We are accustomed to large museums of international reputation attracting visitors with exhibitions of artists with “big” names. It is therefore all the more refreshing to see a different approach taken by the Musée de Flandre in the small, idyllic town of Cassel near the northern French border. Here, far from the metropolises Paris and Brussels, an impressive show has been mounted on an artist who has been languishing in obscurity far too long: Erasmus Quellinus (1607-1678). As so many Flemish artists of his generation, during his lifetime he was productive, successful and highly esteemed, only to disappear over time in the shadow of Peter Paul Rubens. In 1988, Jean-Pierre De Bruyn, co-curator of the exhibition and co-editor of the catalogue, published the first monographic treatment of the artist. This is now followed by the first retrospective, with over fifty works, forty-three from international museums and fourteen from private collections. Twenty are signed, nine among them also dated and four are dated only which allows for a good overview of the artist’s development as a painter.
After the introductory early Self-Portrait of the Artist with His Wife, Catherina de Hemelaer, and Their Son Jan-Erasmus from Cincinnati, of c. 1636 (1.1) which still shows the manner of the Rubens workshop, the exhibition is divided into three sections distinguished by differently colored walls. In the first section, “Between Baroque and Classicism,” are displayed two of the six paintings Quellinus executed for the Torre de la Parada, the hunting lodge of Philip IV for which Rubens designed a series of paintings. Here, for example, Jason and the Golden Fleece (1.2) already shows the beginning of the artist’s own style though still committed to Rubens. A welcome feature of the exhibition display is that comparative works, in this case Rubens’s modelli, are reproduced on the exhibition labels. The main work in this section is The Birth of the Virgin Mary (1.4), no longer dated to 1640-45 but rather c. 1655. Indeed, the painting displays the harmonious synthesis known as Baroque Classicism. Thus already at the outset we experience the distinctiveness of Quellinus’s style who, unlike Theodoor van Thulden or Jan Boeckhorst, after 1640 did not continue to work in the style of Rubens or Van Dyck. The classicist element can also be found in the four Marian representations displayed together though unfortunately not in chronological order (1.5-1.8). The earliest, The Virgin and Child(1.7), still shows the influence of the Rubens workshop, while The Immaculate Conception (1.8) of c. 1655, with its idealized facial types and cooler coloring, demonstrates the connection to Rubens and Classicism.
At the center of this section stand four works of Baroque Classicism, manifesting Quellinus’s personal style: The Triumph of Galatea (1.19), The Beheading of John the Baptist (1.20), Artemisia Drinking the Ashes of Mausolos (1.18), and Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes, shown in two versions from Vaduz and Budapest respectively whereby the one from Vaduz (1.16) stands out in its meticulous execution and excellent condition, whereas the inferior quality of the version from Budapest might indicate a studio production. The four paintings from the years 1643 to 1652 demonstrate the “Quellinus style” at its high point, characterized by the integration of architectural sceneries, classically formed figure and facial types, as well as a light and lively palette. We still find compositional arrangements and motifs taken from Rubens, as for example in The Beheading of John the Baptist, based on Rubens’s composition now in a private collection. Rubens’s and Quellinus’s shared interest in sculpture and the antique is poignantly demonstrated in Artemisia Drinking the Ashes of Mausolos where in the foreground we find a funerary urn which may have been in Rubens’s collection. Quellinus’s increased classicism in his later years is best seen in Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me (1.21), fittingly exhibited on a cool blue background. Unfortunately, the condition of the painting as well as the lighting are weak, obscuring its painterly quality. Notwithstanding, the work demonstrates the logical development of Baroque Classicism with its monumental, classical architecture known to the artist through Serlio’s treatise, published in Antwerp in Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s translation in 1539. The section closes with the Portrait of a Young Woman from a private collection (1.23) that captivates the viewer with its sensuality and high painterly quality. As stated in the catalogue, the image of the anonymous young woman, wrapped in fur with one breast exposed, is Quellinus’s response to Rubens famous representation of his wife, Helena Fourment, in a fur coat, the so-called “Het Pelsken”, which in turn was inspired by Titian’s Young Woman in a Fur Coat in Vienna. Rubens made a copy of the latter, now in the Queen’s Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, which Quellinus copied in a painting formerly in the collection of Wolfgang Burchard, Farnham, Surrey (see Jeremy Wood, Rubens: Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Later Masters: Italian Artists II: Titian and North Italian Art [Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XXVI, 2], London 2010, no. 141, COPY 2). Quellinus went back to this image in his Venus pudica, formerly in Galerie Jürg Stuker, Bern, which uses the same model as the exhibited portrait (Jean-Pierre De Bruyn, Erasmus II Quellinus [1607-1678]. De schilderijen met catalogue raisonné, Freren 1988, no. 36).
The second section of the exhibition, “Love for the Art of Sculpture and Familial Legacy,” covers Quellinus’s collaboration with Jan-Philips van Thielen and Gerard Seghers in the production of flower pieces as well as designs for title-pages and other engravings. The flower pieces are impressive in the high standard of painterly execution. At the same time they convey the sense of what must have been a collegiate atmosphere among the artists who often were connected by familial ties. Looking at the grisailles at the center of flower garlands and the cartouches the question arises to what extent Erasmus Quellinus was influenced by his brother, the sculptor Artus Quellinus. In the case of Flower Garland with the Virgin and Child and the Infant Saint John(2.6) the connection is evident since in the central medallion Erasmus copied a sculpture of the Virgin and Child by his brother now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. Although in other cases the relationship is not as obvious, it seems reasonable that an artistic exchange among close family members conquered the usual division of media. What remains an open question, as posed by Alain Jacobs (p. 32) is whether the motif of the Virgin nursing her child, whose refined, elegant apperance is unusual among sculptural images of the time, was an invention of the sculptor Artus or the painter Erasmus. Several modelli illuminate the relationship between the painter and publishers or engravers. Among these, An Allegorical Scene (2.4) including the personifications of Logic, Theology and Metaphysics, probably designed as a book illustration, demonstrates Quellinus’s philosophical knowledge.
The final section is devoted to Quellinus’s collaboration with still-life and animal painters, in small format, e.g. Jan van Kessel, as well as large format, e.g. Jan Fyt, Pieter Boel, Adriaen van Utrecht and Paul de Vos. While seamlessly integrated into the compositions, his figures nevertheless retain their stylistic individuality. At the same time, this part of the exhibition demonstrates one of the specialties of the Antwerp art scene: the collaboration of equal partners who did not work against each other but together to create something new. Even this mode of operation retained aspects of the Rubens studio.
The catalogue contains four essays which illuminate Quellinus’s life and stylistic development (Jean-Pierre De Bruyn), the role of sculpture in the artist’s paintings as well as the mutual influence of Artus and Erasmus Quellinus (Alain Jacobs), and the relatively low esteem of artists from the circle of Rubens in the nineteenth century at hand of works by Quellinus in French collections (Sandrine Vézilier-Dussart). The catalogue entries by the three authors augmented by Cécile Laffon, Joost Vander Auwera and Baptiste Rigaux are informative and well illustrated in color. Unfortunately they, as well as the exhibition, are not arranged chronologically so that it is difficult to follow the artist’s stylistic development. The catalogue closes with an extensive bibliography and a “Werkkatalog,” listing 247 paintings and 61 drawings, almost all discussed previously in one of the 29 publications by Jean-Pierre De Bruyn cited in the Bibliography.
The exhibition is an important contribution not only to Erasmus Quellinus but seventeenth-century Flemish painting generally, acknowledging the importance of the artists “in de voetsporen” (“dans le sillage”) of Rubens who until recently had unjustly been almost forgotten. Exhibitions, doctoral dissertations, including by this reviewer, monographs and oeuvre catalogues on artists such as Theodoor van Thulden, Jan Boeckhorst, Cornelis Schut, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, Pieter Soutman, Gaspar de Crayer and Gerard Seghers in the meantime have adjusted the imbalance.
(Translated by Kristin Belkin)