Carel van Mander heaped praise on Hendrick van Steenwyck the Elder’s interior views of modern churches: the master was so successful in this genre that hardly anyone could exceed him. The biographer is moreover also aware that Van Steenwyck’s son, with the same name, had also entered the business of “perspective painting.” That a few decades later Steenwyck the Younger’s wife, Susanne, would also become a painter of architectural views was of course something Van Mander could not have known.
Art historians have long been aware of the works of the Steenwycks, yet interest in them was modest at best and certainly did not reflect Van Mander’s enthusiasm. This is all the more curious as Netherlandish artists families have always played a central role in scholarship – one need only think of the Brueghels, Sadelers or Valckenborchs* – while the architectural paintings of Hans Vredeman de Vries and seventeenth-century Dutch interiors have always enjoyed considerable attention. Jeremy Howarth, by his own admission not an art historian, undertook to redress the neglect paid to the Steenwycks with the present monograph.
Howarth’s book is conventionally structured, opening with the biography of the three Steenwycks. Hendrick the Elder was born around 1550, probably in Kampen (Overijsel), but was constantly on the move: from Leuven to Liège, Antwerp and Aachen, then back to Antwerp for a brief period until religious unrest forced him to leave for Frankfurt am Main, where he finally settled permanently. Hendrick the Younger was probably born in Antwerp and entered his father’s studio. He lived a number of years in London, and moved from there to Leiden, where he died in 1649. Whether he met his wife Susanne Gaspoel in London or had married her earlier in Holland is unclear. Such a gap in our knowledge is typical, and practically nothing is known about Susanne, except that she painted architectural pictures following her marriage. Later she may have lived as a widow in Leiden and/or Amsterdam; she probably died sometime after 1665. Howarth gathered his information about the Steenwyck family primarily from the older secondary literature, so that combing the archives would probably shed new light on unanswered questions.
Howarth follows with a presentation of the various genres painted by the Steenwycks: in addition to church interiors, they depict dungeons with the angel liberating St. Peter, religious scenes with St. Jerome in his study, pagan sacrifices in temples as well as architectural backgrounds for portraits. This concentration of Catholic church interiors is especially interesting since the Steenwycks were Lutherans. The next chapter is on their working methods. Since almost no drawings are known, Howarth concludes no preparatory studies were made, arguing instead that the perspectival structure was laid out on the panel. A list of the staffage painters with whom the Steenwycks collaborated is particularly helpful: father and son worked together with Gillis Mostaert, Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, Frans Francken the Elder, Frederik van Valckenborch, David Vinckboons and many others. Only a few weak figures are attributed by Howarth to the Steenwycks themselves. The author then gives a detailed overview of the history of perspectival painting from ancient times up to the twentieth century, followed by a chapter on successors, including Pieter Neeffs the Elder and the Younger. Particularly interesting is the chapter on the later appreciation of the Steenwycks: while their work was greatly prized in the seventeenth century, including in court circles in England, and was sold at auction for high prices, by the nineteenth century interest was very low. This changed somewhat in the twentieth century, but nevertheless, in the 100 or so museums with holdings by the Steenwycks, most are in storage. The situation in the literature is not much better. Their work is usually mentioned as an example of the style of the period, but is rarely included in collection catalogues of Flemish and Dutch paintings, even though they lived in both regions, where they collaborated with and influenced local painters.
The heart of the book is undoubtedly the extensive work monograph. Howarth lists 110 extant or documented works by Steenwyck the Elder, his studio and followers; 578 paintings by his son, and 10 for Susanna. If the number of works is impressive, so too is the bibliographical information. Instead of a chronological discussion of Steenwyck the Younger’s large oeuvre, Howarth sensibly opted to group his paintings in thematic blocks. This is however somewhat marred by his propensity to unquestionably accept the titles of painting given in the literature; an exact study of the paintings would have corrected many misidentified locations. All too frequently church interiors are identified as showing Antwerp Cathedral even though the attribution is not tenable. For example, the paintings 1.12, 1.13 and 1.14 all show an identical church interior with different figures but are identified respectively as St. Peter’s Church, Antwerp Cathedral and Interior of a Gothic Church with Figures. Other, similarly structured buildings have equally contradictory titles. In many cases the scene depicts fantasy architecture – as Howarth himself points out in the text.
The obvious irregularities in the names of the churches point to a clear gap in scholarly research. The clarification that has been achieved for the church interiors of Pieter Saenredam, Emanuel de Witte and others, has yet to be applied to those by the Steenwycks. It is only now that attempts are being made to determine the extent to which the architecture conforms to reality and establish the semantic depth of the works. How were the interiors of the Lutheran painters interpreted in a state marked by a religious divide? Was their aim to proclaim the Catholic mass or were they actually arguing against the use of images in the sacred space, as has been suggested (Thomas Hensel, ‘Bilderstürmende Bilder. Hendrick van Steenwijcks des Älteren Kathedrale von Antwerpen‘, Im Blickfeld, 3, 1998, 33-56)? Are the many pagan temple scenes to be understood as satirical commentaries on catholic rites? Are the depictions of the Liberation of St. Peter from the dark dungeon simply masterly renditions of night scenes or do they have a deeper meaning?
We can be grateful to Jeremy Howarth for presenting us with the material which raises these and other questions. It is now the task of art historians to build on his achievements and look for answers.
(Translated by Fiona Healy)
- Editor’s note: see the most recent publication Family Ties. Art Production and Kinship Patterns in the Early Modern Low Countries. Ed. by Koenraad Brosens, Leen Kelchtermans and Katlijne Van der Stighelen (Museums at the Crossroads, 23). Turnhout: Brepols, 2012.
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