Saint Sebastian––a Roman soldier who suffered martyrdom around A.D. 300––was nursed by the pious Irene, who, upon discovering him still alive, tenderly removed the arrows that pierced his body. He was a protector against the epidemics that plagued the artist’s native Lorraine, and La Tour’s various versions of this scene were by far the most copied of his works in the seventeenth century. In 1751 a local historian made reference to one that La Tour presented to Duke Charles IV of Lorraine and another that he presented to King Louis XIII of France. The king admired his version so much that he “had all the other paintings removed from his room in order to leave only this one.”
Today more than ten versions of the composition are known in horizontal format, differing widely in quality and condition. Opinion on the Kimbell painting is divided: most scholars consider it to be a copy; others believe that it may be one of the works painted by La Tour himself, possibly the version he gave to Charles IV. The painting has suffered damage (especially in the darkest passages) from the transfer of the paint layer to a new canvas, rendering connoisseurship difficult. Nevertheless, it exhibits evidence of reworking or pentimenti during its creation, as well as the use of preliminary markings and incisions to establish the contours, a distinctive feature of La Tour’s working method. Most important, the palette, modeling, and brushwork in the better-preserved passages are of a quality approaching La Tour’s autograph works.