VOUET, Simon
(b. 1590, Paris, d. 1649, Paris)

The Fortune Teller

Oil on canvas, 95 x 135 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

On the back of the canvas, in capital letters, is the following inscription: "aegiptia. vulgo. zingara. fatvi. cerdonis. divinatrix. a. Simoe. Voet. ad. vivum. depicta. MCDXVII" - (The Egyptian woman, (called) commonly "the gypsy, fortuneteller of the foolish artisan", painted from life by Simon Vouet 1617)

This painting was once considered to be a copy of another painting of similar measurements and subject, preserved in Florence (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti) with an attribution to Antiveduto della Gramatica or Bartolomeo Manfredi. Recently, however, the painting has been reattributed to Simon Vouet on the basis of the lengthy inscription found on the back of the canvas during restoration. Examination of the Barberini picture also revealed a series of substantial pentimenti (repainted passages), especially in the young man's clothing, that confirm that this is the original and that the Florentine painting must be a copy.

The large capital letters of the inscription and its content also confirm that the work was in the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo. A Francophile who was always connected to French interests in Rome, Cassiano commissioned the painting in 1617 directly from the young Vouet. This is the moment in which Vouet, painter to the King of France, is first documented as active in Rome. Among the works sold in the sale of the dal Pozzo heirs, the painting resurfaced at the end of the eighteenth century in the Torlonia Collection. From there it passed into the holdings of the National Gallery.

The simplicity of the composition, which includes only three half figures, derives from the Caravaggesque prototypes that Vouet would have been able to see in the collection of Cassiano's friend Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Likewise, the situation of the spotlit figures in a shadowy space and the intense exchange of gazes between the two younger people recall the works of Caravaggio. On the other hand, though, the distinct interpretation of Caravaggesque style attests to the profound influence on Vouet of the manner of Manfredi, then at the apex of his own career. Manfredian style is evident in the rich and surprisingly intact pictorial material, the agility of brushwork, and the extraordinary mastery of pictorial rendering. These qualities, as well as the vivacious chromatic range sustained by the young gypsy's red sleeve, reveal precociously the powerful characteristics of a great painter.

In contrast to Caravaggio's two-figure treatment of the same theme, from which this picture clearly derives, Vouet inserts the figure of the old gypsy to the right, whose left hand picks the man's pocket while her right hand, laid on his shoulder, makes a vulgar gesture. As well known and ancient gesture, the thumb stuck between the first two fingers was particularly common in Tuscany and is even mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy. (Inferno XX, 2).