Friday, 27 October 2017

Reversed libraries in this work (perhaps by Marten van Valckenborch)

De Zwaan, from the Netherlands, sells on 1 November 2017 as lot 4509 a "Northern European School, ca. 1600" portrait of a seated man, estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 Euro.

It is a reasonably well painted  work, but far from a masterpiece or a great artist. It has a partly erased inscription, which I sadly can't decipher completely:
"... Reinius Hisp.
Et. S. Anno LXII"

The top line seems to be his name, Reinius (? A Latinised version of Rein or Reinier perhaps, if I read it correctly) an "Hisp." an abbreviation of Hispanicus or some other word indication a link with Spain. The second line simply says that he is 62 years old. I have so far not found any person who could be matched with this name.

What caught my attention was the library behind the man. Libraries become reasonably common in paintings after 1600, before they are very rare; but I never noticed that in many examples, the books are shown with the spine hidden and the "wrong" side to the front. This seems illogical, as the author name and title can not be seen like this: but in reality many books didn't have these things on the spine yet at the time, while the pages were sometimes gilded or otherwise coloured, and the books were closed with gilded clasps. Showing this side gives a much richer effect than the rather drab spines one so often encounters in this period.

Similar cupboards can be seen in e.g. a portrait by Claes Moeyaert from 1647, or one by Johannes Vinck from 1614, or a third by Samuel Hofmann from 1616. The standard position of books as we usually know it is shown on many other paintings of the period, but this one is not unique, just peculiar.

And researching this painting and topic in the RKD, where all the above images are from, I suddenly came upon a work by Marten van Valckenborch from 1589: this very painting!
The work was in a private collection, but previously sold at Sotheby's London in 1978, and Sotheby's Amsterdam in 1988.
It has not only an attribution, but a better description of the inscription:
'1589. M / V V' (V V beneath the M).
Below, in lighter paint: '...) PLINIVS HISP. / AET.S. ANNO LXII'.

The sitter was said to possibly be Carolus Clusius, who would match the age / date combination, but no idea how the inscribed name comes into play. Looking at other portraits of Clusius seems to indicate that this is not a portrait of him, sadly. The above portrait is from 1585, or only four years before, and shows cleearly a different man.

The attribution to Marten van Valckenborch may well be correct though, even if the name of the supposed sitter should be rejected. He is mainly known from Tower of Babels and works dominated by landscapes, but his few portraits show the same considerable skill and lack of brilliance.

The most interesting comparison can be made with a work by Valckenborch together with Georg Flegel, from 1595-1600, which was for sale at Christie's in 2015 for a staggering $500,000 (but unsold? I can no longer find it at the Christie's site...). The figures were the work of Valckenborch, while Flegel painted the flowers and fruits.

The resemblance in style is quite clear, so an attribution of the work for sale to Marten van Valckenborch seems reasonable.

Remarkable is the similarity between the flowers in the work for sale, and the flowers by Flegel in the Christie's work, especially the large central flower.I am no botanist so I have no idea at all what flower it could be, but it seems too much of a coincidence that it appears in both works (and at the same time shows that the choice of Flegel over Valckenborch for this apect was not without reason).

As a signed Marten van Valckenborch, but far from his best work, it should be worth around 5,000 Euro.

UPDATE: sold for 7200 Euro, more than 3 times the highest estimate and even above my estimate!

UPDATE 2: now again sold at Dorotheum (24 April 2018) as a Marten van Valckenborch, where it fetched  31,250 Euro. A nice profit for whoever bought this a few months ago. Seems too much to me, but it shows the value of picking the right auction house, and even more importantly getting the right attribution (certainly in this case, where it was known all along, not some recent discovery).


  1. "Plinius Hisp." probably refers to Gerónimo Gómez de Huerta (1573-16430), an Spanish physician, philospoher and translator of Pliny's "Natural History" into Spanish, who, for the importance of his works, was called by some "Plinio Español" ("Spanish Pliny"). See his biography and portrait in the following link:

    1. A friend of mine, university professor in Spain, disagrees with the identification as Gómez de Huerta and confirms the probability of Clusius instead. Among other reasons, the age of Clusius at the time of the execution of the portrait would be more approximate with the date of the painting, the vase with flowers would be allusive to his important work on tulips, and his face resembles better those in other portraits of Clusius. As for the title "Plinius hisp.", althoughn he could not find any reference to it in the sources he researched, he thinks it might be justified by the fact that Clusius published in 1576 a book on the flora of Spain.

    2. Thank you both for your interest in this and your interesting replies. Looking at images of Huerta, he doesn't really seem to resemble the man in the painting. Clusius has the advantage of fitting exactly with the age of the person plus the date of the painting, and indeed the link with the flowers. However, he also doesn't really match other images of him from the period, in my opinion. So while Clusius is more likely than Huerta, I'm not convinced about it either (but considering that multiple learned people disagree with me, it is quite possible that I am wrong and they are right of course). In any case, thank you!