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Essay – Hoogstraten, Samuel van – Allegory of Time and Eternity

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Essay - Hoogstraten, Samuel van - Allegory of Time and Eternity

An altar decorated with a bas-relief of putti blowing bubbles is flanked by the winged figure of Saturn and a young seated woman resting with one foot on an orb whose other, mysterious symbolic attribute, a small snake biting its tail, identifies her as Eternity. Enormous finely chiselled gilded vessels stand on the stone cube and in front of it. One is on its side and is empty. Pure allegories such as the present are a rarity in Samuel van Hoog - straten’s painted oeuvre, although allegorical imagery abounds in the etchings serving as title pages of chapters in the artist’s art theoretical treatise known as the Inleyding. 1 Van Hoogstraten began his career painting tronies in the Amsterdam studio of his illustrious teacher Rembrandt. He also from the outset produced Biblical subjects and portraits. The thematic array was soon expanded to include mythological subjects and high life genre scenes, highly original trompe l’oeil still lifes and life-size architectural trompe l’oeil scenes of interiors or palatial settings. The pinnacle of Van Hoogstraten’s eye-deceiving artistry is his perspective box, preserved in London’s National Gallery. Within the artist’s corpus of paintings Allegory of Time and Eternity stands somewhat apart stylistically for its distinct Van Dyckian flavour. Van Hoogstraten may not have imitated the Flemish master’s fluid brushwork but both full-length figures can be linked to his art. Eternity is modelled after the generic Marian type that recurs in so many Holy Family and other scenes by Van Dyck. Van Hoogstraten’s figure of Time, or otherwise called Chronos or Saturn, bears a noteworthy resemblance to Van Dyck’s Time clipping Cupid from the early 1630s nowadays in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.2

Both show a seated old and bearded but slender and muscular Saturn sporting gigantic feathery wings, his sharp scythe dangerously near one of his feet. Van Dyck’s picture was probably a commission from his friend and colleague, the Antwerp landscape painter Jan Wildens, with whom it remained until his death in 1653. It was quick to make an impact on both connoisseurs and artists. Constantijn Huygens wrote a poem about it already in 1632.3 His son and namesake Constantijn Huygens Jr appears to have owned the very painting in 1691.4

After Wildens’ death the picture had obviously gone to The Hague, where it was copied in a drawing by the lawyer, cognoscento and draughtsman Jan de Bisschop and copied in a painting by Caspar Netscher, both residents of The Hague.5

At some point, Van Dyck’s painting entered the collection of stadholder-king Willem III (1650- 1702) in whose auction of 1713 it was sold.6

However, if, where and when

Van Hoogstraten saw Van Dyck’s painting remains unsure. Because of its uncommon style and subject Time and Eternity is hard to fit neatly in Van Hoogstraten’s development. Probably because of the figures’ sharp outlines, meticulous execution and classicizing out look the great scholar Werner Sumowski dated it late, around 1665- 75. Interestingly, there is one other allegory by Van Hoogstraten, a Triumph of Truth and Justice (fig. 1), from this period.7

Dated 1670, it is stylistically com pletely different from our painting. The compositional arrangement is more spontaneous and dynamic. The hair of the female personification - Justice - is coiffed according to the latest fashion of the late 1660s and early 1670s, à la Sévigné, with its prominent corkscrew curls. With all these poignant differences it is to be doubted that Time and Eternity would stem from these same years. Celeste Brusati dated it much earlier, to the 1650s, on stylistic grounds she doesn’t specify. She furthermore speculated that the painting was intended as a monument to Samuel’s younger brother Jan van Hoog - straten, a promising artist who died untimely in 1654.8

At that time Samuel and Jan were staying in Vienna. Samuel’s biographer and pupil, Arnold Houbraken, relates that a sculptor friend of Samuel’s furnished Jan’s gravestone with a marble relief of a young child, representing the transience of human life.9

That Houbraken reports about the death of Jan so many years later with some detail certainly reflects the profound impact this event would have had on his teacher. It is indeed then not so strange if Samuel would have honoured his brother in a painting to keep his memory alive. Similar cases are known, though in a different formula, for instance the commemorative, posthumous portrait, now - adays in the Rijksmuseum, that Gerard ter Borch and Gesina ter Borch jointly painted of their beloved younger brother and half-brother respectively Moses who died prematurely at age 22 in a battle on the coast of Harwich during the Second Dutch-English War.10 In support of a dating around Jan’s death Brusati argued that Van Hoogstraten’s Head of a Bearded Man at a Window Trellis of 1654 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is monogrammed in a similar manner. Although it is uncertain whether the artist’s way of signing can be used as a dating tool, Brusati’s date and interpretation as Time and Eternity as painted funeral monument seems plausible, for two reasons. The shadowy sombre and ill-defined background and the altar-like stone table do, together with the vanitas elements, invoke an atmosphere appropriate to such a commemorative function. Secondly, many paintings by Van Hoogstraten contain references to his profession and personal life. All of his life Samuel van Hoogstraten strove to further his career and to promote the status of painting as a liberal art. He deployed his art and pen often and in numerous ways to demonstrate and visualize this agenda. The present painting is no exception. Painting’s durability, its capability to fix a fleeting moment and the painting’s role as an en - dur ing visual replication of things and events that themselves have ceased to exist, have always been regarded by artists since the Renaissance as a trump card. Hoogstraten regarded the ability of an artist to capture all things visible as evidence that painting is in fact a universal science, a way of investigating the visible world in a scholarly way. Time and Eternity celebrates this very concept in a subtle and sophisticated way. The two figures are paradoxically flanking a sculpture. The group of putti enact Erasmus’s famous maxim ‘homo bulla’, man’s life is nothing but a soap bubble. The bas-relief reminds of a similar one showing putti fooling a goat by holding up a mask by François Duquesnoy. Hoog - straten no doubt knew plaster copies of the latter; his fellow Rembrandt pupil Gerrit Dou used this bas-relief time and again in the scenes set in a stone window that he produced from the early 1650s onwards. By painting this type of sculpture, with figures that emerge from a stone surface that runs parallel to the picture plane (which enhances the

illusionism), Van Hoogstraten once again gives bold proof of the eye- deceiving supremacy of the art of painting. He plays this out in a similar

vein as Dou did, who used the Duquesnoy frieze likewise to demonstrate the paragone idea that painting is superior to other art forms, such as sculpture, because it is unmatched in its power to imitate the visible world: a sculptor can’t imitate a painting convincingly, while a painter can depict a sculpture so convincingly that a beholder can be deceived.11 Thus, the message of this painting can be said to be that painting beats its sister arts and even, Time. This message surely is a comforting response to the death of an excellent painter that was taken away from life much too early. [es]