A Series of Paintings
According to Christian tradition, the Seven Acts of Mercy are taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” (ch. 25, v. 35-36). The duty to bury the dead was added by tradition to previous obligations. Bourdon illustrated them in a very personal manner in seven large paintings, matching each work to an episode of the Old Testament. He created varied and complex compositions, in which several figures formed a frieze in front of ancient architectural decors.
According to Guillet de Saint-Georges, Bourdon apparently painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for a connoisseur named Le Clerc. According to d’Argenville, the paintings were kept in Montpellier, then passed quickly to England where they were still known in the 19th century. They are now in the Ringling Museum of Art of Sarasota, Florida in disastrous condition.
From Paintings to Engravings
Noticeably at the same time, Bourdon himself transcribed his seven paintings to engravings. This group of etchings, which enjoyed a thriving posterity, is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces anda jewel of French printmaking. The large copper plates now at the Louvre Chalcographie, reveal a sure technique and delicacy of cutting that are signs of work of great quality.
The Seven Acts of Mercy can be dated to the end of the artist’s life; He was not very old (he died at the age of fifty-five) and enjoyed a good reputation coupled with high responsibilities. His work can be placed precisely between 1665 and 1671. His prints were dedicated to Colbert, whose title is indicated as the Marquis de Seignelay. Seignelay was raised to the rank of Marquisate in 1668, and in 1671 was given by Colbert to his son.
Sources of Inspiration
In conceiving this group, Bourdon certainly had in mind Poussin’s Seven Sacraments. He admired this master who was then at the height of his glory, and often drew inspiration from him. Although the first set of the Seven Sacraments was in the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo the Roman connoisseur, Bourdon must have seen the second series at the home of Chanteloup, created by Poussin in the 1640s. Bourdon’s version, imbued with his reformed faith and scriptural knowledge, would appear to have been intended as a response to Poussin’s very Catholic monumental depictions. Furthermore, for his paintings, Bourdon chose a 4 ft.x 5 ft. 8 in. (122 x 175 cm.) format which was very close to that of the Seven Sacraments (3 ft. 10 in. x 5 ft. 10 in. / 117 x 178 cm).
Our preparatory drawing for the print shows the Second Act of Mercy: Potare sitientes - Give drink to the thirsty. Bourdon has illustrated it with a passage from the Book of Kings (ch. 18): Obadiah, the administrator of King Ahab’s palace, “Fearing the Lord, while Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.” Here Obadiah can be seen standing on the right facing the prophets grouped in a variety of poses, in front of the grottos where they were in hiding. They are quenching their thirst, drinking from the pitchers brought by Obadiah. In the background, the terrible queen, Jezebel can be glimpsed, perched on her chariot.
Over a pen and ink sketch, the artist has highlighted the foreground with grey wash in contrasting shades, sometimes emphasized with hatching. The broad technique gives Obadiah and the prophets, draped in full clothing with sharp folds, a sculptural aspect. The dramatic intensity of the scene is reinforced by the gathering of figures with smoky eyes and disturbing faces.
Few drawings by Bourdon relating to the Seven Acts of Mercy are known and our work is more than rare. Jacques Thuillier listed a study Freeing Prisoners (location unknown), but also a sheet for Giving Drink, conserved in the drawing collection of the Musée des Beaux-arts of Nancy. This pen and ink drawing groups together fourteen sketches of isolated figures relating to the composition.
France, private collection
J. THUILLIER, Sébastien Bourdon. 1616 – 1671. Catalogue Critique et Chronologique de l’Oeuvre Complet, Paris: RMN, 2000
G. FOWLE, The Biblical Paintings of Sébastien Bourdon, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1970
A.TAPIE, C. JOUBERT, L’Allégorie dans la Peinture: la Représentation de la Charité au XVIIe siècle, exhibition catalogue, Caen: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1986, n°35-41