The French artist Jacques Stella became famous in Rome during the 1620s for his small oil paintings on sheets of cut stone. This technique, which had enjoyed great favor among European connoisseurs of the previous century, had largely fallen into disuse at the dawn of the Baroque period. Stella was destined to give it new life.
Although a number of artists had experimented with painting in oil on stone during the Renaissance, it was the Venetian master Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) who perfected the art, producing portraits and even large-scale altarpieces on slate and other stones. Giorgio Vasari makes special note of Sebastiano’s mastery of this skill, even describing the specifics of its practice.
“He used every care, employing a rich lime mixed with mastic and pitch, which he melted together on the fire and laid it on the wall, smoothing it over with red-hot lime so that his things have withstood the damp and kept their color. He used the same mixture for work on stone, marble, porphyry and other materials.” (Vasari, Lives of the Painters . . . , A.B. Hinds, trans., III, London, 1963, 118)
As Sebastiano’s methods became known, other artists also began to paint on a variety of stone surfaces, including onyx, lapis lazuli and agate. Although Vasari lists the advantages of stone as a support for painting as durability and imperviousness to insects, another appeal of at least some stones was clearly that the patterns of their natural grains could be incorporated into the images, often as damask and other richly patterned materials. Owing to the weight and brittleness of the material, these works were usually small, and the artists who excelled in creating them tended to work in tiny, carefully controlled brushstrokes to create polished, lapidary effects. These gem-like paintings were eagerly sought by connoisseurs as treasures for their studioli or “collector’s cabinets” – small, exquisitely appointed rooms where they could study their treasures and show them to friends. The “treasures” in these rooms might be rare or eccentric marvels from the natural world – minerals, sea shells, coral – or small works of art. Paintings made for such collections, or “cabinet paintings,” as they were called, were eagerly sought by aesthetes in the great Italian families, who bought them both for their own collections and as gifts.
Jacques Stella, who would give new life to this art, was born in 1596 to a family of artists in Lyon, where he received his training as a painter. In 1616 he traveled to Florence to work at the court of Cosimo II de' Medici, and remained there for five years. There he developed a firm grounding in Florentine art, and it was there, almost certainly, that he learned the technique of painting in oil on sheets of stone, a practice that had flourished in Florence in the late 16th century.
Doyle’s auction on May 18, 2016 of Old Master Paintings offers a marvelous oil on slate depiction of the Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Francis (Lot 43). In this work, the black slate acts as a dark background against which the Virgin and the saints stand as timeless, almost mythic figures. In keeping with the common use of the stone as part of the composition, the slate has been deliberately left unpainted to represent a dark covering for the table at the lower right.
At the death of his patron Cosimo de’ Medici in 1621, Stella moved on to Rome in search of work. Although Sebastiano del Piombo had done much of his pioneering work in Rome during the early 16th century, the art of painting on stone had fallen out of favor there in the early 1600s amid a general enthusiasm for the large altarpieces and fresco cycles of Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio. These masters were the stars of the day, their work sought by the most exalted collectors, and younger Italian painters eagerly rushed to follow their lead. Stella, an outsider in a city where connections mattered as much as – and sometimes more than – ability, may have made a point of embracing his rarified art as a means of making his way in this very competitive, closed-shop environment. To his great good fortune, his paintings soon found patrons in Pope Urban VIII and his circle, for whom Stella made small religious scenes on a variety of stones.
The art historian Sylvain Kerspern has noted in private communication that in Stella’s early Roman works, his style tends to reflect the Baroque realism of Annibale Carracci and his followers. But gradually, perhaps as he had an opportunity to study the many works of ancient Roman sculpture that could be seen in the city, Stella’s style grew more classical, both in its underlying draftsmanship and in the handling of the drapery.
Stella returned to Lyon in 1634 before moving on to Paris a year later. Eventually he came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, who in turn presented him to Louis XIII. The king appointed him peintre du roi, which allowed him to live in the Louvre Palace, and granted him a handsome stipend of 1000 livres.
Regarding the painting shown here, Kerspern has pointed out that stylistically it seems to belong to a transitional moment between Stella’s earlier Roman manner and his later classicism, that is, between 1634 and 1637. He notes that the scene is not historical, but a Sacred Conversation, a traditional image in Italian art since the Renaissance that often depicts the patron saints of the donors. As he writes:
“Here we see Saints John the Baptist and Francis, and remember that, according to [art critic and theorist André] Félibien, Stella had just arrived in Paris was employed by the Archbishop Jean-François de Gondi. One must then wonder whether this work was not painted for him, an idea that its date allows us to consider, especially since the painting seems to have remained in France at least to the time of the French Revolution.”
This lovely painting is a superb example of Stella’s work on stone, a technique with which he had made his name in Rome and in which he continued to work throughout his life. To quote Kerspern once again, “Its high quality . . . explains why Richelieu, based on such an example, would have kept Stella in France, for the king's service and for his own.”
We are grateful to Sylvain Kerspern for his assistance in writing this article.