The cover of the month

Mary, Mother of Mercy by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Pierre Poncet was a painter of great quality from Orléans, France, active in the second quarter of the 17th century. Most of his works having been lost, he completely disappeared from the records, not even getting a mention in Benezit, the celebrated dictionary of artists. However, he can be traced as a student of Simon Vouet and, later, as the head of an Orléans studio of known pupils, including Noël Coypel, who would become the director of the Royal Academy of Art and the principal painter at the court of Versailles. Poncet has recently been rediscovered and a few of his newly-found works are now showcased most notably in the Orléans Museum of Fine Art. Among them is this large-scale painting depicting Saint Anne instructing her daughter, the Virgin Mary, in the works of charity. This is a very rare subject, with only one other parallel from the period, painted in Lyon by Nicolas Chaperon.

The greatest gift that Charity can offer

In this work, with its generous composition and theatrical perspectives, we recognize the “Roman baroque” style of Simon Vouet. The poses of the figures are declamatory and studied, the faces expressive, the colors brilliant. We note however as well a few touches of classicism, perhaps through the influence of Philippe Champaigne and Nicolas Poussin.

On the steps of a grandiose edifice representing the Temple of Jersusalem, mendicants beg for alms. Saint Anne appears holding the hand of her daughter, the Virgin Mary. It is clear that she wishes to show her the example of the first of the works of charity. But the lesson is addressed more to us than to the Immaculate. For the child Virgin Mary does not turn toward the scene before her but to us, the viewer. She is represented as a kind of transitional figure, as though she were front of stage presenting the scene to us. Addressing the spectator, she looks us straight in the eye and, not without a touching bit of youthful playfulness, demands our emotional involvement, even our complicity. She seems to say to us, “Yes, imitate my mama who gives, even from our necessity, to come to the aid the needy. But I will give you the greatest gift that Charity can offer: I will give you the Savior of the world!” 

Saint Anne, Accompanied by the Virgin Mary, Giving Alms, Pierre Poncet (1612-1659), Museum of Fine Arts, Orléans, France. © Bridgeman Images.