Pieter Neeffs the Elder (Antwerp 1578?- c. 1656/61) and Frans Francken II (Antwerp 1581-1642)
A Church Interior with Elegant Figures Strolling and Figures Attending Mass
signed ‘PEETER/NEEFFS’ (upper right)
signed ‘Dj ffranck.f.’ (upper right)
oil on panel
50.5 x 66 cm (19⅞ x 26 in)
SOLD to the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia.
given to the previous owner by the late Ivy Gordon-Lennox, Duchess of Portland (1887-1982).
The striking linearity and geometric boldness of Pieter Neeffs the Elder’s depiction of a church interior is complemented by Frans Francken II’s highly engaging figure studies. Elegant figures assemble while the poor and crippled beg for alms and the church, which is almost certainly Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp, is full of incident and diversion as citizens of all classes mingle together. Wealthy and poor alike kneel in prayer, converse with their families or promenade down the nave. The presence of mischievous children, scampering dogs, and beggars, lends the scene a note of informality, softening the severity of the imposing cathedral architecture.
Antwerp Cathedral has changed little over the centuries despite its turbulent history. Water damage destroyed the ceiling and Gothic furniture of the building in 1533, and in 1566 and again in 1581 the interior was badly damaged by Calvinists during the iconoclastic furies. In the early 1600s the cathedral's sanctuary and monuments were restored and sculptures of the Virgin and apostles were set up above the columns of the nave, as can be seen in the present painting, but in the late eighteenth century these were destroyed. Besides the removal of the sculptures, and the addition of pews in the nave, one can see that in Neeffs’ and Francken’s time, the cathedral stood very much as it does today. It is exceptionally large, with the tallest church spire in the Low Countries, and has seven aisles and 125 pillars. Construction began in 1352 and ended nearly two hundred years later, although the cathedral was never fully completed. The immense Gothic monument was, in the seventeenth century, and still is today, a testament to the wealth and power of medieval Antwerp.
A Church Interior with Elegant Figures Strolling and Figures Attending Mass portrays the cathedral during the day, with light streaming in through the Gothic windows. Neeffs’ talent for precisely capturing architectural detail and utilising tunnel perspective is evident, and from the artist’s positioning just to one side of the lofty nave, the viewer gets a sense of the impressive bulk of the pillars and the symmetry of the arches and vaulted ceiling. The contrasting dark and light shapes of the floor provides further evidence for the artist’s ability to realistically portray perspective.
Francken II, or a member of his workshop, evidently contributed to the painting after Neeffs had completed the interior for on closer examination, details of the background can be seen through the figures. The figures, despite being small, are elegant and fluid, acting as points of emphasis to dwell on as the eye wanders through the vast interior. In the central foreground of the composition a gentleman cuts a dashing figure with his red cloak and flowing hair. He and a more soberly dressed companion converse with a clergyman. Three boys and an attentive looking greyhound stand at their sides. Sitting at the base of a pillar to the right, a woman holding an infant stretches her hand out for alms. An old man struggles by on crutches and behind him several women of different social classes filter into the room. On the left of the composition a beggar with a bandage around his head and a cane gestures with his empty hat towards two well-dressed women. Elsewhere, single figures or groups of two or three stand, kneel or stroll through the grand space. Part of the way down the nave, a large number of men and women, separated by gender, attend mass at a side altar. Two fashionably dressed ladies and their male companions stand, perhaps indicating their different rank from the others who kneel. The composition portrays a cross section of the populace of seventeenth-century Antwerp and serves as an interesting social record.
The present work is one of many similar compositions produced by Neeffs in collaboration with Francken II or other artists. The large number of variant images in existence is a reflection of their popularity amongst visitors to Antwerp who wanted souvenirs of their travels. One example, that is similar both architecturally and in the groupings of figures, also signed by Neeffs and Francken II, is in the Utton Essex Collection, England. The Interior of a Gothic Church with Elegant Company shows a view of the cathedral from the same point of perspective as the present work, although it is simplified and compacted.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg has several other related examples, some of which were acquired by Catherine the Great and were originally in the collection of Baron Pierre Crozat, a connoisseur of Italian, Flemish, French, Dutch and Netherlandish paintings, and that of Count Cobenzl, the Austrian diplomat and politician and minister of St. Petersburg. In 1815, Emperor Alexander I purchased another Neeffs along with the collection of Eugène de Beauharnais, the adopted son of Napoleon I.
Interior of a Gothic Church, painted by Neeffs with the figures added by an unidentified artist, shows the cathedral interior from a different vantage point compared to the present painting. It is set at night-time and the only source of light in the composition comes from a small chapel where several figures kneel in prayer and a clergyman stands at the altar. Outside the chapel, another clergyman and two altar boys stand, a gentleman kneels and a richly dressed couple walk by with a small dog. The majority of the painting is bathed in darkness, giving it a gloomy, crypt-like atmosphere. The difference between the bustling daytime depiction of the cathedral in the present painting and the rather cheerless impression created by the night version in the Hermitage is palpable.
A further painting by Neeffs in the Hermitage, also dated to 1649, shows the same subject and perspective with a different style of lighting and distorted proportions. The altarpiece, for instance, is much smaller in the second version and clearly illustrates the crucifixion, whereas in the first our view is obstructed. More figures crowd into and around the chapel and the light emanating from it is slightly harsher in comparison. Neeffs was evidently deeply interested in the effects of artificial lighting on architecture and space and reworked the same compositions in order to capture these changes in ambience.
Our present painting appears to have been used as the basis, and a form of prototype, for later paintings by Neeffs and Francken II, and also for later works by their family members and respective workshops. A painting in the Hermitage executed by Neeffs’ son, Pieter Neeffs II (1620-after 1675), and Frans Francken III (1607-1667), the son of Francken II is almost a direct imitation of the present work. On first impression, the two compositions are almost identical architecturally, however Neeffs II has slightly altered the angle from which he captures the nave and aisles of the cathedral and he has shortened the distance from where the viewer stands to the chancel screen,where a crucifix is now suspended. Francken III has kept the basic groupings of figures, with the addition of a few more, and updated their dress and elegant gesturing to correspond to the fashions of the later date.
All three members of the Neeffs family, Pieter Neeffs the Elder and his sons Ludovicus Neeffs (1617-c.1649) and Pieter Neeffs II, specialised in paintings of church interiors. Their depictions vary in accuracy and interpretation while employing the same use of tunnel perspective and lighting effects. The iconographic and stylistic similarities between Pieter Neeffs the Elder and Pieter Neeffs II are particularly apparent, although it is generally agreed that the quality of works by Neeffs the Elder was superior before c.1640, when his son joined the workshop. Ludovicus is the least known family member and his hand is more difficult to identify. The Neeffs family employed various artists to paint the figures in their compositions, including Francken II, Francken III, Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625), Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573-1647), David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) and Bonaventura Peeters (1614-1652).
Pieter Neeffs the Elder was probably taught by Hendrick van Steenwijk the Elder (1550?-1603), who is recognised as the creator of the genre of architectural painting that was so popular in both the northern and southern Netherlands and adopted by Neeffs. Steenwijk introduced an element of realism into his images and suggested depth and spatial recession using colour, light and shadow in an unusually sophisticated manner and passed this technique on to his pupil.
Like Neeffs the Elder, Frans Francken II, was the most talented and well-known of his family. Three generations of Franckens had the same names and signed their works in similar ways, which makes it testing to reliably distinguish between each artist. Francken II, however, stands out as the most accomplished. The founder of the family workshop, Nicholas Francken (c.1510-1569), moved to Antwerp with his family in the early 1560s and had four sons, all artists, of whom Frans Francken II was one. His brothers largely specialised in altarpieces, genre scenes and landscapes, and his sons Frans Francken III, Hieronymous Francken III (1611-after 1661) and Ambrosius Francken III (c.1614-1662) followed in their father’s footsteps, producing altarpieces, painted furniture panels and small cabinet pictures with historical, mythological or allegorical scenes. Frans Francken II was not only prolific, but innovative in his subject matter, and his illustrations of richly decorated cabinets of curiosity and art galleries inspired artists such as Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625), Rubens (1577-1640) and David Teniers the Younger, while his invention of ‘monkeys’ kitchens’ (moralising scenes in which monkeys personify different vices) was adopted by Jan van Kessel (1626-1679) and Teniers. Although accomplished at figure painting, he was less good at depicting backgrounds, and left the landscaping and interior scenes to other specialist artists.
Frans Francken II presumably apprenticed in his father’s studio and may have furthered his training with his uncle Hieronymus I in Paris. In 1605, he became a master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, where he served as deacon in 1616. There are no dated works by Frans prior to 1600, which makes it difficult to establish a clear chronology of his early career. After 1620, he changed his colour palette and method of applying paint, and instead of using a thick layer of impasto, began to superimpose several transparent layers of pigment, combined with lighter binding oils. This created the gauzy sheen apparent in the clothing of the figures in the present oil and gave his subjects more fluidity and grace.
The painting’s provenance, having been in the ownership of the Duchess of Portland is of great interest: the Duchess of Portland, Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley (1715-1785) was married to William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland. She housed her ever expanding collection at Bulstrode Hall, Buckinghamshire, which also contained pieces from the Arundel Collection to which she was heiress. The Duchess of Portland is perhaps best known for her ownership of the celebrated ‘Portland vase’. It was not, however, the only famous piece in her collection. As a whole her extensive and diverse collection was known as ‘The Duchess of Portland’s Museum’ and comprised paintings, of which this present work was one, busts, coins and one of the greatest collection of natural specimens. Following her death in 1785, the collection was auctioned off a year later. Horace Walpole, son of the great collector Robert Walpole wrote of the Duchess: ‘Few men have equalled Margaret Cavendish, in the mania of collecting, and perhaps no woman. In an age of great collectors she rivalled the greatest ...’