FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an exquisite portrait of the holy family painted by a Frenchman in Italy. Simon Vouet's The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist is currently on view at the Legion of Honor.
Simon Vouet may be remembered as much for his exquisite artistry as for introducing the Italian baroque style of painting to France. Recognized first as a portraitist, Vouet gradually acquired a circle of influential patrons who provided commissions to decorate palaces and churches in classical grandeur.
By 1614, Vouet had arrived in Rome with a pension from the French crown. While in Italy, Vouet made the most of his time by absorbing the lessons of Caravaggio and learning from the Northern artists in Rome and contemporary Roman painters, all of whom were articulating and defining the baroque style. Characterized by great drama, deeply rich color, and intense contrast, baroque art emphasized action and emotion over the meditative rationality exemplified by Renaissance art.
This important painting is believed to have been executed in Rome in 1626, just prior to Vouet's return to Paris. Although the subject had been treated often, Vouet renewed its timeless appeal with sensitive coloring, shimmering effects of light on the tree branches and the children’s hair, and the happy, pensive expression of the Virgin Mary. The pyramidal structure and quiet charm of this devotional image reflects the influences of Vouet’s Italian sojourn. Shortly after Vouet completed the painting, it entered into the Barberini family collection.
In response to a summons from King Louis XIII, Vouet returned in 1627 to Paris, where he began to develop a new pictorial language. Vouet lightened his palette, created glorious color harmonie,s and filled his rhythmic compositions with beautiful, sensuous figures. He became established as the leading painter of his generation and was soon made the peintre du roi (first painter to the king). He expanded his influence through teaching, and his large workshop shaped the oeuvre of many younger artists.
The Fine Arts Museums received this painting from Mildred Anna Williams, the second wife of Henry K. S. Williams, a wholesale lumber magnate. Together, the Williamses traveled the world twice over, including a notable road trip through North Africa. Their extensive collection of art arose out of a desire to fill their home with beautiful things and included 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, 18th-century English masters, bronzes, tapestries, statuary, and period furniture.
In 1929, their old friend Alma Spreckels convinced the couple to deed their art collection to the Legion of Honor, with the provision that it remain in their Paris home until their deaths. After Mrs. Williams died, just before the onset of the Second World War, Mr. Williams urged the Legion of Honor to extract the collection from Europe. The entirety of the Williamses' art was hastily packed, spirited away to Marseilles, and ultimately placed on an American vessel only weeks before Paris fell to the Germans.
The Mildred Anna Williams Collection includes more than 100 paintings and is today one of the prizes of the Museums.