Charles II purchased this painting from the art dealer, William Frizell, for 150 florins, a relatively modest sum by comparison with the other Frizell acquisitions. It was one of only three French paintings in the group of 72 purchased in Breda in the month prior to the Restoration. At the time of acquisition the painting was described as 'St Jerome with spectacles of the manner of Albert Durer'.Subsequently the identification of the figure was forgotten and all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century inventories give no artist's name. An 1818 inventory of Kensington pictures attributes the painting to "Catalani". This attribution to Andrea or Antonio Catalani, identified as "Antonio Catalani, Il Romano (1560-1630)" by Anthony Blunt in 1946, continued into the twentieth century. In 1947 Vitale Bloch attributed the painting to Georges de La Tour and several other art historians also associated it with La Tour during these decades, as his career was being discovered. The painting was cleaned and conserved for the exhibition in Paris in 1972 and was shown for the first time as a fully accepted work by La Tour himself. In spite of abraded areas from previous treatments in the figure of St Jerome, the quality of La Tour's brushwork can still be seen.
Saint Jerome was a famous scholar who translated most of the Bible into Latin, yet here this humble, elderly man can only be identified as the saint thanks to his red cardinal's cassock. His other more usual attributes, such as a skull or cardinal's hat, are omitted. La Tour invests Saint Jerome with religious authority by the way in which the saint, isolated and emerging out of deep shadow, is absorbed in his reading. La Tour painted details with unfailing accuracy, so it is no surprise that the painting was associated with Durer in the seventeenth century. Saint Jerome's left eye is impaired so he uses his right eye (and the left lens of his spectacles), which magnifies some hairs of his beard for the viewer. Old age is illuminated with great delicacy and realism: from a light source outside of the composition, Saint Jerome's gnarled hands, the few wispy white hairs on his bald head, the imperfections and wrinkles of his skin are illuminated. Even the red of his robe can be seen through the paper.This painting demonstrates La Tour's characteristic sensitivity to the texture of human hair and skin and his ability to endow the humblest figure with religious authority. His love of genre detail is demonstrated in the spectacles, which give the aged saint an air of added concentration.
At some date probably before 1662 the canvas of the painting was adhered to a branded oak panel in Antwerp. The brand of two open hands was used in Antwerp workshops in the first half of the 17th century. When the panel was restored for the 1972 Paris exhibition, the panel was removed but unfortunately it was not kept or recorded. The measurements of the canvas today are approximately the same as those in the inventory of Charles II's pictures from 1666-7. There has been much debate about whether or not the painting was originally larger so that the saint's arms were fully visible. The top and bottom edges of the canvas have a pronounced cusping pattern, whilst at the vertical edges, the orange-brown ground layer continues beyong the painted edges, proving that the painting has not been cut. The cropped composition makes the figure of Saint Jerome more powerful and dramatic and the relationship with the viewer more intimate.
There is a consensus that Saint Jerome was painted at the same time or slightly later than the suite of paintings of Christ and the Apostles donated to Albi Cathedral in 1694, possibly dated 1621-23 or 1624, many of which are copies of lost originals. The paintings of Saint Philip and Saint Paul are comparable. The recently discovered Saint Jerome is a larger variant of the Royal Collection painting and has been dated after it (c.1627-9) as have other versions known through copies. None of these later versions has the intimacy of the smaller Royal Collection painting, with its extraordinary stillness made more intense by the subtle play of light.
In the 1666 inventory, the painting hung at Whitehall in the passage between the Green Room and the Closet, alongside Charles II’s collection of artists’ portraits and Miereveld’s A bearded old Man with a Shell (cat. 126). It is listed in the same location in 1688, although by 1697 it had been moved to Kensington and so escaped the Whitehall fire.