Apart from a few articles and an important slim monograph (Juliette Roding and Marja Stompé, Pieter Isaacsz (1568-1625), Hilversum, Verloren, 1997), Pieter Isaacsz has largely slipped under the radar of those currently studying Dutch art around 1600. This is understandable, as his surviving known works are not many and are concentrated in the major museums of Denmark, with few in other collections. However, Danish historians in the early nineteenth century assessed his reputation differently, as they were familiar with Isaacsz’s work and recognized the narrative clarity and inventiveness of the Dutch art brought to Copenhagen by Isaacsz. The grander and better known works of Goltzius overshadow those of Isaacsz. However, Isaacsz offers a parallel to the slightly older Goltzius in making a transition from a highly artificial mannerist style to one with more naturalistic concerns, in portraying a range of subjects from erotic mythology to the bible and history, and in appropriating other artists’ inventions.
This volume is welcome as the authoritative publication on Pieter Isaacsz and art patronage under Christian IV. It comprises 17 essays on topics including the artistic milieu in Amsterdam, graphics, militia pieces, court portraiture, various decorative projects at Rosenborg and Frederiksborg castles, and two of Isaacsz’s pupils: his son Isaac and Adriaen van Nieulandt; and it concludes with a catalogue raisonné of Isaacsz’s surviving 48 paintings, drawings, and prints. Even though this is the most comprehensive publication on the artist, it is not complete, because it does not include some paintings recently discovered as signed by Isaacsz; the series of 14 biblical paintings from Ledreborg manor house will need to be brought into the oeuvre in the future (p. 237). This find is an indication that the oeuvre might grow with other such discoveries.
Isaacsz was well served by his family ties between Denmark and the Netherlands, including his wealthy father who acted as an agent for King Frederik II and for a group of Danish noblemen from around 1567. Pieter Isaacsz himself was born in Elsinore. He studied briefly around 1583 with Cornelis Ketel in Amsterdam, and then worked with Hans von Aachen in Italy and Germany as an apprentice, probably beginning around 1585 (p. 35). The Italian experience was to have a lasting effect on his art, as he would often appropriate entire compositions or individual figures from the paintings and sculpture he had seen in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Returning to Amsterdam in 1593, he married and started a family, and was quite successful as a painter. During his years in Amsterdam and after moving to Copenhagen in 1614, Isaacsz selected suitable works by Dutch artists for the Danish crown to purchase. His role as art dealer involved advising Christian IV on decorative projects and acquisitions in general, and also on the role of art in diplomacy (p. 155). In 1617, following his father’s death (1615), he inherited the lucrative position of States-General’s Commissioner for the Sound in Elsinore; this position involved supervising the shipping traffic and representing trade relations between the Dutch Republic and Denmark. He was also recruited by the Dutch ambassador to Sweden as an informant on Danish military activities (p. 159).
Isaacsz served Christian IV (b. 1577 – ruled 1596-1648) as court painter from 1614; in this capacity, he painted numerous portraits of the royal family that were reproduced in print in Amsterdamy, by Adriaan Matham and Jan Muller. He was responsible for the grand series of paintings that decorated Christian IV’s palaces. The pageantry of the court is well documented in literary descriptions but less so in visual form. The themes of the pageants and decorative programs of Christian IV reveal a compendium of knowledge, Protestant imagery, and a world view very current at the time. The spaces integrate architecture, sculpture, painting, and furnishings, and were intended to impress foreign visitors with their splendor.
Christian IV built Rosenborg Castle and decorated its Great Hall with paintings that comprise “Renaissance human cosmology, the seven liberal arts, the seven ages of man, and the seven planets” (p. 26). Pieter Isaacsz supervised the decoration of over 36 paintings for the Great Hall, between 1618-1622. The artists involved in making these paintings were Isaacsz himself, his son Isaac Isaacsz, Frantz Cleyn, Reinholdt Thim, and Søren Kiær. Christian also expanded an earlier castle, Fredriksborg, and oversaw its decoration which included cycles of paintings in the Private Oratory, Royal Chapel, Great Hall, Audience Hall, and Summer and Winter Chambers. For the Private Oratory, Isaacsz travelled in 1618 to Amsterdam to commission 23 paintings on copper from the Dutch artists Pieter Lastman, Adriaen van Nieulandt, Jan Pynas, Werner van den Valkert, and possibly Peter van Harlingen (p. 165). The Oratory was completely destroyed by fire in 1859, but it can be partially reconstructed from various records. All the paintings represent scenes from the life and parables of Christ, with the exception of Christ Reveals Himself to Christian IV.
In assessing Isaacsz’ oeuvre, Eric Domela Nieuwenhuys points out the affinity between it and that of Van Mander, and suggests that there was “reciprocal influence” between the two artists (p. 121). From his early work of c. 1600, such as the Allegory of Vanity, to his later paintings of 1622, such as the Giants and Gods series for Rosenborg Castle’s Great Hall, Isaacsz developed from a mannerist painter to one who was receptive to the greater naturalism and chiaroscuro effects of the next generation of painters, including Pieter Lastman and Louis Finson (p. 126). The court’s demands for portraiture undoubtedly aided his interest in life study. In all, he was a versatile artist and, quite likely, a happily well-paid government official and spy.