Jacques Stella was born in Lyon in 1596. His father was a painter of Flemish descent, who died in 1605. Nothing is known about Jacques’s training as an artist nor the exact date, between 1616 and 1619, when he arrived in Florence, where his engravings show him to have been a disciple of Jacques Callot. He moved to Rome in 1623. He marked the jubilee year of 1625 with a vast series of over a hundred scenes from the Bible and figures of saints engraved on wood by Paul Maupin and himself (known as the “camaïeux bleus”). For a time Stella was a member of the painters’ guild, the Académie de Saint-Luc, headed by Simon Vouet, and he became an intimate friend of Nicolas Poussin. He became famous for his delicate paintings on semi-precious stones, which were particularly popular with the family of Pope Urban VIII (Barberini). His services were sought by the Spanish court and he left Rome in 1634. After a stay in Lyon, he moved to Paris in 1635. Richelieu persuaded him not to go to Madrid and retained him in the service of Louis XIII. He was appointed Painter to the King, with an apartment in the Louvre, and, in 1644, received the exceptional honour of the Order of Saint-Michel. Stella was very active in this period, painting frontispieces for the Imprimerie Royale, (engraved by Mellan), large altarpieces, and the Queen’s oratory in the Palais-Royal. He was one of the major Parisian painters of the Regency. Along with La Hyre, Champaigne and Le Sueur, Stella was a key figure in what is called “Parisian Atticism”, a movement strongly influenced by classical and Renaissance models and characterised by a search for clarity. His masterpiece is Jesus discovered by his parents in the temple, which he painted in 1641 for the Jesuit novitiates in Paris (now in the Église Notre-Dame des Andelys). It was an uncommon subject but Stella tackled it five times in both small and large paintings. The one for the Jesuits was accompanied by a Virgin Mary taking the Society of Jesus under Her Protection by Simon Vouet (since destroyed), and The Miracle of St
Francis Xavier by Poussin (Louvre); Stella’s was the most rigorously “purist” of the three paintings. Stella never married and, on his death in 1657, his niece, Claudine Bouzonnet Stella, became head of the workshop he had set up in his apartments in the Louvre to produce prints after his designs. She and her sisters continued the task of engraving the many drawings he had left. The fifty plates illustrating Les Jeux et Plaisirs de l’Enfance were published in 1657, and Les Pastorales, a set of 17 prints of rural subjects, in 1667. They sold in great numbers and became models for all kinds of paintings, wallpapers and ceramics. Around 1700, Jean Mariette published a series of prints based on beautiful drawings once given to Stella a recent study has attributed to Claude Simpol.
Stella’s reputation suffered however from his closeness to Poussin, whose works he thought about and collected, but which he never plagiarised. His series of paintings on the Passion of Christ was, as he had intended, engraved by Claudine, but the name Stella was later replaced at the bottom of the prints by the more saleable “Poussin”.
The exhibition we devoted to him in 2006-2007, in Lyon and Toulouse, provided an overview of fifty years of research, from the pioneering work of Jacques Thuillier and Anthony Blunt, to the work of Pierre Rosenberg, Sylvain Kerspern, Gail Davidson and above all Gilles Chomer, who had pioneered it. New works emerge each year, and their appearance can be followed in Sylvain Kerspern’s online studies of the painter.
One of the most sensitive aspects of Stella’s work involves scenes from the childhood of Christ, especially the Virgin and Child and the Holy Family, and he often included - this was his own distinctive feature – angels busy heating the gruel or drying the divine Child’s swaddling clothes. These family touches were partly dictated by the Counter-Reformation Church’s desire to ensure that the faithful of the time would see their everyday lives reflected in the images of the Holy Story.
This recently discovered Virgin and Child focuses on the essential: Mary has just breastfed the child who is falling asleep in her arms, and she contemplates it with a pensive gaze which hints at the future destiny of Jesus. Like the great masters, Stella (who had produced a large number of Madonnas on semi-precious stones or on small copper plates) has found a perfect balance here in a half life-size format. Laid on a double ground, pink and grey, his range of familiar colours, the lapis lazuli of the mantle, the pale green and rose madder of the robe, and yellow ochre of the swaddling clothes, shines like enamels on a grey background that is illuminated by light rays encircling the Virgin’s head. This archaism is reminiscent of Sassoferrato, a great specialist in Madonnas and often similar to the French ones.
A Virgin with Child has recently come to light, of almost identical
format and composition but in reverse. There are some notable
differences: the Virgin is almost bareheaded, she presses her breast
towards the wide awake infant who is gazing intently at her and
holding her left hand to his mouth. An engraving by Claudine
accurately reproduces - in reverse - this composition by her uncle. Beyond those similarities, which can probably be explained by the
use of the same cartoon or prototype, which could have been used
on two different occasions, the exceptionally high-quality painting in
the Descours gallery is almost unique in Stella’s work: the closest
being the one in the Musée de Blois, La Vierge donnant la bouillie à
l’Enfant Jésus. Identical format and composition, with lighting
from the left (though from a candle in Blois), show that the two
female faces with their eyes lowered could be superimposed.
Unfortunately, neither the Blois painting nor its pendant in Limoges,
Le Christ mort sur les genoux de la Vierge, are dated or recorded
The Naissance de la Vierge, acquired by the Musée de Lille in 2004 and clearly signed 1644, is a very different case. That panel from the oratory of Anne of Austria at the Palais-Royal, with its 21 figures, is an exceptional milestone in Stella’s work. All the colours of our own Virgin and Child are to be found there, delicately arranged in the space of what is a kind of predella. One is struck in our painting by the way the artist has painted the swaddling clothes, the baby Jesus’s chest left bare, unlike in the paintings in Blois and Lille, but his lower body is warmly wrapped in a thick blanket held in place by bands of cloth. This baby Jesus has curly blond hair, like that in a Vierge au livre allaitant l’Enfant, which
we know from Van Schuppen’s engraving. It is seldom easy to date Stella’s works. A date between 1640 and 1650 seems feasible for this hitherto unknown masterpiece. It joins that small group of 17th century French Madonnas, the most remarkable of which is Simon Vouet’s Vierge Hesselin, which entered the Louvre in 2004.