Sébastien Bourdon, ‘The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the infant Saint John the Baptist’, Christie's Old Masters

Born into a Protestant family in Montpellier, Bourdon had begun his career in Rome as a painter of bambochades in the style of contemporary Dutch-Italianate painters, such as Pieter van Laer and Jan Miel. He does not seem to have encountered Poussin's art in Rome and was largely insensible to its influence until the 1640s, some years after he had left Rome for Paris. Bourdon was invited to Stockholm to assume the duties of court painter to Queen Christina in 1652, returning to France two years later, and his subsequent exposure to Poussin's works, which were now to be seen in many Parisian picture collections, profoundly affected him and inspired him to reconceive his style. Henceforth, he specialized in New Testament and classical History subjects (and occasional landscapes) rendered in geometric compositions of clearly defined planes, executed in bright, clear colors.

The exquisite Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the infant Saint John the Baptist is one of many small-scale depictions of the Holy Family that Bourdon made in the later part of his career for sophisticated connoisseurs and amateurs. The richly ornamented composition is tightly and rhythmically conceived, its five figures tightly but gracefully intertwined in a veritably pyramidal block of forms. Its debt to the Holy Family compositions of Raphael is obvious, but Bourdon's homage to the Master of Urbino is delicate and poetic. Even more apparent is Bourdon's dependence on the model of Poussin, especially the nearly contemporaneous Holy Family on the Steps (1648; Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. 1981.18), a masterpiece by Poussin of arresting geometric, spatial and psychological unity, as well as profound human feeling. In its clear, primary colors, tender interplay of gestures, and impressively architectonic landscape, Bourdon's Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the infant Saint John better embodies the lessons of Poussin's pure and idealized paintings of the late 1640s and 1650s than the works of any of his contemporaries.

It should come as no surprise that the first known owner of Bourdon's painting, George Watson Taylor (d. 1823), attributed it to Poussin himself, a misidentification that stayed with it until well into the twentieth century. However, the painting is a very close variation on a composition by Bourdon that was engraved twice in the seventeenth century, by Gilles Rousselet (1610-1686) and Pierre van Schuppen (see Thuillier, op. cit.). The latter print, inscribed 'Bourdon Pinxit', is dated '1670', although in style and handling the present painting seems likely to have been executed at the end of the 1650s.

(Possibly) J. Thuillier, Sébastien Bourdon 1616-1671, Paris, 2000, p. 323, no. 185, as 'Disparu'.


George Watson Taylor, by whom sold to Mr. Webb for £400, as 'Poussin' (according to a label on the reverse).

About Sébastien Bourdon

French, 1616-1671, Montpellier, France, based in Paris, France

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