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Essay – Mathijs Naiveu – A gentleman smoking in a shaded courtyard

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Essay - Mathijs Naiveu - A gentleman smoking in a shaded courtyard

On a bright summer’s day, an elderly man sits in – what appears to be – a shaded courtyard, smoking his pipe. He has just taken it out of his mouth and looks at the viewer, as if he were posing for a portrait. He is dressed in a long jacket and wears a hat. A glowing coal pan, a clay pipe and a wineglass are laid out on the ledge at the left behind him. Next to the chair are an earthenware jug and a beer glass. The blue sky is visible through the corridor leading to the street. The sunlight hardly penetrates the courtyard, however, being filtered through the dense leaves of an overgrown pergola. Naiveu thus creates a subtle play of light and shadow. The man, the still life on the ledge and the richly decorated arches that give onto the passageway and a staircase are fully illuminated; the rest of the scene is in half-shadow. The tiled floor, across which the light moves from full sunlight to deep shade, unifies the composition and gives it depth.

Recent research unveiled that the portrayed man is Bartholomeus Cromhout (1638-1695), a member of a wealthy family that owned no less than four accompanying houses on the Herengracht in Amsterdam. At the time of the production of the present painting, Cromhout lived in one of the smaller houses, Herengracht 370. According to Arnold Spee, the courtyard in the background of the painting is in fact the kitchen of this house; Naiveu added the foliage presumably on request of Cromhout. By being portrayed in this part of the house, wearing sober clothes and simply smoking a pipe, Cromhout deliberately chose not to show signs of his wealth, his piety or the fact that he had an extensive library, Spee argued.

The Cromhout family was linked to the Staets and Wuijtiers families. Spee identified several members of these families on other paintings by Matthijs Naiveu as well.

Naiveu was a so-called fijnschilder. According to Arnold Houbraken, he joined the studio of Abraham Toorenvliet around 1665 in order to learn to draw. From 1667-1669 Naiveu studied with Gerrit Dou, founder of the fijnschilder school (cat. no. 22). Three receipts signed by Dou indicate that he received a total of 100 guilders for ‘instructing Matthijs Naiveu in the art of painting for one year’. Following his apprenticeship, Naiveu continued to work in Leiden for another decade. He joined the city’s Guild of St Luke in 1671 and was its leader from 1677-1679. In the autumn of 1678 – or at the very latest 1679 – he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived on the Prinsengracht, ‘across from the Spiegelgracht’.

Dou’s pupils rarely developed their own style quickly. Naiveu’s work of the 1670s is still very much under the influence of his master, both in subject matter and technique. A change can be perceived around 1680, however. His brushstroke becomes rougher and looser, and he began using a more colourful palette and to work with local light accents. His manner remains detailed, but is no longer as miniature-like as that of his teacher. This transformation can easily be seen in the painting shown here. The objects on the ledge, near the legs of the chair and the chair itself are all meticulously painted. The man’s face, on the other hand, is much brushier. His features and hair are enlivened with tiny dabs of paint that function as light reflections. In depicting the various architectural elements Naiveu also demonstrates that he can paint quickly, even nonchalantly. The pilaster capitals have been laid down fast and sketchily. In his choice of themes, too, Naiveu followed his own path. He remained true to a number of typical ‘Leiden’ motifs – such as the woman at a window – but also introduced new subjects as well: delivery rooms, street views with festive processions, and theatre scenes. Only recently have scholars recognised that this interest in depicting theatre makes him a forerunner of Cornelis Troost (1697-1750).

The carefully depicted facial features in this painting appear to indicate that it was intended as a portrait. The prominent role of smoking, however, could also mean Naiveu conceived it as a more genre-like image. Smoking was a popular subject with artists during most of the seventeenth century. The tavern scenes of Adriaen Brouwer, Adriaen van Ostade and Jan Steen generally include one or more smokers, while Naiveu’s teacher Dou regularly portrayed men with pipes (fig. 1). The different ways in which the habit was depicted were a reflection of its perception at the time, and have been interpreted variously as well, with smoking symbolising anything from sensual earthly pleasure to contemplation to transience. As the century progressed, however, such motifs appear to have been included with an ever-diminishing interest in their deeper meaning. Smoking had become a standard pictorial element; its symbolic significance had ebbed. The natural manner in which the man in our picture appears to be enjoying his pipe leads one to believe he is nothing more than a satisfied smoker.