Frederick van Valckenborch was a Flemish painter and draughtsman and the son of Marten van Valckenborch I. He must have received his first training in Antwerp, possibly from his father, although his earliest works, two drawings—the Deluge (1588; London, British Museum) and Moses Drawing Water from the Rocks (1589; Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum)—contain figures of a completely different type from Marten’s. This has prompted the theory that, whereas he studied landscape painting with his father, he must also have worked with an Antwerp figure painter.
In the 1590s Frederik and his brother Gillis probably left for Italy, although there is no evidence for this beyond the existence of a drawing, Fantastic River Landscap (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), signed, dated and inscribed ‘gillis van valckenborch, roma 1595’. Frederik’s work does reveal an Italian influence, as, for example, in a drawing with a View of Venice on the recto and a River Landscape on the verso (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). The View of Venice with its sketchy and selective character seems to have been drawn from nature, while the River Landscape has definite Venetian characteristics: the shape of the whimsical overgrown rocks, their use as a frame and the motif of the tall inclining trees. Whether Frederik went to Italy or not, by the beginning of 1597 he was back in Frankfurt am Main, where he became a citizen on 24 February. Presumably in the same year he married and in 1598 twin sons, Frederik and Wilhelm, were baptized in Frankfurt. Frederik had two more sons, both of whom became painters: Moritz (bapt 17 Aug 1600; d 1632) and Nicolaus (b c. 1603). In 1602 Frederik the elder left Frankfurt to settle in Nuremberg, and in 1607 he received a commission from Archduke Maximilian for a copy (untraced) of Albrecht Dürer’s Assumption of the Virgin, formerly in the Dominican monastery in Frankfurt (now Städel Museum), a six-month task in which he was assisted by the Nuremberg painter Paul Juvenel. In 1612 Frederik was commissioned by the Nuremberg authorities to design an arch for the Triumphal Entry of Archduke Matthias.
Only a small number of paintings signed or monogrammed by him are known, which may explain his relative obscurity. Much of his work is characterized by violent contrasts between light and dark and by animated forms that lend a dynamic, if somewhat threatening, quality to the whole (e.g. Mountainous Landscape, 1605; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). In this they are typical of late Mannerism, a feature of which was the novel treatment of the foreground, which, instead of being a limited zone leading the eye into the distance, now takes up most of the composition and functions independently of the background. These characteristics are displayed in Frederik’s earliest surviving work, the drawing of the Deluge. The whole, rather dark foreground of rocks, trees and bizarrely shaped, gesticulating figures forms a semicircular frame for a distant view of a light, mistily drawn and almost visionary background, in which Noah’s ark and a number of figures are standing on a spit of land. These two contrasting spatial planes are quite unconnected to each other: there are no roads or rivers linking the foreground and the background, which is accessible only to the eye of the viewer.
A number of paintings, such as the Shipwreck of Aeneas (Rotterdam, Museum Boymans–van Beuningen), reveal Frederik’s interest in depicting the forces of nature. The stormy interplay of forms, combined with a smooth and flowing brush technique and violent contrasts between light and dark, creates a dynamic, almost visionary, quality. The impression is of intentionally unbalanced compositions constructed for expressive ends.
By contrast, many of Frederik’s drawings seem to demonstrate a quest for realism in depicting nature. Most belong to the so-called Travelling Sketchbook, originally attributed to Lucas when in the collection of the Archduke Frederick of Austria (1856–1936; the book was subsequently broken up and its contents dispersed). Most of the sketches it contained, objectively descriptive and topographically accurate, were produced during the last years of the 16th century, when the artist was travelling in the Alps and the Danube area. The impulse towards topographical accuracy forced him to create serene and simple scenes that were true to appearances in the coherent portrayal of space and in the faithful depiction of individual motifs. Frederik is thus an artist of contrasted aspects: in his late Mannerist style producing vividly imagined but contrived effects and in his travel drawings aiming for an unadorned realism.
Valckenborch is represented in the following collections: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Museum Boymans–van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna; The Louvre, Paris; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; Städel, Frankfurt; Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, amongst others.