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Work The Crucifixion of St. Peter

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Le Martyre de saint Pierre

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo S. Nagy

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Scheck Catherine

This tumultuous work, illustrating the martyrdom of St. Peter, is one of two precious ensemble studies in the Louvre for the monumental May painting of 1643 (a prestigious gift from the Corporation of Goldsmiths to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on 1 May every year). Ambitious, unusual, and highly admired, this work would cement Bourdon's reputation in Paris as one of the most creative and seductive artists of the seventeenth century. Bourdon was a painter, draftsman, and engraver.

A virtuoso

Freed from an unwise commitment to the army at the age of eighteen, Bourdon was in Rome from 1634 to 1637. He was an ardent copier and imitator of the works he saw there, and quickly drew attention for the insolent virtuosity of his pastiches (of Van Laer, Castiglione, Claude Lorrain, and Poussin principally) and his learned precociousness (skilful construction, delicate color harmonies, and subtle lighting); all of which gave his "French-style 'bambocciate' " (trifles) a highly individual charm (see Tavern with Pipe Smoker, Musée Fabre, Montpellier).
The brilliant eclecticism of his elegant creations went on to find high favor with Parisian art lovers from 1638 onward, as they had in Rome, and as far afield as Stockholm, at the court of Queen Christina, who selected him as First Painter (1652-53). Bourdon was one of the rare seventeenth-century artists to explore all genres of painting, with great delight and no small success. One need only look to the truly seductive nature of works as characteristic as The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans), The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John (Musée Magnin, Dijon), or Portrait of a Man, also known as The Man with the Black Ribbons (Musée Fabre, Montpellier).
The painted decorations that have been irretrievably lost (gallery of the Hôtel Bretonvilliers, 1663-65; the king's bedchamber in the Tuileries, 1670-71) along with the great May painting, which can once again be seen in Notre Dame, Paris (on loan from the Louvre; engraved by N.-H. Tardieu), give the measure of Bourdon the history painter. Faced with the supremacy of Vouet and Poussin, and in spite of his admiration for Poussin, the ambitious twenty-seven-year-old painter (who was, moreover, a Calvinist) takes bold risks in an exceptional work. It is an incredible homage to Venetian painting, and to Veronese in particular, carried by a flair that is both highly innovative and utterly baroque. After this tormented vision of the martyr, Bourdon was once again influenced by Poussin (geometrically structured space and noble attitudes), although he did not abandon his lively palette nor his habitual elegance.

A wealth of talents

The May painting was a decisive experience that required demanding preparation. "To achieve this, he made several drawings, each more excellent than the last. I possess two of them, which are of singular beauty", wrote P-J Mariette in the Abecedario. This testimony highlights the quality of the two studies in the Louvre, brought together by the most distinguished French collector of the eighteenth century. Lavish, highly worked, but still far from the definitive composition, which was less dense, both studies reveal the talents of this artist "full of fire and skill" (Mariette, op. cit.).
With four other remarkable works on paper, which were sold to Louis XIV in 1671 by E. Jabach, a friend of Bourdon, the Louvre has the oldest and most extensive collection of his drawings.
The necessary reconstruction of the drawings, carried out by J. Thuillier, attests the high standing of his engravings. A prodigious draftsman, Bourdon was also one of the finest engravers of the seventeenth century.


J. Guiffrey et P. Marcel, Inventaire général des Dessins du Musée du Louvre et du Musée de Versailles, École Française, t. II, 1908, n 1632, repr.J.-F. Méjanès dans cat. exp. Le Cabinet d'un grand amateur : Pierre-Jean Mariette 1694-1774, Paris, musée du Louvre, 1967, sous n 216, p. 135.B. Scart, dans cat. exp. Dessins français du XVIIe siècle, Paris, musée du Louvre, 1984-1985, n 131, p. 99 et 101, repr. p. 100.J. Thuillier, Sébastien Bourdon 1616-1671, catalogue critique et chronologique de l'oeuvre complet publié à l'occasion de l'exposition "Sébastien Bourdon, 1616-1671 Rétrospective", Montpellier, musée Fabre, 2000, Strasbourg, galerie de l'Ancienne Douane, 2001, p. 217 (J. Thuillier et Michel Hilaire).

Technical description

  • Sébastien BOURDON (Montpellier, 1616-Paris, 1671)

    The Crucifixion of St. Peter

    Late 1642-early 1643

  • Pen and brown ink, and brown wash, over black chalk lines.

    H. 32.5 cm; W. 23.8 cm

  • Pierre-Jean Mariette collection; sale, Paris, 1775, part of no. 1167; purchased by Lempereur for the Cabinet du Roi.

    INV 24992

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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