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Jacob Adri­aen­sz Backer, Dutch, 1608-1651: Study of a Man Hold­ing a Glass, c. 1640-50 

A man ele­gant­ly pours liq­uid from an imag­i­nary pitch­er into a glass and wears the out­mod­ed slashed-sleeve tunic and leg­gings of a comic fig­ure or tav­ern reg­u­lar typ­i­cal­ly fea­tured in ear­li­er paint­ings. Jacob Backer like­ly cre­at­ed the sheet dur­ing a com­mu­nal draw­ing ses­sion orga­nized by his fel­low artist col­leagues in Ams­ter­dam and would have con­sid­ered it an exer­cise rather than a prepara­to­ry study for a fin­ished paint­ing. Although not intend­ed for the mar­ket ini­tial­ly, the artist’s blue paper fig­ure stud­ies became prized among early draw­ing col­lec­tors for their sen­si­tive han­dling of black and white chalk.

Jacob Back­er’s blue-paper fig­ure stud­ies were as prized by early col­lec­tors as they are today. As noted by Arnold Houbrak­en (1660 – 1719) in his col­lec­tion of artists’ biogra­phies: With­out doubt he drew his Acad­e­my stud­ies, espe­cial­ly of women, so art­ful­ly on blue paper with black and white chalk that he took the crown from all his con­tem­po­raries. The desire that the con­nois­seurs of works on paper show when one of his draw­ings comes up for sale demon­strates the esteem in which they are held.“1

This pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished draw­ing can be added to the eighty or so sheets by Backer cat­a­logued by Wern­er Sumows­ki in 1979, the major­i­ty of which are sim­i­lar fig­ure stud­ies that like­ly result­ed from acad­e­my-like ses­sions.2

These ses­sions appear to have been orga­nized by small coter­ies of artist col­leagues in Ams­ter­dam. A fre­quent par­tic­i­pant was Govert Flinck (1615– 1660), whose own notable fig­ure stud­ies on blue paper are some­times quite close to Back­er’s in style, and per­haps reflect their early train­ing togeth­er in the Fries­land stu­dio of Lam­bert Jacob­sz (1598 – 1636).3

Some of their Ams­ter­dam draw­ing ses­sions are sig­nif­i­cant for pro­duc­ing pio­neer­ing and often ele­gant stud­ies of the female nude (prob­a­bly the ones Houbrak­en meant when he referred to Back­er’s women), though the major­i­ty of this group’s sur­viv­ing stud­ies depict clothed fig­ures like this one, both male and female.

Back­er’s fig­ure here clear­ly mim­ics the pour­ing of a bev­er­age from an imag­i­nary pitch­er into a glass depict­ed in his left hand. The del­i­ca­cy with which he holds the seem­ing­ly weight­less pitch­er betrays the arti­fi­cial nature of the pose. For a sim­i­lar draw­ing, Backer reversed the props seen here by show­ing a woman pour­ing from a jug into a nonex­is­tent recep­ta­cle Fig. 21.1.4

Jacob Backer, A Woman with a Jug
Fig. 21.1

Jacob Backer, A Woman with a Jug. Black and white chalk on blue paper, 366 × 252 mm. The Maida and George Abrams Col­lec­tion, Fogg Art Muse­um, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts, Gift of George Abrams in mem­o­ry of Arthur DuBow, Har­vard Class of 1954.

In his unpub­lished notes on the Peck draw­ing, Sumows­ki remarked that the pose bears a cor­re­spon­dence with the alle­gor­i­cal fig­ure of Tem­per­an­tia (Mod­er­a­tion).5

She is one of the seven car­di­nal virtues in clas­si­cal and medieval iconog­ra­phy, often rep­re­sent­ed mak­ing an adept long-dis­tance” pour from pitch­er to glass. The visu­al tra­di­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly strong in Renais­sance prints, but per­sist­ed at least until the time of Hen­drick Goltz­ius (1558 – 1617) Fig. 21.2. 6

Jacob Matham (attributed to), after Hendrick Goltzius, Moderation (Temperantia)
Fig. 21.2

Jacob Math­am (attrib­uted to), after Hen­drick Goltz­ius, Mod­er­a­tion (Tem­per­an­tia), c. 1587 – 1637. Engrav­ing on paper, 217 × 143 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-p-ob-27.302.

Although Backer occa­sion­al­ly cre­at­ed alle­gories, such as his paint­ed series of the Five Sens­es that includ­ed a drinker with a jug for the sense of Taste, it seems unlike­ly that he intend­ed any spe­cif­ic alle­go­ry for this draw­ing, espe­cial­ly since the car­di­nal virtues invari­ably used female fig­ures. 7

His use of a slashed-sleeve tunic and leg­gings here is unusu­al, how­ev­er. Such out­mod­ed cos­tum­ing more often denot­ed comic fig­ures, or those set in low-life tav­ern scenes by the ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion of Car­avaggisti. Backer occa­sion­al­ly clothed his fig­ures anachro­nis­ti­cal­ly for some of his his­to­ry scenes and tron­ies, though such a tunic does not appear in any of his known paint­ings. He did, how­ev­er, use the same out­fit for anoth­er draw­ing, an unpub­lished study of a boy also in the Peck Col­lec­tion that was acquired inde­pen­dent­ly from the present work Fig. 21.3. Sumows­ki con­firmed the attri­bu­tion of the present draw­ing to Backer when it first came to light dur­ing the 1991 auc­tion from which the Pecks acquired it. 8

Jacob Backer, Study of a Seated Boy, Gazing Downward
Fig. 21.3

Jacob Backer, Study of a Seat­ed Boy, Gaz­ing Down­ward, c. 1640 – 50. Black and white chalk on blue-gray paper, 293 × 226 mm. Chapel Hill, Ack­land Art Muse­um, inv. no. 2017.1.1.

Sumows­ki con­firmed the attri­bu­tion of the present draw­ing to Backer when it first came to light dur­ing the 1991 auc­tion from which the Pecks acquired it. 8

Styl­is­ti­cal­ly, the soft­ly mod­eled forms and judi­cious­ly placed white high­lights link it to a num­ber of Back­er’s other sim­i­lar full-length fig­ure stud­ies of about the same size. It remains dif­fi­cult to pre­cise­ly date these draw­ings, though he prob­a­bly made most of them in the 1640s. 9

Unlike Flinck, Backer was not in the habit of dat­ing his fig­ure stud­ies, and only a few can be relat­ed to dated or dat­a­ble paint­ings.10

Most of Back­er’s fig­ure stud­ies were prob­a­bly drawn as exer­cis­es with no spe­cif­ic paint­ing in mind. They appear to have remained in his pos­ses­sion until his pre­ma­ture death in 1651. Two port­fo­lios con­tain­ing a total of eighty-four of his draw­ings appeared in the estate sale of his older broth­er, Tjerk, in 1659.11

These were part of Jacob’s stu­dio estate and might even com­prise most of his sur­viv­ing draw­ings today, includ­ing those that set off the appar­ent storm among col­lec­tors men­tioned by Houbraken.

End Notes

  1. Houbrak­en 1718 – 21, vol. 1, 338: Zeker hy heeft zyne Acad­e­mie-beelden, inzon­der­heid de vrouwt­jes zoo kon­stig op blaau papi­er met swart en wit kryt geteekent, dat hy daar door de kroon van alle zyne tydgenooten heeft weg gedra­gen. t Is ook haast aan de zugt der papierkon­st­min­naars, wan­neer er van zyne teekenin­gen op een verkoop­ing komen, te zien wat agt­ing zy voor dezelve hebben.

  2. Sumows­ki Draw­ings, vol. 1 (1979), 15 – 175, nos. 1 – 80.

  3. For Backer’s early train­ing and biog­ra­phy, see J. van der Veen in Ams­ter­dam & Aachen 2008 – 09, 11 – 25. For Back­er’s fig­ure stud­ies and these acad­e­my-like ses­sions gen­er­al­ly, see P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam & Wash­ing­ton 1981 – 82, 88 – 89, 90 – 91; W. W. Robin­son in Lon­don, Paris & Cam­bridge 2002 – 03, 124 – 25, under no. 49; P. van den Brink in Ams­ter­dam & Aachen 2008 – 09, 76 – 82; J. Noor­man in Ams­ter­dam 2016, 11 – 43; and W. W. Robin­son in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, 178 – 81, under no. 70. For attri­bu­tion issues that have arisen in dis­tin­guish­ing Back­er’s and Flinck­’s draw­ings, see P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2014, 77 – 80, nos. 21 – 22.

  4. W. W. Robin­son in Ams­ter­dam, Vien­na, New York & Cam­bridge 1991 – 92, 120 – 21, no. 50.

  5. The draw­ing is also slat­ed to appear in a forth­com­ing adden­da vol­ume for Sumowski’s Draw­ings of the Rem­brandt School, based on his man­u­script housed in the Muse­um het Rem­brandthuis, as no. 2855. With thanks to David de Witt for sup­ply­ing this information.

  6. New Holl­stein (Jacob Math­am), vol. 3, no. 327.

  7. For Back­er’s Alle­go­ry of Taste (Berlin, Gemälde­ga­lerie, inv. no. 935A), see D. Hirschfelder in Ams­ter­dam & Aachen 2008 – 09, 104 – 07, no. 9B.

  8. As noted in the cat­a­logue entry for the sale (Christie’s, Ams­ter­dam, 25 Novem­ber 1991, lot 67).

  9. In his notes on this draw­ing (see note 5, above), Sumows­ki assigned a date of circa 1650, but the soft­er con­trasts and mod­el­ing in this work actu­al­ly relate it more close­ly to draw­ings he assigns to circa 1640 – 45.

  10. See Sumows­ki Draw­ings, vol. 1 (1979), 15. Long ago, Kurt Bauch sur­mised that the struc­ture and tonal­i­ty of Back­er’s fig­ure stud­ies grad­u­al­ly became finer, but it has not proven pos­si­ble to con­firm such a hypoth­e­sis; see Bauch 1926, 24 – 27.

  11. Bredius 1915 – 22, vol. 4, 1241 – 42; and J. van der Veen in Ams­ter­dam & Aachen 2008 – 09, 25.