The Interior of a Gothic Church by Night
Pieter Neefs the Elder
Signed with the initials P. N., on a pier, lower right,
and dated Anno 1636 on a plaque affixed to a pier, higher up on the right.
On panel made from a single plank of oak, gessoed on the reverse,
On a single sheet of gessoed panel, 14½ x 21⅝ ins. (37 x 55 cm)
European private collection, until 2015
This beautiful example of a church interior by the Antwerp painter Pieter Neefs the Elder has come down to us in unusually pristine condition. The support of the painting is a single panel of oak, which has been gessoed on the back, helping to ensure that it has remained flat and the paint surface in fine original state.
Neefs has depicted his scene by night. The view is taken from a slightly elevated position, looking down the nave towards the choir. The cavernous interior is almost completely shrouded in shadow save for an area in the foreground which is filled with the flickering light of candles. A faint glimmer of light in the distance draws the eye the full length of the nave to a tiny figure in white kneeling at the high altar. Other groups of figures are scattered about the shadowy interior: some are strolling or conversing, while others are at prayer, and a verger is reaching up to light a candle in one of the side-chapels.
Architectural painting emerged as a specialist genre in Antwerp towards the end of the sixteenth century. Its development was stimulated by the work of Hans Vredeman de Vries, whose engravings introduced northern Europeans to the rules of perspective devised by Italian Renaissance artists. Certain Antwerp studios adopted architectural painting as a specialist activity, of which the most famous were those of the Hendrick van Steenwycks, father and son, and the Neefs family of painters. Pieter Neefs the Elder was probably a pupil of the Steenwycks, as their influence is clearly evident in his work. Like the Steenwycks, his approach to painting was essentially linear and the style of buildings he painted invariably Gothic. The many church interiors by the Neefs, father and son, particularly their numerous variations on the Cathedral in Antwerp, attest to the popularity of this genre.
Although nocturnal church interiors were probably an innovation of Hendrick van Steenwyck the Elder, Neefs became one of the principal exponents of the genre. Indeed, a significant proportion of his paintings is devoted to such views, some of which were intended as pendants to daylight scenes. A larger, but similarly conceived candlelit interior by Neefs the Elder is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (i). In both cases, the church interiors are loosely based on the Cathedral (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) in Antwerp, but Neefs has varied elements of the architecture and introduced paintings and sculptural details of his own invention.
Like other architectural painters of the period, Neefs frequently collaborated with specialist figure painters including Frans Francken the Younger, Frans Francken III and Bonaventura Peeters. In this case, the staffage is probably by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), or a member of his circle.
Pieter Neefs the Elder, son of Aart Neefs and Margaretha Verspreet, was probably born in Antwerp about 1578. Owing to the similarity of their styles, it has been assumed that he studied with Hendrick van Steenwyck the Elder and the Younger: Neefs painted several copies of Steenwyck compositions, including his earliest dated church interior of 1605 (ii). In 1609-10 Pieter was enrolled as a master in the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp. On 30 April 1612, Neefs married Maria Lauterbeens in Antwerp. The couple had five children between 1614 and 1623, including Lodewijck (born 1617) and Pieter the Younger (born 1620), both of whom became painters and continued working in their father’s manner. Maria Lauterbeens died in 1655 or 1656 but her husband was still alive in February of that year. Neefs probably died shortly thereafter and certainly before 1661 when Cornelis de Bie wrote about him in the past tense in his Gulden Cabinet published that year.
i Pieter Neefs the Elder, A Church Interior by Candlelight, signed and dated 1636, on panel, 49 x 81 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-289.
ii Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Inv. 1183.
Pieter Neefs the Elder
1568/88 - Antwerp - 1656/61
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