Antwerp Master
c. 1620
Stamped: a panel maker's mark of a clover leaf and the coat-of-arms of the city of Antwerp, by Michiel Claessens (active, 1590 – 1637)
SELF-PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST HOLDING A PAINTER'S PALETTE, BRUSHES, AND MAHLSTICK
Oil on panel - 62.2 x 45.1 cm.

Further information

PROVENANCE

Private Collection, Europe

 

 

A young painter, elegantly dressed, gazes out toward his audience. He has faithfully recorded his features for posterity – full peachy lips, pale skin and pink cheeks, dark wavy hair, brown eyes, thick black brows, and a contemplative, fleshy forehead. He has captured himself, almost as if by a photographic ‘snapshot,’ in the moment before he is to place the single brush in his right hand to a support resting upon an easel – both of which are just out of view in the artfully cropped composition. His left thumb balances a palette dabbed with little islands of color, while (invisible) fingers support the bundled brushes and Mahlstick. Behind him, sitting on a ledge, are a single vase, a single jug, and a second painter’s palette – unadorned, hanging from a single peg. The mood is sober, and there is a rather dignified stillness in the artist at work.

 

By the black doublet and cape, and the magnificently-wrought cuff, standing collar, string clasp, and realistically-rendered brush to hand, the artist shows himself a virtuoso. But the portrait is not a study in vanity, as his emphasis is not on his self-aware (and self-evident) precocity – for this young man is neither dandy nor egoist. Rather, he is a professional painter – and at that, more courtier-in-the-making than bohemian. This self-portrait is surely his calling card, and by it, he announces himself to Antwerp society in the lineage of its leading gentleman painters, Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyck.

 

 

 

The Northern tradition of the artist's self-portrait, whilst holding palette and brushes, has an illustrious heritage that appears to be an invention of the middle sixteenth century, even if it might be argued that the format has a vague Flemish ‘ancestor’ in Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke drawing the virgin of c. 1435 – 40 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In any case, Catherina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1587), daughter of Antwerp Mannerist Jan Sanders van Hemessen, painted herself with palette and brushes in 1548 (Kunstmuseum, Basel), and it constitutes the original case come down to us. Following Hemessen’s seminal contribution, Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (1517 – 1576), in his Brussels – Utrecht period, and Isaac van Swanenburgh of Leiden (1537 – 1624), are amongst the progenitors.

 

If Mor’s composition of c. 1560 (Uffizi, Florence) and Swanenburgh’s work of 1568 (Lakenhal, Leiden) mark early efforts, other fine examples came in regular succession: Otto van Veen (c. 1556 – 1629), Swanenburgh’s pupil, tried his hand at the motif in his renowned family portrait of 1584 (Louvre, Paris), as did Jacob Willemsz. Delff the Elder (c. 1550 – 1601) in his family portrait of 1590 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Coupled with the formerly styled self-portrait of Cornelis van Haarlem (1562 – 1638) in Brussels (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) – now demoted to the master’s circle – and the Joachim Wtewael (1566 – 1638) self-portrait at his easel (1601, Centraal Museum, Utrecht), these self-portraits, with the attendant instruments of the painter’s pursuit, form a memorable set.1

 

Given the connections of the cited artists to cities both squarely under Habsburg control and free of it, it may rightly be observed that the self-portrait with palette and brushes evolved as a typically pan-Netherlandish motif, which refused the political bifurcation of the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands (1581).

 

Interestingly, a Southern tradition of the same subject – with a conspicuously parallel chronology may be seen, especially in northern Italy, but in the South the motif appears significantly earlier. Franciabigio (1482 – 1525), for instance, depicted himself with palette and brushes already in 1516 (Roosevelt Memorial House, New York), while Marco Palmezzano made his contribution to the motif in 1536 (Pinacoteca Civica, Forli). Returning to the subject from the middle century onwards, however, Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532 – 1625) in Cremona in the 1550s, as well as Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609) in Bologna in the 1590s, employed the subject of the artist with tools on numerous occasions, while Jacobo Bassano (1510 – 1592), Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574, albeit in the guise of St. Luke), Alessandro Allori (1535 – 1607), and Giacomo Nigretti (called ‘Palma the Younger,’ 1544 – 1628), respectively, painted self-portraits now in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Florence (Vasari, S. Annunziata; Allori, Uffizi), and Milan (Pinacoteca di Brera) exploring the motif. 

 

If it is true that Caravaggio himself never painted the motif, it is noteworthy that his teacher, Simone Peterzano (1540 - 1596) exploited it. So did his contemporaries and near contemporaries in Milan, Rome, and Bologna, Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574 - 1625), Orazio Borgianni (1574 - 1616), Guido Reni (1581 - 1642), and eventually, Guercino (1591 - 1666).2 Indeed Paul Bril, a native son of Antwerp, active in Italy from about 1582 until his death, made a memorable contribution to the subject, adding a lute into his iconic self-portrait of c. 1595 – 1600 (Rhode Island School of Design, Providence), whereas his friend, the Frankfurt-born Adam Elsheimer (1578 – 1610) – active in Rome from 1600 onwards – presented a classic presentation of the artist holding his tools, when gifting his self-portrait to the Accademia di San Luca, upon guild entry (1606).3

 

At the time of the conception of the present painting (i.e., the years straddling 1620), interest in the representation of the painter with the instruments of his profession had not diminished on either side of the Alps. One of Bril’s and Elsheimer’s northern successors at Rome, Schildersbent member Pieter van Laer (1599 – 1642), felt compelled to record himself with palette and brushes (Rome, Galleria Pallavicini), as did the obscure painter Niccolò Musso (c. 1595 – c. 1622) – according to conflicting histories, either a pupil of Caravaggio or the Carracci.4 

 

Also in the 1620s, Abraham de Vries (c. 1590 – 1655) made his self-portrait (1621, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) in the course of a tour to southern France and Italy, while Fleming Nicolas Regnier (1591 – 1667) – Niccolò Renieri when in Italy – depicted himself painting his great Roman patron, Marchese Vicenzo Giustanini, c. 1620- 25 (Fogg Museum, Cambridge).5 Actually, the slightly later self-portrait by Regnier – whom had himself initially trained in Antwerp – might be perceived as a hybrid case, whereby the Northern and Southern traditions (of painters depicting themselves as such) became memorialized as a trans-Alpine phenomenon.

 

But if the Zeitgeist for such an iconic depiction of the artist with palette and brushes clearly existed in the cultural capitals of both the Low Countries and Italy, it is rather odd that no fellow Antwerpenaars of the present subject (i.e., neither Rubens, Jordaens, nor Van Dyck) painted themselves ‘in the act’ – or at least holding its accoutrements. If it is difficult to make sense of that pictorial omission on their parts, nonetheless it does not leave the present self-portrait altogether unrelated to these fellow Flemings. Indeed, this work is rather close in manner to Jordaens’ two self-portraits with lute – the Jordaens family portrait of about 1615 (Hermitage, St. Petersburg) and the subsequent portrait with his wife’s family, the Van Noorts, of 1616 (Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel). Moreover, at a physical level, the proximity to Rubens is borne out in the exceptional fact that the panel markings demonstrate that the support was made by one Michiel Claessens (active 1590 – 1637), whom prepared panels for Rubens himself.6

 

 

 

Given the quality of the self-portrait, one is justifiably intent to identify the artist, but historically this has been no easy task. In the eyes of the present writer, the problem of identification essentially stems from a dearth of documentation (attached to the work in question) combined with the hypothesis that the self-portrait is a case of juvenilia. The painter portrayed is obviously quite young (but has nonetheless achieved technical competency, if not yet his own telltale style). It is probable that after having honed a reliable set of skills, a talented hand would have sought to evolve considerably, thereby becoming recognizable as an individual hand distinguishable from his master. Atop that logic, one has to recall that in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, many Flemish artists left Flanders, temporarily or permanently, going North and South, for economic, artistic, and religious reasons – sometimes a combination of all three. Thus, the lack of primary documentation related to this self-portrait, coupled with the fact that it was painted in a fleeting idiom, have kept the assignation of a known hand at bay. 

 

Notwithstanding the recognizable ‘mannered’ handling of the mature Jan Cossiers (1600 – 1671), upon first seeing this painting and in subsequent research, it has remained the inclination of the present writer that this is a lost self-portrait of the youthful Cossiers – probably marking the end of his Antwerp apprenticeship. Leaving intuition aside, there are compelling circumstantial and documentary grounds for this hypothesis, an hypothesis which has not gone without support from certain scholars of Flemish art.7

 

The prevailing difficulty, admittedly, is that we know little stylistically of the burgeoning Cossiers. And yet his biography – his training under Anton Cossiers (fl. 1604 – 1646) and Cornelis de Vos (1585 – 1651) and his subsequent travels South – taken with his presumed likeness,8 all render young Jan a logical candidate. Having completed his training in Antwerp, it feels fitting to hypothesize that Cossiers made this record of his painterly competence, before setting out for further stylistic development abroad. As Koenraad Jonckheere has agreed, it appears to capture the painter’s juvenile manner, still much indebted to the staid language of his master, De Vos.9

 

If no documentary basis for identity10 can be affixed to the known provenance of the painting under scrutiny, fortuitously another painting from the period (this one, well documented) appears to hold the key to the identity puzzle. In Paris, a triple portrait by Simon de Vos (1603 – 1676), dated 1626, which depicts that artist – flanked by his fellow painters Cossiers and Johan Geerlof – lends credence to the hypothesis that the present work is the self-portrait of the young Cossiers. In De Vos’ own hand, it is written, ‘Fecit Simon Cossiers Geerlof Anno 1626.’ What is the meaning of the inscription? As Hans Vlieghe has recounted, Simon de Vos and Jan Cossiers both trained in the studio of Cornelis de Vos (no relation to said Simon). Thereafter, the pair settled in Aix-en – Provence (Jan is first documented there in 1623), where an artists’ colonly from the Low Countries flourished. Amongst those there was one Johan Geerlof, a landscapist hailing from Zeeland.11

 

Simon de Vos, whose features were persuasively recorded in a portrait by Abraham de Vries dated 1635 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp) is identifiable on that basis.12 Although Vlieghe tell us that no portraits of Simon’s friends are known,13 he concludes that they are probably in the same order as the above-mentioned dedication, with Jan Cossiers on the left and Johan Geerlof on the right.14

 

Naïve in its execution, De Vos’ triple portrait of friendship is halfway between a portrait and a genre scene, but is not devoid of charm through its clever adoption of a Caravaggesque idiom. Whatever its limitations are as a painting, its usefulness for documentary purposes must be recognized as exceptional. Through its preservation, one comes very close – if not definitively so – to identifying the present painting as an early and eloquent self-portrait by Jan Cossiers, on the verge of his voyage to Italy, upon the completion of his Antwerp training.

 

 

Michael J. Ripps

 

 

 

1  Jodocus van Winghe (1540 – 1603), it is worth mentioning, may have also depicted himself in like manner, if it can be presumed that the print by Simon Frisius (1610) was based up on a painted portrait. Van Winghe appears to have used his own likeness in his magisterial Apelles painting Campaspe, c. 1600 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

2  Peterzano, private collection; Procaccini, private collection; Borgianni, private collection; Reni (Palazzo Barberini, Rome); Guercino painted himself with his tools on at least three occasions (ex-Richard Feigen, New York; Louvre, Paris; National Gallery, Washington).

3  See Klessmann et al. 2006 (i.e., Adam Elsheimer: 1578 – 1610), 11-41, for Elsheimer’s biography. 

4  Giovanni Romano, in 1990, organized a Musso exhibition in Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

5  Lemoine 2007 is the standard monograph for Regnier.

6  Wadum, ‘The Antwerp Brand in paintings on panel,’ 179-98, in Hermens et al. 2007 (i.e., Looking through paintings).

7  Koenraad Jonckheere (correspondence 2015); Jan Kosten (correspondence 2013). The panel, interestingly, must come from after 1617 (see Wadum 2007, op. cit., 180-81). The costume, apparently popular into the 1620s, cannot pinpoint an exact date.

8  Here, I am referencing various paintings in museums – identifying Cossiers as a subject – that will be dealt with in the following paragraphs.

9  Consider the Cornelis de Vos portrait of himself with his family (1621, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels).

10  Wheelock 2005 makes a valid point that the unattributed Washington painting, Portrait of a man in a broad-brimmed hat (c. 1630), bears a close physical resemblance to the print of Cossiers (Het Gulden Cabinet, 1662). As the Washington sitter has corresponding brown eyes, full lips, ruddy cheeks, thick dark brows, and a not-unfamiliar nose as the one observed in the portrait under scrutiny, this emboldens the Cossiers argument.

11  See Vlieghe, ‘À propos d'un portrait de trois hommes par Simon de Vos (1603-1676) au Louvre,’ in La Revue du Louvre, 1988, vol. 1, 37-38.

12  Although the 1635 portrait was made on a trip by De Vries (a Rotterdam native, active in various cities) to Antwerp, De Vries must have first become acquainted with Simon de Vos in the South, during the 1620s – Cossiers himself is recorded as having studied with De Vries in Aix-en-Provence, 1623/24.

13  Liedtke 1984 (i.e., Flemish paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) actually identifies Cossiers in Adriaen Brouwer’s Smokers (to the left of Brouwer, donning a cap with flute) – a likeness which certainly is not at odds with either the Louvre, Washington, or present depictions, whereas the old claim that the Dulwich portrait represents Cossiers appears more fanciful. In 2000, Vlieghe made reference to a painting by De Vos of the young Jan Cossiers (i.e., Concept, design, and execution in Flemish painting, 245).

 14  Vlieghe 1988, op. cit., 37.

 

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