It must be counted ill luck to be dubbed ‘the third’, when Senior never existed as a painter (he was probably a decorator of sculpture), and Junior, although a recorded master in the guild of St Luke, has left a virtually unidentifiable oeuvre. That is the lot of David Ryckaert, the third of that name, who is the subject of the scholarly monograph by Bernadette Van Haute, yet another volume in Brepols’s useful Pictura Nova series. And the mystery surrounding the Ryckaerts doesn’t stop there, since nearly half of the pictures accepted as original by the youngest David are now untraceable, which must have severely taxed the author in determining authenticity – illustrations in sales catalogues do not provide the most reliable tool for connoisseurship. Moreover, despite having created a not insubstantial oeuvre, here established as 173 pictures, Ryckaert is an elusive artist to study ‘in the flesh’; there is, for example, not a single work by him in a British public gallery, and only one in an American public gallery. One has to seek him out in the collections of Budapest, Dresden, Munich and Vienna. Yet there is clearly a love for this work among private collectors, where, in addition to the numerous known examples, many of his 72 unlocated works are surely to be found.
In the introductory chapters it is the author’s intention ‘to generate an engaged and definitive response’ to the artist’s work, which she claims has not been done before in the relatively sparse literature. After establishing the biographies of the various members of the Ryckaert family, including David III’s brother-in-law, Gonzales Coques, Van Haute turns to the problem of attribution, which are unusually difficult in David III’s case – the lack of knowledge of his father’s work, the suspected but difficult-to-prove practice of their collaboration on individual pictures, and David III’s habit of copying the work of other artists. This leads to a more extended discussion of the question of imitation, especially David III’s indebtedness to Brouwer and Teniers, and an enquiry into seventeenth-century attitudes, which, Van Haute rightly argues, were largely favourable, and without the negative connotations adduced by writers today. In combatting what she sees as unsympathetic assessments of the artist, Van Haute makes a good case, though perhaps she is a shade over-concerned about Modernist and post-Modernist theory.
By and large, Ryckaert limited himself to a narrow range of subject matter, but within his chosen category he was subtly diverse. At first he was almost exclusively concerned with peasant genre, but as the source of inspiration moved from Brouwer to Teniers, although not necessarily because of it, one sees a gradual gentrification in his subject matter, at the same time that there is a shift in style. And, without abandoning peasant scenes, he branches out, less successfully one has to say, into the occasional mythology, allegory, religious subject or diablerie. Van Haute rightly makes much of the two pictures of the Kermesse (no. A90) and Plundering (no. A91), both now in Vienna, with their ambitiously crowded compostions, acquired and possibly commissioned by Archdule Leopold Wilhelm. With these Ryckaert was very much in the smart set of painters of the time.
In treating Ryckaert’s iconography the author is faced, as she herself says, with a choice between adopting Konrad Renger’s notion of a traditional and affectionate glorification of country life, and more emblematic and moralistic interpretations much favoured in recent decades. Although one feels her heart is with the former, Van Haute is cautiously deferential to the latter, but sensibly, instead of assuming a didactic stance, tailors her approach according to the individual work in question.
One of the positive results of Van Haute’s research is to establish a well argued canon of paintings (there are no known drawings), here divided into three categories: authentic, uncertain and wrongly attributed. The catalogue entries are thorough in examining every aspect of each painting. As far as one can judge from the black and white illustrations she makes a good case for what she accepts. I was not, however, entirely convinced by the attribution to Ryckaert of the Head of Christ(no. A117), present whereabouts unknown, which was last publicly visible in the art trade in the 1960s, attributed to Van Dyck; I also found her discussion of this picture and the version in Hamburg (no. C119) very confused. A small point: in discussing the attributedPortrait of a Lady (no. B18), in Kassel, she omits reference to the latest museum catalogue by Schnackenburg (1996), who classifies the picture as School of Haarlem, c.1640-50, done under the influence of Frans Hals.
The volume concludes with a detailed chronology and transcriptions of notarial deeds, helpfully supplied with summaries in English for those not conversant with seventeenth-century Flemish lawyer ‘speak’. Despite Ryckaert’s indebtedness to Brouwer, Teniers and other artists, Van Haute persuades us that in a quiet way he was very much his own man – not one of the stars of Antwerp but an attractive and accomplished painter.