The present painting is a very characteristic work by the Antwerp master Sebastiaan Vrancx (also known as Sebastia(e)n Vranc(k)x). This Baroque painter and draughtsman is principally known for his battle-scenes and cavalry engagements, a genre which he pioneered in Netherlandish painting. In fact, approximately half of his known works are devoted to military scenes. This finely executed and remarkably well-preserved battle-scene can be counted among the finest treatments of that subject within the artist’s oeuvre. Although images of warfare and representations of peasant revolts were not uncommon in Netherlandish painting of the sixteenth-century, Vrancx’s dynamic vision of men and horses in the midst of conflict is highly original for the Low Counties and appears to have been inspired by pictorial foreign sources, which Vrancx would have known primarily through prints and engravings1.
In the present picture the viewer is presented with a violent skirmish between – possibly Dutch and Spanish – soldiers, although it is difficult to distinguish both sides from each other. As the fierce confrontation rages on, horseman are thrown to the ground, others ride off in various directions and in the right foreground a white riderless horse flees from the battle2. Although it is not clear which side has the winning hand, the scene appears to depict a decisive moment in the conflict. Instead of lauding the idealized Idea of Heroism of military exploits, Vrancx bears witness to a brutal display of human violence and its results, typically aligning himself with the quest for realism characteristic for the Northern Renaissance. Apart from its realistic approach in subject matter, the picture it is still a carefully arranged and skilfully composed scene: every element is integrated into a dynamic, yet balanced composition, which displays Vrancx’s considerable artistic skill at regarding perspective. In addition his skill is demonstrated in the lifelike representation of horses in motion.
Although almost an exact contemporary of the influential Antwerp master Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), Vrancx's oeuvre can stylistically be placed in the transition of the late-Mannerist style to the early-Baroque period. His landscapes are clearly influenced by Antwerp predecessors such as Paul Bril (1554 – 1626) and, to a lesser extent, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568 – 1625), with whom he collaborated3. Since only few of his works are dated, it is rather difficult to date Vrancx’s rather homogenize oeuvre with great precision or accuracy. However, the present picture can be dated to the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century, demonstrating as it does a clear-cut and determined handling of form – note for instance the more dynamic execution of the trees – in combination with a symmetrically arranged composition, which is characteristic of his early-mature period. In fact, the composition of the present landscape is comparable to Attack on a convoy, signed and dated ‘SEBASTIANVS • VRANCX / ANTVERP: FECIT A 1616 •’, which is kept in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle4. Striking is the employed compositional devise of the a slightly asymmetrical spatial arrangement, with a dominant element to the left is balanced out by a right oriented sight-line composed of figures. In addition, the second horseman from the left in the present picture is almost identical to the one in the foreground of the Windsor-scene. A second comparable work, A wooded landscape with travellers in a horse-drawn cart, figures and cattle on a country road, auctioned at Christie’s London in April 2014, mirrors the present composition regarding spatial arrangement and is also dated to circa 1620 on stylistic grounds. As such, the present picture was arguably executed towards the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century, around 1620, at which stage Vrancx’s work was in considerable demand. As such, this beautifully preserved panel is an important addition to the artist's early-mature oeuvre.
ARTIST’S BIOGRAPHY AND OEUVRE
As a native of Antwerp, Sebastiaen Vrancx was baptized on 22 January 1573 in the St James Church in Antwerp5. He was the son of Jan Vrancx, a merchant, and of Barbara Coutereau. He was an apprentice in the workshop of the history painter Adam van Noort (1561/62 – 1641), who also taught other prominent Antwerp painters, such as Peter Paul Rubens6, Jacob Jordaens and Hendrick van Balen.
Vrancx finished his apprenticeship before 1597, when he travelled to Italy. He was active in Rome for an undetermined period of time, as demonstrated by an engraving the French engraver Jean Turpin – who was living in Rome – made after the painting7. He also visited Tivoli, where he made several drawings of the city and its surroundings8. By 1600 he was back in his native city. In that same year he became a master of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke9, of which he was second dean in 1610 and first dean in 161110. In 1610 he was also invited to join the prestigious Confrerie of Romanists, an exclusive and erudite society of Antwerp humanists and artists, to which both Jan Brueghel the Younger, Frans Francken II and Hendrick van Balen also belonged.
Sebastiaan Vrancx would remain in this native city of Antwerp for well over four decades, until his death in 1647. There he married in 1612 Maria Pamphi (or Pampfi, baptized 28 February 1576), who was the daughter of Bartolomeus Pampfi, a dealer in paintings, and Margareta Oflenberg11. Together they had a daughter Barbara, born on 8 June 1613. In 1617 Vrancx became dean of the Confrerie of Romanists12. The diversity and high positions held by the Confrerie's membership offered him a good opportunity to meet with potential patrons13. Vrancx was a member of the chamber of rhetoric De Violieren14, which was linked to the Guild of Saint Luke. Vrancx was a very active member in the chamber of rhetoric and when he served as its factor he wrote about thirteen comedies and a number of poems15. In 1621 he became captain of the Civic Guard. After two terms of five years he was released on 15 November 1631 of his obligations, giving him exemption from tax and municipal services as a reward. The position also entitled Vrancx to carry a sword. It was in a vigorous pose with a sword on his side that he was portrayed by Anthony van Dyck16. In 1639 Vrancx met with personal tragedy, when his wife Maria died on 19 April and their only daughter Barbara on 19 May 1639, one month after her mother. He himself died on the same day eight years later, on 19 May 164717.
Although Sebastiaan Vrancx is mainly known and celebrated for his landscapes with battle-scenes, he also painted landscapes with mythological and allegorical scenes, scenes with robbers, village scenes, celebrations in cities or outdoor banquets, for which he gained the recognition of his collogues, with whom he often collaborated. Vrancx was known as a gifted figure painter and was regularly invited to paint the ‘staffage’ in compositions of fellow painters. Several of such collaborations are known18. Still, he was particularly reputable as a painter of battle scenes and Peter Paul Rubens is known to have owned one of his battle scene paintings. Vrancx appears to have led a relatively small studio of which only a few apprentices are known. His pupils included celebrated masters such as Peter Snayers (1592-1667) and Pieter Meulener (1602-1654), who both became renowned landscape and battle painters in their own right, but also Juan de la Corte (ca. 1585/90-ca. 1660/2), who would later become court painter to Philip IV in Madrid and the lesser known Balthasar Courtois (ca. 1587/1607-ca. 1641/61)19. Whether or not Vrancx oversaw a large studio practice is debated in spite of a frequently cited letter of 1634, written by Jan Brueghel the Younger to his business partner in Seville, assuring him that: ‘Vrancx has plenty to do but refuses to employ studio assistants, which means that work takes a long time. He does not allow copies to be put into circulation’20.
THE BATTLE-GENRE IN NETHERLANDISH ART
As the name suggest, the so-called ‘Battle-genre’ is a subgroup within the visual arts which describes both military scenes on land and naval battles. It serves to capture historical facts and eyewitness accounts and, to a greater extent, it is a means of the (State) propaganda, covering the causes, course and consequences of military conflicts. The genre has existed since Ancient Times. Battle scenes are frequent in Antiquity and can be found on Greek vases, mosaics and Roman monumental structures such as triumphal arches21. During the Middle Ages artists used the battle theme to illustrate combats between Good and Evil22. However, those were still ‘historic’ approaches to the genre, but the Renaissance artists brought new ways of depicting realistic and contemporary cavalry battles and combat scenes 23. It were however the artist of the Netherlandish Golden Age who introduced both first-hand depiction of military combat scenes and sea battle images24. The works by Vrancx appear to be on the hinge-point of these periods. Although Vrancx produced some topographical works, either executed during his travels through Italy or of his native city Antwerp and its surroundings25, his battle-scenes appear to be largely imaginary. The only exception are his depictions of the well-known ‘Battle of Lekkerbetje’, of which many copies and variations are known, and of the battle between officers Braut and Gerard Abrahamsz., called ‘Lekkerbeetje’, at Vught, 5 February 160026.
The present painting also represents a scene from the Eighty Years’ War. The war – also known as the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648) - started as a revolt against King Philip II of Spain. Its causes were diverse: a socio-economic cry for more representation against the often excessive taxation and a religious, Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic church. The religious revolt against the Catholic church and against the Spanish inquisition culminated in an iconoclastic wave of destruction, the so-called ‘Beeldenstorm’ of 1566. It was followed by the execution of the Counts of Egmont and of Hoorn, and by a strong Spanish military reaction under the count of Alva; Antwerp was sacked in a horrible way (‘the Spanish Fury’). The War lasted endlessly: it was a long succession of sieges. At first William of Orange and later Prince Maurits were very successful for the Dutch side, then came the Twelve Years’ Truce between 1609 and 1621. Until 1625 the Spanish had the initiative, but after Prince Frederick Henry became Stadtholder, the Dutch took back town after town. The treaty of 1635 between the Dutch and France made things even worse for Spain. King Philip II saw no way out and he had to accept an independent Dutch Republic. The war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Munster or the Treaty of Westphalia. The Spanish Netherlands fell apart: Catholic Spain finally accepted an independent, Protestant Republic of the Seven United Provinces. Flanders remained Spanish and Catholic.
As outlined in the above, in the present painting it is unclear to distinguish between the two enemies. To modern eyes, the absence of uniforms may be surprising. Military uniforms were introduced towards the end of the seventeenth century, under King Louis XIV. During the Eighty Years’ War, however, soldiers would recognize each other by nothing more than the colours they were wearing: sashes round the waste and feathers in the hat. Still, Vrancx was probably the first artist in the Low Counries to attempt the depictions of contemporary battle scenes. Few Flemish painters have formed the theme of battle scenes and cavalry engagements as profoundly as he did. As outlined in the above, he was an officer in the Antwerp Civic Guard and later even captain. His first-hand military experience has arguably shaped his interest and expertise in the depiction of cavalry engagements and battles of the only too frequent Netherlandish wars and battles. It is likely that he witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of the armed conflicts in that country. Be that as it may, Sebastiaan Vrancx was to become the seminal figure in the development of such subjects and he succeeded in painting remarkable depictions of battle-scenes or cavalry skirmishes, of which the present beautifully preserved panel is an outstanding example.
1. Chief among these sources were the works by Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630), whose engravings of battle scenes featuring rearing horses and close combat were widely circulated and enormously influential during the early seventeenth century.
2. Although it is not sure if this meaning was associated in Vrancx’s time, the riderless horse or a single horse without a rider with boots reversed in the stirrups, can serve as a symbol for fallen soldiers. Since the present pictures was arguably painted towards the end the first quarter of the seventeenth century this meaning may be present, since the riderless jousting horse of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria was part of his funeral procession in 1623, as documented in an etching by Jacob Franquart.
3. Vrancx collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder in variolous paintings, in which he was responsible for the figures. Notable are Assault on a Convoy, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Gemäldegalerie, nr. 1071; Wooded landscape with a robbery on a forestpath, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Antwerp , inv./cat.nr 983; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis (Tennessee) , inv./cat.nr 2012.26.10
4. Sebastiaan Vrancx, Attack on a convoy, signed and dated ‘SEBASTIANVS • VRANCX / ANTVERP: FECIT A 1616 •’, lower left, oil on panel, H. 49,5 cm. W. 75 cm., coll. Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, Windsor, United Kingdom, inv./cat.nr 405516
5. Donnet. F. (1907). Het Jonstich Versaem der Violieren. Geschiedenis der rederijkerskamer 'De Olijftak' sedert 1480. Ghent/The Hague, pp. 13-14
6. Peter Paul Rubens made a study of a horse and a soldier after a composition by Vrancx, in addition he owned some of his battle-sense (see: Muller, J.M. (1989). Rubens: The Artist as a Collector, Princeton)
7. After The Conversion of St. Paul by Vrancx, seeL Donnet, 1907, p. 18-23, who also lists some (Italian) paintings by Vrancx
8. Vrancx made several drawings of Tivoli and its surroundings, of which examples are kept in the collection of Chatsworth House, Devonshire, United Kingdom
9. The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists in early modern Europe, especially in the Low Countries. They were named in honour of the Evangelist Luke, the patron saint of artists, who was identified by John of Damascus as having painted the Virgin's portrait.
10. Rombouts/Van Lerius (1872/1961). De Liggeren en andere historische archieven der Antwerpsche Sint Lucasgilde. Amsterdam, p. 412
11. See: Donnet, 1907, and Rombouts/Van Lerius, 1872/1961, vol. 2, p. 108, note 5
12. Rombouts/Van Lerius. 1872/1961, vol.1, p. 293, note 5; Donnet, 1907, pp. 28-29
13. Timmermans. B. (2008). Patronen van patronage in het zeventiende-eeuwse Antwerpen: een elite als actor binnen een kunstwereld. Amsterdam University Press, pp. 243–245
14. The Antwerp chamber of rhetoric De Violieren (wallflower or gillyflower) dated back to the 15th century, when it was a social drama society with close links to the Guild of Saint Luke. It was one of three drama guilds in the city, the other two being the Goudbloem and the Olyftack.
15. In fact, Vrancx’s skill as a narrative painter, often revealing a predilection for humorous detail, is thought to be connected to his activity as a member of the Antwerp rhetoricians chamber for whom he wrote a large number of farces, comedies and tragedies
16. Branden F.J.P. van den (1883). Geschiedenis der Antwerpsche schilderschool, Antwerpen, pp. 469-474; Sebastiaen Vrancx by Anthony van Dyck, coll. Boughton House, United Kingdom; See RKD nr. 300482 300482
17. Rombouts/Van Lerius, 1872/1961, vol.2, p. 108, note 5 & p. 185 (death duty); Donnet 1907, p. 17 (cites the epitaph of the family in the Church of the Brothers of Our Lady)
18. Vrancx collaborated with various leading Antwerp master for wome he painted the figures or ‘staffage’, including Jan Brueghel the Younger, Hendrick van Balen, Piter Neefs and Frans Francken II; see: RKD database.
19. See: RKD; Rombouts/Van Lerius, 1872/1961, p. 443; Donnet, 1907, p. 19
20. Gerson, H. &Kuile, E.H. ter (1960). Art and Architecture in Belgium, 1600-1800, Harmondsworth, p. 63, note 33
21. Possibly Trajan's Column, the well-known a Roman triumphal column in Rome, Italy, that commemorates Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars, completed in AD 113 – which design has inspired numerous victory columns, both ancient and modern – may serve as the best example of such.
22. In particular, the image of the Archangel Michael fighting the Devil embodied in a dragon served this function. But also battle scenes from the Old Testament were popular, especially as the subject for tapestries.
23. Art critics believe that Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari, which survived to this day in numerous copies, has become a turning point in the understanding of the whole idea of battle painting, and, in particular, its compositional component.
24. Another trend or subgroup in Dutch battle-scene painting were scenes depicting military camps
25. This topographical works includes studies of Antique ruins of Rome and Tivoli (see note 8) but also of Antwerp (e.g. The ‘kranenhoofd’ at the Schelde River in Antwerpen, signed with monogram and dated ‘1622’, coll. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv./cat.nr SK-A-1699; dee RKD nr. 52384) and the Plundering of the village of Wommelgem, see: Auwera, J. van der (1998). ‘Historical Fact and Artistic Fiction, the face of the Eighty Years War in Southern Netherlandish Paintings, in particular those of Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647) and Pieter Snayers (1592-1667)’ In: 1648: War and Peace in Europe, exhibition catalogue, vol. 2, pp. 461-464
26. Vrancx’s painting depicts the well-known battle between Braut and Lekkerbetje on 5 February 1600 at Vught. The incident occurred during the Eighty Years' War after Braut, a French nobleman in the service of Prince Maurits of Orange had insulted the Lord of Grobbendonck, Governor of the pro-Spanish city of s'Hertogenbosch. A duel between the two was then arranged and each arrived with twenty horsemen (the incident is also known as 'The Battle of the Forty'). However, it was soon discovered that Grobbendonck had sent his lieutenant, Leckerbeetje, in his place. Enraged, Braut immediately killed him, whereupon a violent battle ensued, in which the Frenchman was eventually defeated and killed. Other treatments of this subject by Vrancx are in the museums at Brussels, Antwerp, and Courtai and in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
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