Sebastian Bourdon grew up in Montpellier in a family of Protestant artists. They moved to Paris when he was still a child, probably around 1622 when Montpellier was besieged by Louis XIII’s troops. Having trained for seven years in the studio of a painter named Barthélemy, Bourdon travelled first to Bordeaux then to Toulouse and finally to Rome where he is first mentioned in 1634. In Italy he worked for the art dealer Escarpinelli, producing copies of works by Claude, Andrea Sacchi, Michelangelo Cerquozzi and Castiglione. In 1637, before leaving Italy and returning to Paris, Bourdon visited Venice. This trip resulted in a change in his approach to colour, which became inspired by the Venetian palette.

The chronology of Bourdon’s work during his second Paris period, between 1637 and 1652, is difficult to establish due to the diverse, at times contradictory nature of his style, which varied between the naturalist tradition represented by artists such as the Le Nain brothers and Jean Tassel, and the high Baroque style used for religious themes. In the years immediately following his return to France, Bourdon began to enjoy recognition as a painter and in 1643 received an important commission for the church of Nôtre-Dame in Paris, for which he painted The Martyrdom of Saint Peter. Sebastian Bourdon was one of the small group of artists that founded the Royal Academy of Painters and Sculptors in Paris in 1648.

In 1652 Queen Christina of Sweden invited Bourdon to move to Stockholm as court painter. In the years prior to her abdication Bourdon produced portraits of Christina and of various members of the court, inspired by the style of Van Dyck. In 1654 he returned to Paris where he was soon appointed Rector of the Academy. His last works reflect the influence of Poussin, and landscape became the predominant element in his compositions. Despite the fact that Bourdon was a celebrated painter during his lifetime, his versatility was often criticised by a number of contemporaries.