This book constitutes the most comprehensive study to date of Teniers’s life and work. It reviews and updates the source material, and constructs a new image of Teniers as a painter.
Hans Vlieghe’s interest in Teniers was aroused in 1958-60, when he was preparing his master’s thesis at the University of Ghent under the supervision of the late Professor Jozef Duverger, entitled David II Teniers in het licht der geshreven bronnen. In the 1960s he published a series of articles based on it, but from the 1970s onwards his career and research changed direction. As he explains, once retired he resumed his research on Teniers, and reached the conclusion that the published and unpublished source material he had accumulated over the years was in need of a new critical reading, interpretation and contextualization. The result is this biography that proposes a new image of Teniers.
Based on the information gathered from the archives combined with secondary literature – in the Introduction Vlieghe gives a precise overview of Teniers’s critical reception, starting with the biography by Cornelis de Bie (1661), the first to “canonize” him as a major Flemish painter – Vlieghe’s book sheds new and decisive light on the question of Teniers’s artistic choices; his enormous artistic success and consolidated reputation in Antwerp, Brussels and abroad; his swift ascent up the social ladder that started in Antwerp with his marriage to Anna Brueghel in 1637 and culminated with his appointment as court painter in the service of Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels and eventual ennoblement; his slight artistic decline after his term as court painter; and his final poverty due to his increasing difficulty to respond to changing tastes and his children’s financial problems.
Decisive is the author’s image of the young Teniers as a painter scarred by his father’s financial ruin, who consequently decided to look for an alternative path to that of his father in order to exploit the new demands of the market (see also Hans Vlieghe, “Going Their Separate Ways: The Artistic Inclinations and Paths of David Teniers I, II and III,” in: Family Ties, Art Production and Kinship Patterns in the Early Modern Low Countries, ed. by Koenraad Brosens, Leen Kelchtermans and Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Turnhout 2012). Therefore, soon after he registered as an independent master in 1632-33, he consciously set aside the landscapes with biblical, mythological or historical subjects in Adam Elsheimer’s naturalistic style, which he had learned from his father, to follow instead the new realistic style of peasant scenes as introduced by Adriaen Brouwer, who renewed this genre going back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Besides giving a detailed account of Teniers’s life and artistic development, Vlieghe suggests new and innovative interpretations of some of the biographical facts as well as some of the artist’s paintings. Taking into account the good relationship between Teniers and Rubens, the author proposes that Rubens may have triggered Teniers’s interest in Brouwer, by whom Rubens acquired no fewer than seventeen paintings in the 1630s. He offers a convincing explanation based on documentary evidence of the way Teniers managed to establish a clear image of himself as an artist through his contacts with Antwerp’s art dealers, and of the way he presented himself as a gentleman of rank. Especially relevant is the explanation for Teniers’s appointment to court painter, which seems to definitively rule out the traditional assumption that it was motivated by the Archduke’s delight in Teniers’s peasant scenes, which he first saw in Antonius van Triest’s home. In Vlieghe’s opinion, since in those years Leopold Wilhelm started to build up his collection on a grand scale, a more plausible explanation is the painter’s good relations to Antwerp’s important art trade, which enabled him to obtain information about major works of art in Antwerp collections for his patron’s benefit.
As for Teniers’s efforts to be elevated to the nobility, Vlieghe considers that they are accurately reflected in the three portraits of the artist known to have been produced during his term at the court in Brussels: one given to his eldest son David III together with one of his late mother, identified by the author with the pair of portraits by Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert in a private collection (figs. 52, 53); the other two being the portraits by, respectively, Filips Fruytiers (fig. 55) and Pieter Thijs (fig. 57). The first presents him as court painter and social climber; the second as the prominent Antwerp painter; while the third transmits an aristocratic image of the artist. Further important contributions of the book are the extensive study of Teniers’s working relationship with his eldest son David III, trained by his father to become a tapestry cartoon painter, and the documentary appendices with the transcriptions of relevant documents hitherto unpublished.
When it comes to the paintings, the proposed identification of Teniers’s dancing scene listed in the inventory of the Torre de la Parada (1700) with the Peasant Dance in the Prado (cat. P-1788) seems to be accurate. According to the note in the margin added later (most probably on the occasion of the 1794 inventory) the painting was destroyed in 1610. But, as the author points out, Alpers (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, IX, 1971) has demonstrated that some of the “destroyed” paintings listed in that inventory eventually turned out to have been saved. This one is not listed in the next inventory of the Torre de la Parada (1794), but in that same year is listed in the inventory of the Royal Palace in Madrid (“Gabinete Primero”). It would have been brought there after 1773, since it is not listed in the inventory of the Royal Palace of 1772 (and later on, to the Prado). The present dimensions of the Prado painting (120 x 188 cm.) do not entirely coincide with those of the painting listed in those old inventories (ca. 210 cm. width), but it has been cut on both sides.
With regard to Teniers’s appointment as “pintor de cámara” (court painter) in 1650, and as “ayuda de cámara” (chamberlain) in 1657, Vlieghe doubts whether there was any essential difference between the two positions. It should be pointed out however that at the Spanish court (and, consequently, at the court in Brussels) these were two totally different jobs and, besides, it was most unusual for a painter to serve as chamberlain. In fact, there was only one other case, which dates from the same time: that of Velázquez, whose aim was also to be elevated to the nobility.
We can be grateful to Hans Vlieghe for presenting us with this biography that greatly enriches our understanding of Teniers’s life and work, and represents a turning point in the studies on the painter. The author’s lucid style and succinct explanations of the different issues will not only enrich the specialist’s knowledge but also make the book accessible to non-specialists.
Teresa Posada Kubissa
Museo Nacional del Prado