The Systematic Catalogue series documenting the rich collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington continues to grow since its inception in the 1980s. Exactly twenty years have passed since the publication of the exemplary first volume, Early Netherlandish Painting, by John Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff. The present volume, the sixteenth in the series, is devoted to the collection of seventeenth-century Flemish painting. No better scholar than Arthur K. Wheelock could have been chosen for the task, for not only has he served as long-term curator of the National Gallery’s Netherlandish Baroque paintings, but is also well known for his excellent catalogue, Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, published in 1995. He could moreover rely on a highly qualified team of restorers, who also carried out special technical examinations of the Flemish works.
Compared with old European collections, the Gallery owns a comparatively small number of Flemish paintings, less than sixty in total. The uneven distribution of artists and genres means the collection does not offer a general historical overview of the very diverse nature of artistic production in Flanders. Especially sorely missed are examples of the cabinet paintings that were typical for Antwerp, though exceptions include Dishes with Oysters, Fruit and Wine by Osias Beert the Elder and Flowers in a Basket and a Vase by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Equally under-represented are landscapes, with just two by the latter, one by David Teniers the Younger and two from the studios of Abel Grimmer and Peeter Gysels; examples by the great masters of Baroque still-life and marine painting are sought in vain. However, viewers have no difficulty in recognizing the highlight of the collection – the Gallery’s outstanding group of portraits. Of these, the most dazzling are by Anthony van Dyck, represented by no less that seventeen autograph works, a number that reflects his high esteem, which at the time of the founding of the National Gallery in 1941 far exceeded that of Rubens. Bequests by Peter A.B. Widener (1942) and Andrew W. Mellon (1937, 1940) laid the foundation for the Flemish collection in Washington, followed by gifts from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation (1952). During the 1930s, Mellon succeeded in acquiring paintings that were sold off by the Soviets from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The taste of the leading collectors of the new world was for aristocratic elegance, so that their lack of interest in works by Jacob Jordaens hardly comes as a surprise, and even today he is still not represented in the collection.
Mellon and Widener’s indisputable preference for portraits by Van Dyck has informed the special character and high quality of the National Gallery’s Flemish collection. These works reveal the artist’s close relationship to the family of his teacher Rubens, as is so impressively demonstrated by Van Dyck’s portraits of Rubens’s wife, Isabella Brant, and of his sister-in-law, Susanne Fourment. Painted in 1621 before Van Dyck departed for Italy, both show a comparable stylistic approach and psychological conception – indeed, both women, who were also distantly related, even wear the same, costly chain. Isabella’s portrait appears brighter overall, with a looser and more open brushwork, particularly in the background, an impression undoubtedly heightened by an early relining. André Felibien’s account in 1666 that Van Dyck painted a portrait of Isabella before leaving Antwerp, as a present for Rubens, is certainly plausible and, as Wheelock convincingly argues, can be taken to refer to the present painting.
Equally notable are Van Dyck’s later life-size portraits of aristocratic women with their children or servants. His 1633 portrait of the English queen Henrietta Maria shows her together with fourteen-year old Sir Jeffrey Hudson, her court dwarf and member of her intimate circle. With her right hand she touches the small monkey perched on the arm of Hudson, who gazes up at her while holding an orange, a reference to the orange tree in the background as a symbol of love and loyalty. Van Dyck depicts this imaginary scene of the young woman standing next to the column and crown, the insignia of the court, turning ever so slightly towards Hudson with moving intensity and great psychological perception. According to the catalogue text, the painting exudes the neo-platonic ideal of a life devoted solely to the intellect that permeated the English court. But does the resulting interpretation really do justice to the portrait’s individual message? One may assume that Van Dyck’s skill made it possible for him to identify the personal wishes of the queen and replicate them in a suitable fashion. That he was moreover particularly talented in portraying children is evident from his two paintings of 1623 showing the children of the Genoese patrician Giacomo Catteno – here the decisive influence of Titian is easily discernible. With admirable meticulousness Wheelock describes and analyzes not only the state of preservation and manner of execution of all of Van Dyck’s portraits but also evaluates their style and importance.
But beyond these works, the collection also offers other important examples of Flemish portraiture. The most outstanding of these is the group portrait of Deborah Kip, wife of Balthasar Gerbier, with her children. Rubens, a friend of Gerbier, began the painting whilst staying with the family in their house in London in 1629/30, and though he brought it back to Antwerp, he never completed it, so that upon his death it was finished by another artist, probably Jacob Jordaens. While a technical examination of the support, composed of numerous pieces of canvas, contributed to a greater understanding of the painting’s evolution, the lack of a compositional drawing or preparatory sketches by Rubens means that the reconstruction of his original intentions must remain conjectural. The function of the visually domineering caryatids on the upper right, quite possibly by Jordaens, is unclear and suggests that at the time of Rubens’s death only the figures had been executed.
Problems of a different kind are found in the half-length portrait of an elegant man against a landscape background (pp. 103-107). Dated to around 1630, the black-and-white coloring of this impressive work is anything but conventional and is reminiscent of the chiaroscuro style of the Roman followers of Caravaggio while simultaneously betraying something of Rubens’s manner, particularly evident in the evening landscape. Previously thought to be the work of Jordaens, it is now attributed to an unknown seventeenth-century Flemish artist, though Wheelock does make the interesting suggestion that it might be by Jan Cossiers. This proposal is certainly worth following up, even if Cossiers figural paintings show a rather different, looser type of brushwork and only a few comparable portraits by him exist. The man’s expression and self-confidant pose has much of a self-portrait, and Wheelock refers to an engraving by Pieter de Jode after a self-portrait by Cossiers at an advanced age. This can be augmented by a 1626 painting by Simon de Vos (Musée du Louvre), published by Hans Vlieghe, showing Cossiers in profile (La Revue du Louve, 1988, pp. 67-68). The physiognomy of the painter is quite close to that of the man in the Washington portrait and certainly seems to support the identification of the sitter as Cossiers.
It was only in the 1960s that the outstanding group of Van Dyck portraits was matched by the acquisition of a number of important works by Rubens. They also serve as an impressive demonstration of the importance accorded history painting in Antwerp, and include modelli for tapestries. Of course Rubens’s monumental Daniel in the Lions’ Den deserves mention. Its importance remained long undetected despite its seamless provenance stretching back to 1618, when sold by Rubens to Sir Dudley Carleton, so that it practically constituted a new discovery for the artist’s oeuvre when acquired by the Gallery in 1965. The National Gallery today owns nine autograph works by Rubens, two of which were painted during his time in Italy. The Fall of Phaeton was begun in 1604; its bold and highly dramatic composition is particularly interesting as Rubens clearly worked on it until about 1606 and during this time continually made corrections and additions, described by Wheelock in detail. The use of light and the handling of spatial difficulties inherent to the scene posed a particular challenge. It is plausible to assume Rubens brought the Fall of Phaeton back to Antwerp after he left Italy since aspects of the composition appear in some of his later works, such as the Defeat of Sennacherib (c. 1615)in Munich. It however remains uncertain whether the Hero and Leanderin New Haven really is the pendant to the Washington painting, a suggestion first proposed by Michael Jaffé on the basis of similarities in style, date and dimensions; no other pair showing the same thematic constellation is known.
The almost life-size portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, painted in Genoa in 1606, shows Rubens’s early mastery and the enormous scope of his imagination. Robbed of its full glory by having been cut down on all sides sometime before 1886, the painting originally hung together with Rubens’s equestrian portrait of Giovanni Carlo Doria (Genoa, Palazzo Spinola), Brigida’s brother-in-law. Because of commitments in Rome, the artist had little time to complete the commission, and in the Technical Notes on this work Wheelock provides a detailed description of Rubens’s brushwork and a lively account of the various stages of execution. The paint and the make-up of the support of all works discussed in the catalogue were systematically analyzed and the manner in which the findings were evaluated for their relevance for the artistic interpretation of each work must be seen as one of the outstanding features of the catalogue.
In a fascinating study that far exceeds the call of duty for a catalogue text, Wheelock offers interesting insights into the masterpiece of the Flemish collection: Rubens’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den of c. 1615. He connects Rubens’s account of the event, which was rarely depicted and which differs from established pictorial tradition, with the spirit of the Counter Reformation and its deliberate emphasis on the role of Old Testament heroes as typological prefigurations for events of the New Testament on the one hand, and with the intellectual world of Stoicism, familiar to Rubens and his brother Philip from the teachings of Justus Lipsius on the other. Rubens succeeded in infusing these ideas into a composition so unusual that its authenticity has at times been questioned, though his authorship, also evident in the numerous pentimenti, is indisputable. What remains unanswered is the question of who or what inspired Rubens. In view of its enormous size (224 x 330 cm), the possibility that he simply executed it for his own satisfaction can be excluded in favor of an unknown patron who commissioned the work for a specific location sometime before 1615. Since the painting was still in Rubens’s studio in 1618, when he offered it to Dudley Carleton, one can only assume the patron was either dissatisfied with the result or for some unknown reason withdrew from the contract. The lions, which Rubens proudly noted were drawn ‘from life’, take up the greater part of the composition and in view of the subject’s theological message could conceivably have been considered inappropriate. We know Rubens sometimes re-acquired his own compositions for high prices – the early history of Daniel requires further clarification.
Wheelock’s catalogue is a lavish work that offers rich pickings for scholars of Flemish Baroque painting. It sets a very high standard for future catalogues in this area.
(Translated by Fiona Healy)