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Egbert van der Poel, Dutch, 1621-1664: Family in an Interior at Night, c. 1650-55
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over traces of black chalk on paper.
5 1⁄2 × 8 11⁄16 in. (14 × 22.1 cm)
Recto, lower left, in brush and brown ink, monogrammed by the artist, EVP (in ligature, inverted).
- Chain Lines:
- Vertical, 23 mm.
- Orb or circle, indistinct, probably Italian.
Unidentified collector with initials CC, probably eighteenth or early nineteenth century (Lugt 513, stamp on recto, formerly thought to be Comte Gelosi, or more properly Genevosio, see also Lugt 545, initials former read as CG); Jean-Marc Du Pan, 1785 – 1838, Geneva (Lugt 1440, stamp on recto); by descent to his brother Alex-Louis Du Pan; sale, Paris, 26 March 1840; Henri Ledoux, twentieth century (Lugt 4052, stamp on recto); sale, Sotheby Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, 26 November 1984, lot 138; Sheldon and Leena Peck, Boston (Lugt 3847); gift to the Ackland Art Museum, inv. no. 2017.1.61.
- Ackland Catalogue:
Having just finished breastfeeding her child, a woman warms herself by a small fire together with her husband. Her older child stands partially obscured by the wooden partition at the right where farming tools and outdoor apparel rest, indicating a rural setting. A single lamp hanging from a post on the table illuminates the quiet scene and reveals the family’s indigence. No food is visible, and the pitchers, plates, and baskets appear empty. A rare drawing by Egbert Lievensz van der Poel, and his only extant interior scene in this medium, it demonstrates the artist’s command of light in a nighttime setting, but also his sensitivity to the hardships of rural working-class people.
This work by the Delft artist Egbert Lievensz van der Poel displays his penchant for exploring the subtle lighting effects created by fire and lamplight at night. Drawings by the artist are exceedingly rare, perhaps numbering no more than ten sheets.1
In this signed and finished drawing, strong light emanates from a lamp hanging from a post set on the table, creating a study in reflections across figures and objects. The man, woman, and one of their children have their hands spread out to warm themselves over a modest fire placed in a brazier on the floor, while a second child can be seen in the shadows to the right. Farm implements establish the rural setting and the occupation of the husband, and the overall image is one of complacent harmony among simple surroundings. Their complacency, however, seems colored by a certain hardship. The family sits in a cold room in tattered clothes, with only a sparse pile of kindling by the farmer’s feet. No obvious food or food stores are in plain sight, but rather a number of suggestively empty pitchers, plates, and baskets. Enhancing the poignancy of the scene is that the mother has just finished breastfeeding her toddler son, who huddles for warmth between her legs, holding his hands above the fire in imitation of hers.2
Although he remains understudied today, Van der Poel was a relatively popular artist in Delft, joining the guild there in 1650 after having already been active as a painter for about a decade.3
He appears to have known Johannes Vermeer (1632– 1675) and his family quite well, although they shared different artistic concerns.4
Van der Poel began as a devoted painter of prosaic interiors, farmyard scenes, and coastal moonlit landscapes. His subject matter took a dramatic turn later in his career to scenes of disaster, especially those with burning buildings.5
He repeatedly painted images of the famous gunpowder magazine explosion (the great Delft donderslag, or “thunderclap”) that took place on October 12, 1654, killing numerous inhabitants and destroying a significant portion of the city.6
The most famous victim was Van der Poel’s neighbor and colleague, Carel Fabritius (1622 – 1654). Far more significantly for Van der Poel, the explosion appears to have claimed the life of one of his daughters, directly after which the artist and his family moved to Rotterdam.7
Scholars naturally speculate about the degree to which we can impute trauma as a reason that he repeatedly returned to painting that disaster, along with a host of other fire scenes both real and imaginary. Whatever the case, Van der Poel’s brantjes (little fire scenes), as they were called in contemporary inventories, proved popular enough that in 1698 the Rotterdam chronicler Gerard van Spaan called him “the best painter of fire in the Netherlands.” 8
This drawing combines Van der Poel’s early interest in rural working-class genre scenes with his later focus on the illumination effects of fire and artificial light in a nighttime setting. Among Van der Poel’s few drawings, this remains his only known interior scene, a setting more often found in his paintings. Another drawing formerly on the art market that shows two men with torches leading a heavily laden donkey was possibly made around the same time since it has similar dimensions and the same early provenance.9
The motif of a woman breastfeeding can be found in a painting of an interior scene by Van der Poel dated 1657.10
In the late 1650s, images of breastfeeding women appear to have become popular among other artists, such as Van der Poel’s former Delft colleague, Pieter de Hooch (1629 – 1684).11
Van der Poel’s drawing might plausibly date to around the same period, and therefore shortly after his move to Rotterdam, where he produced many of his other nighttime scenes. It was also around this time, as Wayne Franits pointed out, that Dutch physicians began promoting maternal breastfeeding as a vital and health-giving activity, preferable to using livestock milk or employing a wet nurse, not only to provide the best possible nourishment to the children, but also to impart (so it was believed) some of the mother’s personality traits to them.12
For other drawings by or possibly by Van der Poel, see Moes 1895, 189, nos. 38, 39; Goldschmidt 1922, 64; Bock & Rosenberg 1930, vol. 1, 211, nos. 3126, 11909, vol. 2, pl. 138; Bernt 1957 – 58, vol. 2, no. 465; and De Rothschild & Morris 1980, no. 9.
Although the toddler might seem a bit old for breastfeeding by modern standards, see, for example, the similarly aged child breastfeeding in Pieter van Slingelandt’s Carpenter’s Family (Windsor Castle); see White 1982, 119 – 20, no. 184; and Franits 1993, 116.
The basic study remains Goldschmidt 1922. For Van der Poel’s popularity as measured in seventeenth-century inventories of paintings, see Montias 1982, 257, table 8.5.
For Van der Poel’s depictions of the gunpowder explosion and its aftermath, see MacLaren & Brown 1991, 306 – 09, no. 1061 (with a list of further versions); Verhoef in Rotterdam 1994 – 95, 128 – 29; Delft 1996, 94 – 98; and Rüger in New York & London 2001, 326 – 28, no. 51.
Verhoef in Rotterdam 1994 – 95, 128 – 29.
Van Spaan 1698, 422 (“den besten Brantschilder van gansch Nederland”); as cited by Verhoef in Rotterdam 1994 – 95, 128.
De Rothschild & Morris 1980, no. 9: A Night Scene with Two Figures Walking by the Light of a Torch, pen and brown ink and wash over traces of black chalk, 143 × 214, present whereabouts unknown. The sheet shares two of the same collectors’ marks on the recto: Lugt 513 (unknown collector, formerly thought to be Comte Gelosi) and Lugt 1440 (Jean-Marc Du Pan).
Sotheby’s, London, 31 October 2002, lot 49, present whereabouts unknown.
For example, A Woman Nursing an Infant with a Child and a Dog, c. 1658 – 60, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; for which see Dulwich & Hartford 1998 – 99, 120 – 21, no. 16; and Sutton 1980, 83 – 83, no. 32. Nicolaes Maes produced a painting of a nursing mother dated 1655, present whereabouts unknown; see Franits 1993, 120.
Franits 1993, 113 – 18.