· Guy et Christiane de Aldecoa Collection, Paris.
O my God, You have wounded me with love
And the wound still vibrates
O my God, you have wounded me with love
Paul Verlaine, Sagesse, II, 1.
Born and undoubtedly trained in French Lorraine, Charles Poerson settled in Paris probably in flight from the ravages and uncertitudes of the Thirty Years War. In 1636, he was already perfectly integrated into the capital’s artistic circles: he acted as a witness that year to the marriage of Michel Corneille, whom he had encountered in Simon Vouet’s studio where both artists were employed. About two years later, Poerson freed himself from the master in order to found his own studio. Flooded with commissions, among which the most prestigious one was a May for the metalsmiths’ guild in 1642, he was received as a master in the Parisian guild and became an academician in 1651.
Open to his colleagues’ experiences, sensitive to stylistic inflections that had brought early 17th century French art from the late Mannerism of George Lallement to Charles Le Brun’s classicism, via Vouet’s “grand genre” and Eustache Le Sueur’s Atticism, Poerson never abandoned his natural volubility, skillful tight compositions, or his attraction for sparkling colors and pronounced luminous effects.
These characteristics are particularly true in our work whose rare theme is understood through reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions, an account of his conversion which is expressed in simple vivid terms: “You have pierced my heart with the arrows of your love” (Confessions, IX, 3.)
The heart enflamed by love and pierced by an arrow is a recurring attribute of Augustine of Hippo, as an illustration of his writing, as well as a symbol of charity and the double love towards God and one’s neighbor. It can be found over the cartouche of the frontispiece in Saint Augustine’s illustrated Life, published in Paris in 1624 by Antoine Bonenfant under the title, Iconographia magni Patris Aurelii Augistini. The Parisian publisher printed the series of twenty-eight plates in intaglio engraved by Schelte Adamsz. Bolswert, at the request of the Hermits of Malines and their prior, Georges Maigret, who composed the explanatory captions. Plate eighteen bears so much resemblance to our picture that it seems obvious that Poerson was inspired by it. Nonetheless, the artist profoundly transformed Bolswert’s image which ceased to be simply an hagiographic illustration in order to become a quasi iconic depiction of the Church Father which was enhanced by Poerson’s own personal feelings.
Bolswert depicted the saint alone in his study and distracted from his work by the vision of the Virgin and Child: with an arrow, the latter transpierces the heart which Augustine humbly offers him. The French painter conserved this reciprocal body language, but situated the scene in a church, in front of an altar, and distributed clouds so that they tend to surround the kneeling Augustine. Clothed in a black monk’s habit held by a leather belt of the Order of Hermits, he holds the Episcopal crozier in his left hand, while his miter is on the ground. Beside his miter are two books, one closed and the other open, symbols of science, truth, and Saint Augustine’s works. All of his traditional attributes are thus united in a single picture, forming an unpublished iconography which is both simple yet demonstrative, while conforming to the period’s pronounced taste for a “vision.” The sufficiency of this depiction confirms that it is an isolated work and was not part of any cycle, unlike Bolswert’s engraving and the pictures and frescos which the Iconographia had inspired.
Here, Poerson proves to be a remarkably inspired colorist. The composition is built on the contrast between the celestial left side, with the Virgin and Child, in pure hues of white, royal blue, golden yellow, and crimson, and the right side, with Saint Augustine, dominated by browns and the deep black of his monastic habit. As a result, the miter, crozier, and book, all three in sparkling white, also belong to the divine.
In the 17th century, imagery of Augustine, who was not a popular saint, developed at an unprecedented rate, on the wave of prosperity of the religious orders and the associated guilds who lived according to his rule. In Paris, there were no less than three Augustinian convents: the Grands Augustins established under the reign of Saint Louis where all the ceremonies of the Order of the Holy Spirit took place; the Petits-Augustins or Reformed Augustinians protected by Anne of Austria who built them a monastery; and Augustins Déchaussés who enjoyed Louis XIII’s special favor and for whom the church of Notre Dame des Victoires was blessed in 1666.
Each of these places could have sheltered our work, as could a church with a chapel dedicated to Saint Augustine, because the painting’s format is insufficient for an altarpiece. But it could also have been a devotional picture which marked the particular affection of its patron for the Bishop of Hippo. Our canvas is in effect especially close to the little Nativity conserved in the Louvre where the Virgin’s very similar face and figure, the same graceful angels and dense clouds can be found. As in our work, the preciosity of the refined technique is evidence of the fleeting influence of Le Sueur, with whom Poerson collaborated for Anne of Austria’s apartments in the Louvre in about 1653-1655, a fact which makes it possible to date these two paintings to the same period.
We would like to thank Mme. Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée for having confirmed the authenticity of our work after visual examination.
Bibliography of the Work
Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée, Nicole de Reyniès and Nicolas Sainte Fare Garnot, Charles Poerson, Paris, Arthéna, 1997, cat. 142.