Saint Jerome is one of the Four Latin Fathers of the Church. In Régnier’s powerful and naturalistic painting, the gray-haired and bearded scholar is depicted at work in his study in Bethlehem, translating the Old and New Testaments into Latin. His version, known as the Vulgate, was declared the official Latin text by the Council of Trent, eleven centuries after Jerome completed it.
Nicolas Régnier was of Flemish origins, but he was closely associated with the French followers of Caravaggio working in Rome in the first quarter of the 17th century, including Nicolas Tournier, Valentin de Boulogne, Claude Vignon and Simon Vouet. Régnier received his early training in Antwerp with Abraham Janssen, one of the first artists to introduce the Caravaggesque style to Flanders. His fellow pupils included Theodoor Rombouts and Matthias Stomer; he certainly acquired from his study with Janssen his taste for statuesque contours, rich color and fluent technique that characterize Flemish painting of the era, and can be seen in a modified form in the present painting.
Régnier arrived in Rome around 1615 and, according to Joachim von Sandrart, who knew him in Venice around 1628, he frequented the workshop of Bartolomeo Manfredi, an Italian follower of Caravaggio, from whom he learned a Tenebrist manner. It was likely Manfredi who introduced Régnier to Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani , whose household Régnier soon entered and devoted patronage he received, becoming one of the best-represented French painters in Giustiniani’s imposing art collection.
His years in Rome produced many of Régnier’s finest works, including the Saint Jerome, but he was last recorded in the city in March 1625; he probably left soon after, as the artist was in Venice by June of the following year. He remained in Venice for the rest of his life; married and fathered three daughters, dealt in Antiquities, built his own impressive art collection (it included Tinteretto’s masterpiece, Susanna and the Elders), and continued working as a painter, but in an increasingly decorative and self-consciously elegant style.
The present Saint Jerome is a new addition to Régnier’s corpus, first published as his work in 2007 in the catalogue raisonné of his paintings by Annick Lemoine. Nothing is known of the painting’s early history but it can be confidently given to Régnier on stylistic grounds. As Lemoine notes, it offers many analogies to other paintings by the artist: the clearly defined musculature of the saint’s arms and the free play of shadows across his body, observed in the natural light of the studio, can be seen again in the Saint John the Baptist in Paris and the Bacchus (Neues Palais, Potsdam) painted for Vincenzo Giustiniani. The saint’s weathered profile and strands of hair glued by sweat to his wrinkled forehead, evoke figures in Janssen and Honthorst, but are also strongly comparable to the Régnier’s Saint Matthieu in the Ringling Museum, Sarasota, as are his callused hands and pronounced veins. In composition, the painting is very close to that of the Saint Jerome in the Koelliker Collection, likely a somewhat later version of the subject by Régnier, according to Lemoine, who believes the present painting is one of the earliest works from the artist’s first years in Rome.