Room for Art in Seventeenth-Century Antwerp / Kamers vol kunst in 17e-eeuws Antwerpen was, to my knowledge, the first exhibition to focus exclusively on gallery paintings, a subject restricted to Antwerp-trained artists for the duration of the seventeenth-century century. With less than two dozen works the show had an appealingly modest scale that allowed time for unhurried looking at the myriad details. The stated motivation of the Rubenshuis and the Mauritshuis was to bring together the well-known gallery painting each owned by Willem van Haecht and display both with a third example from a private collection at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.
I only visited the slightly smaller show at the Mauritshuis, which had a tri-partite structure similar to that of the catalogue. Visitors first entered an unexpectedly tiny room – lacking the usual introductory wall text. The situation evoked a visit to a private collection, especially since only one work could initially be seen, a small panel by Frans Francken II of an unidentified couple seated in front of a wall covered with paintings. The only other work on display, a small allegorical gallery painting also by Francken, hung on the opposite wall. Stepping into the next gallery brought another surprise: the first glimpse of one of Van Haecht’s gallery paintings took the form of a mirror reflection. This second room contained the standard wall text about the whole show as well as the three gallery paintings by Van Haecht. Visitors could confirm the reliability of the artist’s reproduction of paintings, sculptures, and prints as the exhibition included four of the original works of art he copied in The Art Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest. Also, as a comparison for the ‘speaking’ figure of Van der Geest amidst his visitors, the show brought in Anthony van Dyck’s memorable portrait of the collector. Proceeding chronologically, the last gallery displayed only examples from the mid and late seventeenth century. Half the space highlighted David Teniers’s varied pictorial documentation of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’s extensive holdings, and the other half brought together three of the rare collaborative gallery paintings made between 1660 and 1680. Ingeniously, the exhibition ended with the same motif with which it began – but on a monumental scale. Looking back from the exit door a visitor saw an unidentified couple by Gonzales Coques against the backdrop of a (collaboratively produced) collection of paintings.
The catalogue consists of three essays, with the middle one devoted to Van Haecht, reproductions of each work with minimal individual entries, and a selected bibliography. The first essay by Ariane van Suchtelen provides a solid, balanced overview of the history of seventeenth-century gallery paintings. Judiciously, she rounds-out her survey with additional early examples, especially by and after Jan Brueghel I and Frans Francken II. The natural history specimens clearly visible in two of the latter’s close-up displays (Figs. 8, 9) provide an occasion to explain the significance of occasional non-art objects in the early examples. Because the next essay, by Ben van Beneden, focuses exclusively on Willem van Haecht, Van Suchtelen’s general essay only emphasizes the increased documentary value of his gallery depictions, in which each work reproduces one that actually existed. In contrast with this necessarily succinct section, she discusses at length the varied ways in which David Teniers II documented the extensive collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm through gallery paintings, miniature copies of individual pictures, and the first illustrated catalogue of a collection (Theatrum Pictorium). (All were exemplified in the exhibition.) Since the “final heyday” of the genre in Antwerp returns as the main subject of the third essay, also by Van Suchtelen, her survey essay only introduces the rare collaborative examples from 1660-1680. As she points out, a pre-1618 precedent existed for such co-operative productions: working together with twelve other Antwerp artists, Jan Brueghel I produced two innovative gallery paintings depicting The Five Senses for the heads of state, Archduchess Isabella and Archduke Albert (the originals were destroyed by fire but copies were made for Philip IV and are now in the Prado; see figs. 10, 11).
In the eighteenth century the genre of gallery paintings spread beyond Antwerp-trained artists and its international popularity far exceeded the well-known examples Van Suchtelen cites. Unexpectedly, for her concluding illustration she uses the late eighteenth-century Art Gallery of Jan Gildemeester by Adriaan de Lelie, an Antwerp-trained painter (fig. 27). De Lelie’s gallery painting does demonstrate continuity in format with Antwerp tradition, as she notes, but it also deviates from precedent by including among the figures in the gallery two contemporary women closely examining the art on display. If women appear in earlier examples they seem uninvolved or listen to what men say. The closest to an exception exists in Van Haecht’s Gallery at the Mauritshuis where two women in fictional classical dress examine porcelain tableware imported from China. By contrast, De Lelie and other late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gallery painters frequently show contemporary women as active viewers of paintings. Not coincidentally, this change in the representational tradition paralleled the shift in art theory from emphasis on the intellect of both artists and viewers to recognition of the importance of feeling.
Ben van Beneden is the author of the second essay, titled “Willem van Haecht. An Erudite and Talented Artist.” From 1627 this painter and art dealer worked as a curator for Cornelis van der Geest, a prosperous spice merchant and lover of art. Van Haecht’s gallery paintings have been discussed by Julius Held, Ben Broos, Gary Schwartz, Fiona Healy and others, so this was an opportunity to bring together the most significant material, add to it, and make some generalizations. Examination of the Mauritshuis version in a conservation laboratory yielded particularly interesting new material; for instance, Van Beneden reports that none of the depicted paintings have an underdrawing except for the linear perspective lines used for a church interior by Pieter Neefs. The three gallery paintings on display date from 1628-ca. 1630, the earliest being that from the Rubenshuis. As Van Beneden summarizes, the latter work has the highest documentary value, showing recognizable paintings that Van der Geest probably owned as well as distinguished visitors who came to his house at different times.
The other two gallery paintings display hybrid collections with real works from different sources and with anonymous contemporaries as well as fictional, allegorical (donkey-headed men destroying a collection) and historical figures. Unprecedentedly, Paracelsus joins the other men in the gallery painting at Butte, as if he stepped out of Quentin Massys’s portrait on the back wall of the Art Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest. A ground-breaking physician, botanist, astrologer, and alchemist, Paracelsus exemplifies a viewer whose presence affirms the wide-ranging intellectual value of art. Equally new, Alexander, Apelles and Campaspe (the same classical trio as in the drawing by Jan Wierix that Van Haecht emphasized in The Art Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest) appear as actual historical personages in the Maurithuis painting, where however Campaspe wears clothing based on a sixteenth-century Italian portrait probably owned by Van der Geest, while Alexander’s pose and clothing derive from the Perseus that Rubens painted on the garden façade of his house. Van Beneden dates these two gallery paintings to ca. 1630, with the version at Butte postdating that at the Mauritshuis. In both the artist includes three Moors who are not servants. Their roles, it should be added, suggest they have a lesser capacity to gain knowledge through their own eyes: one Moor listens to what a Caucasian says about a painting and a twice-repeated Moor only touches a globe while he looks up at the bearded Caucasian who studies it with his compass.
Van Beneden begins his essay with the statement that Van Haecht “appears to have been as erudite as he was talented.” In support of this introductory generalization he emphasizes the references the artist makes to neo-stoicism, the art works, and house of Rubens. This and other supporting data cannot suffice to demonstrate Van Haecht’s own erudition, especially since Van Beneden concludes that “it is almost impossible to say to what extent Van Haecht was responsible for the content of his compositions.” Whether through the artist’s decisions or those of his patron, the gallery paintings do stand out as curiously innovative. More than in examples by predecessors and contemporaries, recognizable works and motifs recur with little or no variation yet major changes take place in the size as well as configuration of the depicted spaces and in the identity of the figures.
In the third essay Ariane van Suchtelen returns to the few collaboratively produced late examples, each a real collection in its own right, as her title “Collecting within the Picture Frame” suggests. She ably summarizes the plausible interpretations and those that are problematical because the date or identity of figures has been misinterpreted. She also provides helpful information about the chronological sequence in which the collaboration took place.
A well-planned appendix contains user-friendly identifications of the works in five gallery paintings, including all three of the late collaborative examples. Numerous high-quality color illustrations and especially the wealth of details make this fine catalogue doubly useful.
Williams College, Williamstown