Carel Vosmaer provided a list of 53 paintings by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) in his book on Rembrandt, first published in 1868 and reprinted in 1877. That list signals the beginning of modern interest in the artist. It is fitting that Tico Seifert’s book should be published in 2011, one hundred years after the first and only catalogue raisonné of Lastman’s work, by Kurt Freise, in which about 150 paintings were catalogued. During the last fifty years, Lastman has had a good run of publications, by Christian and Astrid Tümpel, S.A.C. Dudok van Heel and others, in various books and exhibition catalogues; and he has had two solo exhibitions, Amsterdam in 1991 and Hamburg in 2006 (HNA Newsletter and Review of Books 24/1, April 2007, 25-27 reviews recent literature). Now, Lastman has a handsome and substantial monograph of his own.
This monograph, revised from the author’s dissertation (Freie Universität Berlin, 2008), includes a catalogue of the mythological and historical paintings, which tally 14 authentic, 2 attributed, and 16 lost works. Seifert discusses many of Lastman’s paintings of subjects from the Old and New Testaments in his extensive analyses of the artist’s relationships to Italian art, to his reading, to his Amsterdam contemporaries, and to his most famous pupil Rembrandt. By limiting his catalogue to the mythological and historical paintings, Seifert concentrates on Lastman’s most appealing and intellectually compelling works.
Foremost of these is The Dispute between Orestes and Pylades (1614; Rijksmuseum; Cat. A4), to which Seifert devotes a lengthy chapter. He identifies the edition of Euripides used by Lastman with that with annotations by Caspar Stiblin, Geneva 1602 and 1614. Stiblin’s notes directed the reader to additional ancient sources, which he quoted in brief. Relying primarily upon Euripides, Herodotus and Ovid (respectively, Iphigenia Taurica, Historiae, and Epistulae ex Ponto) for specific details, Lastman also consulted Van Mander. In addition, Seifert suggests that Lastman read Lucian (Toxaris and possibly De Domo) and another Ovidian work (Tristia). Relevant for Lastman, Lucian amplified aspects of the friendship between Orestes and Pylades, the temple setting, and the presence of Thoas (p. 85).
Pliny’s account of Timomachus’s painting of Iphigenia, Orestes and Pylades was repeated by Van Mander in his lives of the ancient artists (pp. 85 and 283). Rivalry with an ancient artist may have prompted Lastman to paint this subject in the first place, but ancient sculptures may also have contributed to his interest in this theme. Two reliefs were well known in Renaissance Rome. The sacrifice preparation scene is depicted on the Villa Albani relief, which was engraved by Agostino Veneziano (pp. 70-71, figs. 55-56). The recognition scene is a side panel to the Orestes sarcophagus at San Stefano in Cacco, Rome (before 1530), later in the Vincenzo Giustiniani collection. Although Lastman may have been familiar with both of these, he may have been particularly intrigued by the confrontational scene of Iphigenia and the two Greeks, belonging to the Orestes sarcophagus. For the paraphernalia of pagan sacrifices, Lastman turned to Guillaume du Choul’s Discours de la religion …, (Lyon 1581), whose illustrations may have been more interesting to him than the text (pp. 79-80).
Lastman’s Dispute demonstrates peripiteia, a scene of recognition and resolution, and the artist’s familiarity with current rhetorical theory. Aristotle’s use of the episode of Iphigenia recognizing Orestes and Pylades as an example of ‘recognition at will’ was presented by Daniel Heinsius, who emphasized its importance in his De tragoediae constitutione of 1611 (p. 84). As a complex synthesis of text, visual precedent, and archaeological accuracy, it is unequalled in Lastman’s oeuvre.
Several of Lastman’s paintings appear to proceed entirely from their textual sources, but their relationships to visual precedent may yet be clarified. Surely Lastman could conceive of rendering an unusual subject on his own. Lastman’s Dido Sacrificing to Juno (1630; Stockholm; A13) follows the Virgilian account literally, and also has resonance in several Dutch plays that similarly depend upon the fourth book of the Aeneid. Two well known visual precedents may be mentioned: Sebastian Brant’s illustrated Aeneid (Strasbourg, 1502) and the Vatican Virgil, a late antique manuscript that was acquired by the Vatican from the Fulvio Orsini collection in 1604. Brant’s woodcut was suggested as Lastman’s model by Christian Tümpel and displayed at the Hamburg exhibition in 2006, hors catalogue. As a cluttered and mystical sacrifice scene, the Strasbourg Aeneid woodcut has little affinity with the orderly Lastman. On the other hand, Lastman’s painting has affinity with the Vatican Virgil, which was among the highly prized works in the Orsini collection. In its narrative clarity, the spare illustration of Dido’s sacrifice may have been a source for Lastman.
Lastman’s two paintings of Nausicaa Encountering Odysseus (1609, Braunschweig, A1; 1619, Munich, A8) follow the Homeric text and have many references to art that Lastman viewed in Rome. Seifert rightly notes (p. 230) that they are “the earliest representations of this theme in Netherlandish painting.” However, Lastman’s familiarity with the Homeric narrative may have been an inspiration to render this theme, as an addition to these illustrated series. His portrayals of Dido and Nausicaa may be independent of explicit visual models but are thematically linked to the tradition of illustrated Homers and Virgils. Such series generally get less attention by the author, although he perceptively indicates Crispijn de Passe and Goltzius as visual models for several of Lastman’s paintings (pp. 165f).
Two Lastman paintings explicitly connect to contemporary Dutch theatre for their subjects and salient details. The Hippocrates Visiting Democritus (1625; Lille; A9) depends upon Venator’s play of 1603, as well as the text by Hippocrates which inspired Venator (1573 ed.), but the painting also has a precedent in Jan Pynas’s painting 3) of 1614 (Amsterdam, Rembrandthuis, on loan; p. 10), also based on the Hippocrates text. Bacchus Offering the Crown of Marriage to Ariadne(1628; Stockholm, Universitets Konstsamling; A 12) follows P.C. Hooft’s play Theseus ende Ariadne of 1614, with a timely reprint of 1628, and may also reflect common sources in ancient literature, notably Catullus and Ovid. However, in other cases, the relationship between the theatre and Lastman’s paintings is not so clear, as the various playwrights could also have been inspired by Lastman’s paintings: Dido Sacrificing to Juno (1630; Stockholm; cat. A13); and the lost Sophonisba (copy; cat. C 1).
Lastman’s choice of subjects relate to specific publications, rivalry with ancient art, and moral meanings. The publication dates of related texts can be correlated with Lastman’s Dispute and Ariadne (p. 138). A competition with famous lost ancient paintings may have spurred Lastman to paint the Dispute and Nausica. The themes of Nausica, Dido, and Bacchus meeting Ariadne relate to acts of Hospitality and Help for those in need. The unusual Triumph of Sesostris (San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum) of 1631was inspired by the 1630 publication of Johann Ludwig Gottfried’s chronicle with its illustrations by Matthäus Merian, and also relates to several emblem books; the reversal of fortune would have particular meaning for an artist who was nearing the end of his life (p. 138).
Two of the four artists who are recorded as pupils of Lastman are well known: Lievens and Rembrandt. Two other pupils named by Houbraken are Pieter Nedek and Jan Albertsz Rotius. The artists who adapted aspects of Lastman’s paintings include Adriaen van Nieulandt, Claes Moyaert, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and Rembrandt. Over his career of 23 years (approximately 1608 to 1631), Lastman produced about 150 paintings; the lack of participation by pupils is consistent with the generally autograph appearance of these paintings, as well as the very few documented pupils.
Seifert suggests promising directions for investigation. One is the possibility of exchanges between Lastman, Jordaens, and Rubens. On his 1618 visit to Holland, Rubens may have viewed Lastman’s work, notably The Collapse of the Milvian Bridge (Bremen; p. 237). Lastman owned a painting by Jordaens of The Four Evangelists, which may, in addition, have held particular interest for Jan Lievens, who lived in Antwerp from 1635-1644, and who may have visited Antwerp earlier. Another fascinating direction Seifert investigates is that of artists’ reading and its consequence for art production. The books read by Lastman are cross-referenced to nineteen other artists’ libraries in the Netherlands. The largest and best documented of these belonged to Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Saenredam, and Cornelis Dusart. The libraries of Rubens and Lastman were essential to these artists’ history paintings, in which they often followed texts quite closely. For Saenredam and Dusart, however, the process of reading in history and poetry does not connect as directly with their artistic output. Finally, it is fruitful to bring into the discussion the Rembrandt workshop drawing, The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa (fig. 259), which is in the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA.
Lastman’s erudition and skillfulness were noted by his contemporaries. At last, these qualities have been articulated for our own time in Seifert’s study, which is an essential addition to all libraries.