Jan Hermansz van Bijlert
1597/98 – Utrecht – 1671
Saint Sebastian attended by St Irene
Oil on canvas, 133,5 by 192 cms
From a private collection, South America.
This major painting was unknown to Dr Paul Huys Janssen when compiling his catalogue Jan van Bijlert (1998), and he has since examined the work and confirmed the attribution. Previously the St Sebastian theme was known from the single figure (101 by 117 cm) picture at Schloss Rohrau in the collection of Graf Harrach’sche Familiensammlung, which is dated 1624. Although a different pose, the Saint in the present painting resembles the figure in Gerrit van Honthorst’s work in the National Gallery, London (4503), which has been dated to around 1623 and the time of the artist’s return from Italy. The incidence of the plague in Utrecht in the seventeenth century meant that several artists from the town painted St Sebastian, and indeed there may have been an epidemic there. Another famous picture is Hendrick Terbrugghen’s, now in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin (Ohio), which is dated 1625, and also has the saint seated to the left, and tied to a tree trunk. Dr Huys Janssen surmised that the Harrach painting was painted shortly after van Bijlert returned from his trip to Italy, where he is first recorded on the Via Margutta in 1621. The early 1620s was also the time that Baburen returned to Utrecht, where he painted another St Sebastian , now in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, before his death in 1624.
The present work is the most ambitious of these variations on the theme, with seven figures, and it must have been painted for an important institution in Holland. The plague victims in Utrecht were cared for a hospice called ‘de Leewenberch’; but some of the representations of St Sebastian were also commissioned by militia companies who were under the patronage of the saint.
Jan Hermansz van Bijlert
1597/98 – Utrecht – 1671
A Musical Company
Oil on canvas, 147 x 120 cm
Welisch family, Carinthia, Southern Austria, since at least the early nineteenth century
A concentrated look on a brightly lit face catches all the attention. It is the tanned face of the lute player who is the central figure of this scene. Telling from his gestures, he is studying his part of the score and is about to interpret it on his lute. Behind him, two colleagues of his are gearing up to join in. On the table, a pen is dipped in an inkpot. It leaves us with the question, if the lute player is a composer also or if he used the equipment to pen down his own remarks on the music.
The present painting was only discovered a few years ago. Van Bijlert rarely dated his pictures, but his Musical Company can be placed quite accurately in the period immediately following his return from Italy in 1624.[i] It is now restored to its rightful place in Van Bijlert’s oeuvre and counts as one of the artist’s most significant productions of his best period.[ii] The broadly painted life-size figures, closely pushed to the picture plane, constitute a very strong example of Van Bijlert’s ability to use the Caravaggesque vocabulary in creating original and spirited compositions.
Jan van Bijlert was the son of the Utrecht glass painter Herman Berentz van Bijlert who most probably was his first teacher. According to the German artist Joachim von Sandrart, he was apprenticed to Abraham Bloemaert. Following the completion of his studies, he travelled to France and later to Italy. In 1621 he was recorded in Rome where he may have been one of the founders of the Dutch society of artists, the Bentvueghels (Birds of a Feather). Van Bijlert had returned to Utrecht by 1625, when he married Margrieta Jan Kemincxdr with whom he had at least three children. After his first wife died, he remarried with Cecilia van Velthoven in 1660. Van Bijlert played an active role in the artistic life of Utrecht. He was highly prolific and successful throughout his career. Together with Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerard van Honthorst he spread Michelangelo da Caravaggio’s strong realism and chiaroscuro in the 1620s. However, in the course of years he developed a more classicizing manner.
[i] In a report from November 2002, Paul Huys Janssen substantiates this date by pointing to Van Bijlert’s painting of Saint Sebastian tended by Irene, dated 1624, which is remarkably close in style to ours, especially in the folding of the draperies and the way the hair of the figures is painted. Austria, Schloss Rohrau, collection Count Harrach. See for this picture: Huys Janssen, op. cit., no. 31, pp. 107,225, ill. Another painting in Brunswick, Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum, The Matchmaker from 1626, is equally close. The rendering of the feathers is similar and the ear ornament on the young woman recurs as a bigger variant in our painting on the protagonist’s beret. See: ib., no. 134, pp. 149,276, ill.
[ii] A few unknown pictures have been rediscovered since the publication of Paul Huys Janssen’s book on the artist: Jan van Bijlert 1597/98 – 1671: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam & Philadelphia 1998. However, these rediscoveries are late works and considered less interesting.