Son of the obscure artist Laurent Vouet, Simon Vouet was born in Paris in 1590. He was in England at the age of fourteen and in Constantinople between 1611 and 1612. His career then divides neatly into two periods: the Italian (1612-27) and the French (1627-49). Although he worked in Genoa and Venice, and visited Milan, Parma, Bologna and Florence, he became a major figure in the French colony in Rome, along with Valentin, Tournier and Vignon. His career was closely followed in France and he was granted a pension by the King. In Rome his success is measured by the fact that he was elected president of the Academy of Saint Luke in 1624 and commissioned to paint a fresco in St. Peter's the following year.
While in Rome Vouet produced several easel paintings, such as Time vanquished by Hope, Love and Beauty (1627; Prado, Madrid) but the majority of his work was religious, with many of his works still in the churches for which they were painted. In Italy Vouet demonstrated his sensitivity not only to Caravaggesque painting, but also to the Bolognese school and contemporary trends in Italian painting. These aspects of his style are admirably expressed in the present Saint Agnes, which dates from just before his return to France, where he was to lead an artistic revival that culminated in the foundation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, the year before he died.
Saint Agnes is one of nearly a dozen single-figure paintings, each measuring about three feet high, that survive from Vouet's Roman years. This group includes a Saint Margaret and Saint Ursula, now in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, an Angel holding the Signpost from the Cross, and an Angel holding the Vessel of Pontius Pilate now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (see Paris, New York and Chicago, France in the Golden Age, catalogue by Pierre Rosenburg, 1982, nos. 115, 116, 118 and 119, all reproduced). Three other paintings, representing angels of the Passion, were included in the 1990-1 Vouet retrospective held in Paris (see the catalogue by Jacques Thuillier, nos. 2-4, reproduced). Additionally, our Saint Agnes has as its pendant a Saint Catherine, which seems to come from Vouet's workshop.
Saint Agnes was first published by Pierre Rosenberg in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in an article which summarized all the new information learned during the exhibition France in the Golden Age. Since that time a nearly identical, but superior version of its pendant, Saint Catherine, has been located in the castle in Zvolen, on loan from the National Gallery of Slovakia (98.7 x 74.2 cm; inv. no. 302; fig. b).
There is no doubt, however, that the present fluid and painterly Saint Agnes, dated to 1626, is a fully autograph work by Simon Vouet, painted shortly before his return to Paris. Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée (written communication, 15 July 1993) finds this Saint Agnes to be 'very important' and plans to include it in a forthcoming article on Vouet.