This small exhibition, installed in one room at Somerset House, was dedicated to David Teniers’s Theatrum Pictorium or “Theatre of Painting”, published in 1660 in Brussels. The show was built around the fourteen oil sketches by or attributed to Teniers and his studio in the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery that Count Antoine Seilern bequeathed in 1978 to the Samuel Courtauld Trust. This is the largest surviving group of small preliminary modelli, mostly painted on panel, for the 243 etchings in the Theatrum Pictorium, considered to be the first printed illustrated gallery inventory. To these sketches four loans from the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, were added, a further two each from the Royal Collection, from Corsham Court, and a private collection, and one each from Glasgow and a dealer. These twenty-six works represent roughly half of all the modelli still known. James Methuen-Campbell established in his catalogue essay on the early provenances of Teniers’s copies for the Theatrum that of the 120 sketches last recorded in the Marlborough collection, auctioned in 1886, a mere fifty-six have been preserved.
The etchings based on the sketches reproduce the most admired, primarily Venetian paintings, then in the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1646-56, who resided in Brussels. In 1651 the archduke appointed David Teniers (1610-90) his court painter and keeper of the works of art, and it was he who transformed the archducal collection into one of the most important princely collections of the time.
David Teniers’s earliest gallery views that randomly reproduce famous paintings Leopold Wilhelm owned date from that very year, 1651 (Brussels and Petworth). The focal point in the Courtauld exhibition was the amazingly large gallery view on copper that Teniers presented to Philip IV, today in the Prado, Madrid (no. 3), where some 49 pictures are reproduced. Slightly smaller and on canvas is the example from Petworth House showing 47 pictures (no. 2) and probably the work given as a present to Anton Triest, Bishop of Ghent, shown in the center next to the archduke. Triest was Teniers’s patron and introduced the artist to Leopold Wilhelm.
On the frame of each picture Teniers added the name of the painter of the original work, which would also be included in the reproductive etchings. In the exhibition large graphs accompanied both gallery pictures that identified most of the works within them but these are unfortunately omitted in the catalogue. (The key for the Petworth painting is found in Margret Klinge, David Teniers the Younger, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 1991, pp. 222-23, no. 76; that for the Prado in M. Díaz Padrón, El siglo de Rubens en el Museo del Prado, vol. 2, Madrid, 1995, pp. 1400-11, no. 1813.)
Leopold Wilhelm may have commissioned these views (ten are known, listed on p. 65) to showcase his impressive collection, among them the 400 Italian paintings he had recently acquired from James, 3rd Marquess of Hamilton (executed in 1649); while some 200 works by the best sixteenth-century Venetian painters previously belonged to Bartolomeo della Nave, Venice. The concise catalogue entries by the curator Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen and by Caroline Campbell refer to both provenances as well as to inventories of the archducal collection and to later imperial gifts in order to trace the works to their present locations. The portrait of a Doge (no. 17), a rare example on canvas and now only attributed to Tintoretto, actually is still in Vienna according to Jeremy Wood.
Work on the Theatrum became more difficult once Leopold Wilhelm abdicated his governorship and moved to Vienna in May 1656, taking his collection with him, where it was displayed in the Stallburg. The works remained more or less together until 1772. By 1776, after being moved to the Upper Belvedere gallery, more than one hundred paintings illustrated in the Theatrum were no longer listed in Christian von Mechel’s inventory. (The originals for nine of the exhibited oil sketches are lost.) Today the paintings from Leopold Wilhelm’s collection form the core of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (See also Renate Schreiber’s Erzherzog Leopold Wilhelm: “ein galeria nach meinem humor, Vienna, 2004; Schriften des Kunsthistorischen Museums, 8).
Teniers began work on the Theatrum Pictorium in the mid-1650s. Only one etching is dated: 1656, the year of Leopold Wilhelm’s move to Vienna. Whether the archduke commissioned the Theatrum or whether Teniers initiated the project himself remains unknown. Teniers, however, was the one who supervised and guided it intellectually and artistically. In the end he even published it in 1660 at his own expense. The Theatrum Pictorium is dedicated to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and includes a preface in four languages, Latin, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Besides the 243 plates after Italian paintings, it includes a dedicatory print, the portrait of David Teniers, and a plan of the exhibition rooms in Vienna. With the Theatrum, a precursor of today’s coffee table book, Teniers hoped to acquaint the educated public with works of art and perpetuate the artists’ fame.
Teniers engaged twelve, at times very young engravers for the project. The five who contributed most were Jan van Troyen with 56, Lucas Vorsterman the Younger with 52, Pieter van Lisebetten 40, Theodoor van Kessel 27, and Coryn or Quirin Boel 25. The prints are the same size as the oil sketches but for the most part in reverse to the preliminary modelli. They are arranged by regional schools and more or less in chronological order. Because Teniers employed so many printmakers the quality of the etchings varies. How he decided the division of labor among them remains unknown.
Infrared reflectography on several oil sketches in the exhibition revealed inscriptions recording what appear to be the dimensions of the original painting. Ruled lines moreover conformed broadly to the margins of the related prints and guided the printmakers where to insert the captions. They subsequently were painted over (nos. 7, 20, 21, 23. Helen Smith discussed the findings of her technical investigation of six modelli in 1999 in an unpublished Courtauld Institute of Art dissertation.) All etchings include the name of the painter of the original work of art, followed by the dimension of the paintings, and finally the printmaker’s signature. In the exhibition the small oil sketches were paired with the corresponding prints whenever possible. However, for five sketches there were no etchings (nos. 7, 16, 28, 30, 31) while four prints had no accompanying modelli.
Teniers opened the Theatrum with Raphael’s Saint Margret, the most admired work in the archducal collection (today it is considered to have studio participation). Further there were 47 paintings thought to be by Titian, 13 by Tintoretto, 15 by Veronese, an equal number by Andrea Schiavone, 23 by the Bassano, 19 by Palma Vecchio and 23 by Palma Giovane. Several of the old attributions are now questioned. The so-called Titian Portrait of a Man Holding a Letter (no. 11) actually was found to be a signed work by the little known Venetian artist Giovanni Pietro Silvio, dated 1542. A comparison between the original paintings and Teniers’s reduced oil sketches also shows changes that vary from slight deviations to rather obvious ones like wider landscape settings (no. 9). The modello after Giorgione’s Three Philosophers furthermore was drastically altered after Van Troyen had etched it for the Theatrum, when the figures were transformed into seventeenth-century Flemish peasants (no. 8).
Margret Klinge, the doyenne of Teniers studies, contributes an excellent introductory essay on the artist and the evolution of the Theatrum Pictorium, while Giles Waterfield discusses it as a publication that stands at the beginning of the presentation volume. He interprets the Theatrum as a visual celebration of ownership and traces its influence and place among the growing number of books about the visual arts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.