the young woman with similar facial features in a fragmentary painting by Vouet datable to about 1624–26 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Inv. 896A).
6 ‘Virginia de Vezzo, very dear and very distinguished wife of Simon Vouet, painter to our most Christian King, invented and depicted it. Marie Meteseau, very rare Parisian girl, drew it in Paris in 1636 and gave it to René le Noble [or the noble René?]’.
7 A. Félibien, Entretiens…, 1666–72, Paris 1972 (ed.), vol. IV, p. 88.
8 J. Thuillier in Vouet, J. Thiller (ed.), exh. cat., Paris 1990–91, pp. 35, 39, drawing reproduced on p. 38.
9 09.1.1.P.; oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm.
10 IFF, Mellan, no. 6.
11 We are grateful to Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée for this observation.
12 Inv. RF 54526, recto; pastel on beige paper, 26.7 x 20.6 cm.
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