North Italy early 17th century
Pen, brown ink and brown wash on paper, watermarked tree ; inscriptions : "Anno 1619 2/15" at the lower center, unreadable at the upper center ; "G 138" and "Proccaccini Ercole senior" (by Giuseppe Vallardi) on verso ; 19.4 x 29.6 cm
Giuseppe Vallardi (Lugt collection mark 1223 at the lower left) ; Charles Gasc (Lugt collection mark 544 at the lower right) ; Kekko Gallery (Van Dyck) ; Canada, private collection ; London, Christie's, 5th July 2011 ; Paris, Le Polyptyque collection ; Paris, private collection.
The Conversion of Saint Paul is a typically Mannerist or Baroque subject, both in spirit – the reconquest of souls – and in style – "number, agitation, tumult, intermingled bodies" (Walter Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism, New York, 1957). The popes of the Counter-Reformation often took the name of "the apostle of the Gentiles". It was during the pontificate of Paul III Farnese (1540-1549) that Michelangelo, in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican, and Salviati, through engraving, established the iconographic sources from which inspired two generations of artists.
This drawing, dated precisely 1619, under the pontificate of Paul V Borghese (1605-1621), is however difficult to locate. The Peace of Augsburg (1553-1618), before the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), had brought a relative calm into the Habsburg Empire, haunted by rivalries between Catholics and Protestants, and made possible an unprecedented circulation of not only works of art, but also of artists, from the south to the north of Europe.
The helmeted soldier raising the aged and bearded Saint Paul, as well as the rearing horse, can be found in the Conversion of Saint Paul painted by the Flemish artist Hans Speckaert in 1570-1577 (Musée du Louvre) ; the horse on the ground and the feathered helmet not far from him, in another work painted by Rubens, just before or during his first visit to Rome in 1601-1602 (collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein). This work, mentioned in the inventory of Nicolas Rockox in 1640, was probably already in Antwerp in 1619. Both works do not seem to have been reproduced by engraving. We must therefore assume that our draughtsman travelled to Antwerp (or less possibly that he and Rubens were inspired by an unknown common source) and also to places (Brussels, Düsseldorf, Munich, Rome) where Speckaert's work had been shown up.
The authorship of Van Dyck proposed by a previous owner of the work, was logically defendable, but does not withstand a graphic examination. We conclude that this drawing is situated at the confluence, still anonymous, of the Nordic mannerism so highly appreciated by Emperor Rudolf II (who died in 1612 but whose brother, the Archduke Albert, governed the Netherlands until 1621) and the Flemish Baroque that Rubens genially embodied since his return from Italy at the end of 1608. It was part of two important collections in the 19th century, the one of the Milanese Giuseppe Vallardi, curator at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, and the one of the Parisian Charles Gasc, under the Second Empire.