Bernadette Van Haute’s catalogue of Flemish paintings in public collections in South Africa refines Gillian Carman’s checklist published in 1994. Thanks to her further research a number of paintings have been more securely attributed, although the authorship of over half of the 77 items still remains uncertain. The author deserves every credit for this painstaking reworking of the field, surely a thankless task as few paintings of merit came within her remit (which, librarians should note, is not confined to the seventeenth century as specified in the book’s title).
As the author shows, the contribution to this generally dispiriting group from the Randlords was on the whole small. Of previous owners we read hardly anything of the Beits, J.C. Robinson and Abe Bailey, and nothing at all of Eckstein or Wernher. Cecil Rhodes, of course, was not interested. The great exceptions were Sir Max and Lady Michaelis. But the Flemish paintings, which formed part of the rapidly assembled collection that Michaelis bought from Sir Hugh Lane and gave to the nation in 1913 and then those bequeathed by his widow, were a mixed bag. Outstanding are Frans Snyders’s Concert of Birds and the Portrait of Antoni van der Gouwe by Cornelis de Vos.
Notable are the three paintings bought since the last World War. The Pentecost from the workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst is part of a composite altarpiece commissioned for Sint Truiden abbey in Limburg. The other extant components were identified by Edwin Buijsen and his colleagues in a Bonnefantenmuseum publication of 2000; they also threw light on the work’s origins. Also bought in 1962 was the self-portrait by Catharina van Hemessen; here is followed Karolien De Clippel’s commentary on the picture (Catharina van Hemessen (1528-na 1567), Brussels 2004) whose pendant, it is argued, is likely to be the portrait in Cologne, probably depicting the artist’s sister.
The last and striking acquisition from this period is Thomas Willeboirt Bosschaert’s Assumption of the Virgin, with symbols of the Immaculate Conception. It was executed at the end of the artist’s successful career as the modello for the large altarpiece commissioned by the powerful Count of Fuensaldaña to decorate the high altar in the church of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception which Fuensaldaña had founded in his homonymous town near Valladolid. The altarpiece and the preparatory works have been discussed by Axel Heinrich (Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert (1613/14-1654), Turnhout, Brepols 2003, reviewed in this journal Nov. 2004) and Anne-Marie Logan (“Drawings by Jan Boeckhorst and Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert,” in: Shop Talk. Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, ed. by Cynthia P. Schneider, William W. Robinson and Alice I. Davies, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, pp. 159-163). A noteworthy difference between modello and finished picture is the absence in the latter of the banderole above the ascending Virgin, which was itself an after-thought in the modello as the fine detail reproduced by Van Haute shows.
Of the three ‘greats’ of Flemish seventeenth-century painting, we catch only glimpses. A portrait in three-quarter length of a man in profile, catalogued perhaps optimistically as from the studio of Rubens, is said to derive from a bust-length rendering in Copenhagen, although it is not discussed in Koester’s catalogue of Flemish paintings in the Statens Museum of 2000. A seated Bacchus, neglected but for some emergency palliative attention, is described as after a painting attributed to Jordaens last seen on the New York market in 1921 and apparently not subsequently alluded to in the literature.
Of Van Dyck there is a three-quarter length copy of Ferdinand de Boisschot; according to Horst Vey (Susan J. Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar, Horst Vey, Van Dyck. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven/London, 2004, p. 406, III.A15), the original claimed by Van Haute as in a private collection in South Africa is itself a repetition. Described as from Van Dyck’s studio is what looks to be an impressive full-length portrait of Johan Oxenstierna (1611-1657) from the Michaelis collection. The sitter was the son of the great Swedish chancellor, who made an official visit to King Charles I in 1632. As far as can be judged, this work owes little to Van Dyck and seems not likely to have been executed in England. It would have been desirable if Van Haute had investigated this portrait more fully. A possible author might be the Ghent-born and trained Anselmus von Hulle (1601-after 1674). Wurzbach, at the beginning of the last century, recorded a portrait of the sitter by this artist of 1648 in a private Swedish collection. But the work under consideration here seems to date from the mid-1630s.
It speaks of the pretension of this publication that every painting and some details are reproduced in color, but the quality of which is variable. Some are blurred and fuzzy, for instance those of the De Caullery and Van Hemessen, which makes commentary on them that much more hazardous. It should be possible to identify the painter in the staffage of the larger of the two Neeffs church interiors, but here too the reproduction lacks clarity in the details. That said it should be added that plenty of comparative works are reproduced in black and white.
With no disrespect intended towards De Maere and Wabbes, Van Haute’s reliance on their illustrated dictionary of 1994 for the artists’ biographies means that she is relying on at least two removes from the primary sources. The dictionary is credited for her account of the life of Jordaens, in which she states incorrectly that the artist settled in Utrecht in 1661, where on 7 [sic] of June 1677 he was visited by the Prince of Orange. On the other hand for the paintings themselves, she has consulted a wide range of acknowledged experts.
For those who are far distant from the culture and history of South Africa, it will be saddening to learn that old masters there are “packed away in storerooms owing to their association with the racist belief in white supremacy” (p. 3). Admittedly it has to be said that a museum storeroom would be the fitting place for a good many of the works discussed here; but it is heartening that in such a climate an academic of the calibre of Bernadette Van Haute should consider their study as a worthwhile pursuit. And thus she has thrown light on a group of paintings which might well have remained totally neglected by the wider world of art historians.