Remember in an earlier post when I said that the study of provenance can tell us a lot about the history of taste? We’ll see how by taking a closer look at one of the paintings in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The painting is Doubting Thomas—sometimes called The Incredulity of St. Thomas—by Dutch artist Adriaen van der Werff (1659–1722).
Adriaen van der Werff started his career by painting in the style called Fijnschilder, which literally means “Fine School”. In Fine School painting, the goal was to create a painting that is so smooth and pristine that individual brushstrokes could not be seen. Often the artworks were small and filled with details that required close looking and layers of symbolism. A perfect example is our A Young Woman at a Window with a Parrot and a Birdcage, which you can see bellow (and which will be discussed in a future blog post!).
By the late 17th century, van der Werff began to change his style, painting in a classical style that was popular in France. Doubting Thomas is a perfect example of this classical style. You can see it in the long, elegant proportions of his figures and in his rich depiction of costume.
To illustrate the point, consider two paintings by van der Werff telling the biblical story of Sarah bringing Hagar to Abraham. One he made in 1696 (which is in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg) and the other he made just three years later, in 1699 (which is in the collection of Staatsgalerie im Neuen, Shleißheim, Germany). A visual comparison is aided by the fact that the paintings have the same composition. Here are a few ways that you can see the shift in his style:
The earlier painting has a warm glow found in Dutch paintings; the later painting has muted, enamel-like colors.
The torso of Abraham in the earlier painting is well-modeled but in a fleshy style typical of northern Europe. Abraham’s torso in the later painting is chiseled like a classical god. Even his facial hair is now curly, like many depictions of Zeus or Poseidon. The proportion of his arms has elongated, too.
The face of Sarah has become more detailed and wrinkly in the later painting, and the overall feeling of her skin is that of carved marble.
Even the setting in the later painting looks more like antiquity, with fluted columns and a metal pitcher sporting a classical relief.
It is probably not surprising, then, to find out that van der Werff had access to engravings of classical art and of artworks by earlier artists who were inspired by antiquity. In fact, we know of two engravings that were inspiration for van der Werff for our Doubting Thomas. They come from a 1671 book by printmaker Jan de Bisschop (1628–1671), which was specifically produced for artists to study.
The figure of Christ in Doubting Thomas is a classical heroic nude, from the highly defined chest to his perfect contrapposto. If you didn’t know the subject matter of the painting was from the Bible, it would be understandable if you thought that the man in green was poking at an ancient sculpture!
For the figure of Christ, van der Werff quoted directly from Plate 14 of Jan de Bisschop’s book (you can see it at right). It reproduces the ancient sculpture in the Vatican Museum known at the time as the Belvedere Antinous.
The second print from Jan de Bisschop’s book that van der Werff used is plate 16. This engraving reproduces Michelangelo’s Risen Christ with the Cross found in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The head of van der Werff’s Christ, with his curly hair and beard, is a direct quote from this print.
Christ is not the only part of the painting that has sources from prints. The composition of Doubting Thomas is drawn from Italian and French academy paintings that were getting their inspiration from the classical past.
Take another look at Doubting Thomas. It is reminiscent of a clearly laid-out Roman relief: Christ and Thomas are front and center, turned in order to have their bodies facing the viewer. The rest of the apostles group around them, almost disappearing into the amorphous dark setting decorated with some classicizing drapery. Everything is very ordered and idealized. The figures are strongly curved and create a flowing outline.
Van der Werff probably took inspiration for the composition from a print of the same subject by Gerard de Lairesse, the leader in French classicizing style in Holland in the 17th century. Here is that print in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Now that we have a good understanding of Adriaen van der Werff’s style, in part 2 of this post we’ll see how the provenance of our painting provides an interesting look at the history of taste.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.