Regnier, Nicolas

Mauberge 1591 - Venice 1667
Biography & List of works

The Death Of Sophonisba

The Death Of Sophonisba


Medium: Oil On Canvas

Size: 126 x 161 cm


Chrysler Collection, New York.  Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., London, c. 1960.
Private Collection.  Christie’s 13th December, 1974, Lot 42.  Private Collection, Madrid.

Regnier was born in Maubeuge some time between 1590 and 1591 and it is probable that he was apprenticed to the workshop of Abraham Janssens. His master had travelled to Italy between 1598 and 1600 and maybe again a second time around 1605 and therefore knew Caravaggio’s art. He was also the master of Ducamps, Rombauts and Stomer. It was natural, therefore, that Regnier, once he had mastered Janssens’ Flemish fully modelled style would wish also to travel to Italy and he probably set off for Rome around 1615. He would, therefore, have been one of the many French and Flemish artists that Mancini mentions as being active in the city between 1618-20. He was certainly in Rome before 1621 at which date he was mentioned in legal papers concerning a brawl. He was at that time living in Piazza delle Oche in comfortable surroundings together with a servant, the son of the painter, G. P. Signoretti. His name appears in the Stati d’Anime between 1621 and 1625. Sandrart (1683) says he was patronised by Caravaggio’s patron, Vincenzo Giustiniani, who took him into his household. In 1623, he is mentioned as being a member of the ‘Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon’, while in 1624, he was working with Pietro da Cortona, where according to Sandrart, who was later to meet the artist in Venice, Regnier was a pupil on Bartolomeo Manfredi and it may be through this artist that he first met Vincenzo Giustiniani. Sandrart states that Regnier was his personal ‘Pittore Domestico‘ and in fact Regnier is one of the best represented artists in the Giustiniani collection with nine pictures, twice as many as the works Giustiniani acquired from Valentin, Vignon or Vouet. Voss remarked that paintings which date from this Roman period show the marked influence of Simon Vouet but it is also probable that the arrival of Johann Lyss in Rome in 1622 also exercised an important influence on his style. The last document mentioning his presence in Rome is dated 22nd March 1625 when he attended a reunion of the Accademia di Sant Luca at Vouetǯs house and he must have left Rome shortly afterwards because he signed his Allegory of Wisdom in Venice on the 6th June 1626 (now in Palazzo Reale, Turin). On his way to Venice he probably visited his step-brother Desubleo in Bologna. While in Venice, Regnier was extremely popular and fashionable and he himself collected paintings for his house. Two of his four daughters, Lucrezia and Clorinda married painters (Daniel van den Dyck and Pietro della Vecchia). The daughters were also painters. While based in Venice, Regnier went to work for the courts of Modena and Mantua.

Regnier’s paintings executed in Rome are quite different from those from the later Venetian period. The earlier pictures are more strikingly Caravaggesque and while maybe less elegant, almost always more dramatically charged. He managed to combine the ‘Manfrediana Methodus’ with the elegance of Vouet and the more biting Caravaggism of Valentin. He often used the strong effects of light and contrasting shadow of Caravaggism to enhance a sense of luxury in his paintings which nearly always contain beautiful fabrics, jewellery adornments and metals. Later in Venice, maybe under the influence of Guido Reni, which he absorbed in part through his step-brother, Desbuleo, his style becomes more elegant, smooth and languishing and his subjects often contain an abandoned female in the role of the Magdalen, Sophonisba, Artemisia or Cleopatra. This is the style with which his name is most often associated. There is little development in the style of these later pictures which makes dating them difficult. His style was to influence a generation of Venetian painters including Carpioni, Pietro Negri, Ruschi and Molinari.

Sophonisba was the daughter of a Carthaginian general at the time of the Second Punic War. By marrying a prince of Numidia, a State allied to Rome, she won the prince over to the Carthaginian cause. When her husband was defeated and overthrown, his Roman captor, Masinissa, fell in love with Sophonisba who was a famous beauty. However, rather than seeing his love sent in captivity to Rome, Masinissa sent her a cup of poison which she drank (see Livy, History of Rome, 30:12-15). The subject was an extremely popular one with artists in the 17th Century. The shell like vessel appears in several other paintings by Regnier and Sophonisba’s crown, as Princess of Numida lies on the table. Hermann Voss in 1924 was the first to draw attention to the fact that Regnier was influenced by Guido Reni. Sophonisba’s languid facial type and rolled back eyes certainly reflect Reni, though adapted to Regnier’s more luscious, languid style. The head of Sophonisba is an almost direct borrowing from The Rape of Europa (London, Mahon Collection) or The Magdalen (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica). The type of three quarter length composition with figures placed well to the foreground is Caravaggesque in origin whereas the background suggests more of the Veneto and the influence of Tintoretto and Veronese. There are three versions of this composition all given to Regnier. This picture, the Chrysler version, is uniformly accepted as the prime and superior first version. There is another version in the Leicester City Art Gallery (measurements 131.4 x 167 cm.) and a third version in Kassel which is almost certainly a contemporary copy, maybe as suggested by Fantelli, by one of Regnier’s daughters. There are differences between the ex-Chrysler and Leicester pictures in that in the former, the background column rises above the head of Sophonisba and the head of the old maid is different as is the table. There are also small variations in the folds of the draperies. There is another work by Regnier of Sophonisba as a single figure crowned and in profile holding the cup of poison. This is in the Museo Civico at Padua. Regnier also repeated almost precisely the figure of the weeping hand maiden as the figure of Tamar in Amnon and Tamar in Stuttgart. The physiognomy of the old maid with darkened wrinkled skin is found in several other Seicento pictures executed in Venice, including a work by Strozzi and of course arises from a type often seen in Caravaggesque Buonaventura compositions. All of the Sophonisbas date from Regnier’s full maturity and a date in the 1650s has been suggested.