The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has acuired Forge of Vulcan by François Perrier. Recent studies on Perrier, who worked in both France and Rome, have brought new focus to this understudied master, only rediscovered as late as the 1960s. Perrier was born in 1594 in Pontarlier, in the Burgundy-Franche-Comté region of France, where he probably was taught to draw by his father, a goldsmith. Between 1624 and 1628 he undertook his first stay in Rome, where he was a pupil of Lanfranco and assisted with the frescoes in the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle. As evidenced by his etching of the Last Communion of Saint Jerome painted by Agostino Carracci for the Certosa in Bologna, it is clear that Perrier was well-acquainted with accomplishments of the Emilian school of painting, and in fact, a number of works by the artist have at one time or the other been attributed to the Carracci. Indeed, it seems quite likely that the painter passed through Bologna on his way to or from Rome, either on his first or second trip to the city, though unfortunately there is no evidence of this. After his early sojourn in Rome, Perrier returned to France. In Lyon he undertook paintings in Chartreux, while in Paris he became the principal collaborator of Simon Vouet on a number of important projects, including works in the château of Chilly, as well as being among the first masters of Charles Le Brun. Perrier returned to Rome in 1635 and remained in the papal city for a decade, becoming a leading figure during a crucial period of change. Around this time, artists variously embraced an astonishing range of styles; we witness the last embers of Caravaggio’s naturalism, the grand and monumental Baroque, and the courtly classicism of the French painters, with Poussin at the fore, but alongside him painters like Sebastien Bourdon and, indeed, Perrier. The artist spent the last years of his life in Paris, where he became one of the most important figures on the art scene, directing the French taste in the early years of Louis XIV’s reign towards the distinctive classicism which defines art at the court of the Sun King. Two years before his death in January 1648, Perrier became one of the founding members of the Académie Royale de Peinture.
The present painting can be dated to the artist’s second Roman period. It depicts the forge of the Roman god Vulcan (Hephaestus for the Greeks, though there is a subtle difference between the two divine personalities), in which we see the Cyclops, intent on forging magnificent weapons and objects fit for the gods. The painting is made up of five central vertical panels with two further horizontal panels set above and below, which suggests that the work was created as a wall decoration, probably enclosed in stucco, for one of the rooms of Palazzo Spada, where Perrier’s activity is documented.
Several fixed points in the chronology of Perrier’s vital second Roman period (1635–1645) are known. Between 1635 and 1638, he executed the Death of Cicero for the Giustiniani today at Bad Homburg; in 1639 he painted Olindo and Sofronia for the maréchal d’Estrées (today in Reims, Musée Saint-Denis); around 1640 he created the panel presented here; and between 1644 and 1645 payments were made for frescoes in the Peretti gallery. To the same years we may also date the frescoes of scenes from the life of Saint Dominic in the cloister of the convent of San Biagio in Tivoli, the altarpiece showing the Miracle of the Alms of Santa Galla in Ostra, and the Baptism of Christ later traced in the Trentino. In these works, traces of the artist’s close collaboration with Simon Vouet in Paris are no longer in evidence but have been replaced instead by a mixture of heterogeneous elements, such as the monumental and pictorially rich composition, color effects reminiscent of the Venetians of previous eras, a strong classicism of form enriched by the observation of real antique works, and vibrant luminism—all of these elements can be found in the Forge.
Perrier is a figure of great importance within the Parisian and French “Atticist” ambient, yet he nonetheless approached the trend with great independence, “maintaining a sort of foreign, Italian accent, and is thus a unique figure in that fervent context.”