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Adriaen van der Werff

Two Children playing with a Cat holding a Bird in its Jaws

Adriaen van der Werff

Signed and dated on the ledge: A vander Werff fe/ 1678
On panel, 9¾ x 7½ ins. (24.8 x 19.2 cm



J. G. Cramer
His sale, Amsterdam, Cok, 13 or 15 November 1769, lot 18,
with pendant, a woman with a dog, for 1,400 Francs
Gustaf Adolf Sparre (1746-1794), Sparre inv., 1794, no. 34
Thence by descent, until 2007
Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 5 December 2007, lot 14
With Johnny Van Haeften Limited, London, 2007-08
Private collection, New York, 2008-2017


O. Granberg, Catalogue raisonné des Tableaux dans les collections privées de la Suède, 1885-6, no. 66
G. Göthe, Tafelsamingen på Wanås, Stockholm 1895, p. 29, no. 73
O. Granberg, Inventaire Générale des Trésors d’art .. en Suède, vol. 1, Stockholm 1911-12,
vol. I, no. 415, reproduced vol. 2, plate 55
C. Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und Kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke …, Stuttgart/Paris 1928, p. 280, no. 169
G. Poensgen, ‘Die Bildergalerie Friedrichs der Grossen in Sanssouci und Adriaen van der Werff’, in Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, 1930, p. 177f
Hasselgren, Konstsamlaren Gustaf Adolf Sparre 1746-1784, Göteborg 1974, p. 116, 120, 127, reproduced p. 192
M. F. Durantini, The Child in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, Studies in the Fine Arts: Iconography, Ann Arbor 1983, p. 262
B. Gaehtgens, Adriaen van der Werff, Munich 1987, pp. 200-1, no. 5, reproduced (as in Lunds, Universiteits-Kunstmuseum)


Stockholm, Konstföreningens F. D. Lokal, Utställningen af alder Mästares taflor ur Svenska privatsamalinger, 1893, (catalogue by O. Granberg) no. 109
Stockholm, Nationalmusuem, Holländska Mästare/ Svensk Ägot, 3 March – 30 April 1967,
no. 174 (p. 111 in the catalogue)
Kristianstad, Kristianstads Museum, Ur Gustav Adolf Sparres konstsamling på Wanås,
12 February – 6 March 1977, no. 43


Two boys appear in an arch-topped, stone window frame.  The closer to the viewer is dressed in a silver-grey, satin costume, with slashed sleeves and a lace collar.  Over his curly blond locks he wears a red, velvet beret with a white feather.  His face bears an anguished expression and his mouth is open to let out a cry.  Sadly, the cause of his distress is all too obvious: with his hand he wrests the limp body of a little bird from the jaws of a white cat and nearby the door of the empty cage stands open.  Behind him, a second boy looks on from a shadowy interior.  An earthenware bowl and spoon stand upon the window ledge. 

This panel, dated 1678, belongs to a small group of closely related genre paintings, which Adriaen van der Werff produced at the very beginning of his career.  In 1676, the seventeen-year-old established himself as an independent artist in Rotterdam, but he remained for the next few years very much under the influence of his second teacher, Eglon Hendrick van der Neer, with whom he may even have produced collaborative works (i).  This period of close association came to an end in 1679, when van der Neer moved from Rotterdam to Brussels and remarried.  In the works of his maturity, van der Werff largely abandoned genre in favour of history subjects, painted in a high classical manner.

In these early genre paintings van der Werff explores the theme of children playing with, or teasing animals.  A painting of 1676, in a private German collection, depicting two boys in a window niche - one holding a cat and the other a mousetrap - is the artist’s earliest dated work (ii).  Also close in conception and style is A Boy with a Mousetrap in the National Gallery, London (iii), and its now lost companion piece portraying two boys with a cat and a birdcage, formerly in the Duc de Choiseul’s collection, known today only from an engraving.  The latter is a virtually literal interpretation of Eglon Hendrick van der Neer’s Two Childen with a Bird-cage and a Cat, in Karlsruhe (iv), showing a boy putting a bird into a cage, watched by a large tabby cat.  Our picture is also loosely based on the same source, though here van der Werff presents a slightly different scenario.  His paintings in this group all employ a similar mise en scène, echoing the arched, stone window frame and deep sill that appears in van der Neer’s prototype in Karlsruhe.  Also striking is the close resemblance between the facial features and fanciful attire of van der Werff’s children and those of his master. 

The small scale, meticulous manner and careful depiction of fabrics seen here is characteristic of van der Werff’s early genre paintings, recalling the Leiden School of ‘Fine’ painters.  Interestingly enough, van der Werff’s contract with Eglon Hendrick van der Neer stipulated that he would assist his master in return for being taught the technique of fijnschilderij, traditionally associated with Leiden painters.  Also typical of the Leiden School is the window niche format, which was popularised by Gerrit Dou and widely used by his many followers.  The painted stone arch serves as a framing device, creating an illusion of depth, which is further enhanced here by the dramatic contrasts of light and shade.  The description of the stonework, with the various cracks and chips, is beautifully realised, as is the textures of satin, velvet, feather and fur.

This realism, however, can be deceptive and, as is often the case in seventeenth-century Dutch art, there is more to this little scene than meets the eye.  To the contemporary viewer, the combination of the boy with a cat and a bird-cage would have had symbolic meaning, warning of the dangers of love.  Cats were well-known symbols of lust and, in emblematic literature, a bird in a cage refers to the “sweet slavery of love” (v), while the bird that escapes its cage was traditionally associated with lost virtue.  Here, the pain of that loss is all too clearly displayed in the expression on the boy’s face.  Likewise, the iconographically related paintings by van der Werff of youths with a cat and a mousetrap can be regarded as allusions to captive love.  In an emblem of 1621, Daniel Heinsius compared the person who cannot live with or without love to a mouse sitting between a trap and a cat (vi).  The subject of a figure with a cat and a mousetrap was first popularised by Gerrit Dou, who depicted a pretty girl at a window with these and other love symbols (vii). 

This painting belonged in the eighteenth-century to the distinguished Swedish collector, Gustaf Adolf Sparre (1747-1794).  He was the son of Rutger Axel Sparre (1712-1751), a Director of the Swedish East India Company and Sara Christina Sahlgren (died 1776), a member of a prominent and cultured Gothenburg merchant family.  Sparre was educated at the universities of Lund and Uppsala and, as a young man, travelled widely in Europe, during which time he developed a taste for Old Master paintings, particularly small-scale cabinet pictures by Dutch and Flemish masters.  He formed a fine collection of paintings, the majority of which hung, during his lifetime, in the impressive Neo-Classical Sahlgren-Sparre Palace in Gothenburg.  Many of his paintings, including the present work, remained in the family until 2007.


Born in Kralingen, near Rotterdam in 1659, Adriaen van der Werff trained first with the portrait painter, Cornelis Picolet (1626-79) from 1668 to 1670 and then from c. 1671 to 1676 with Eglon van der Neer (1634?-1703) in Rotterdam.  He set up as an independent master at the age of seventeen and in 1687 married the wealthy Margaretha Rees.  In 1691 and 1695 he was head of the Rotterdam Guild of St. Luke.  He lived in Rotterdam for most of his life although his main patron, the Elector Palatine, Johan Wilhelm, in Düsseldorf, appointed him court painter in 1697 on an annual salary of 4,000 guilders, on condition that he painted exclusively for the Elector for six months every year.  Van der Werff visited Düsseldorf on a number of occasions to deliver pictures and was knighted in 1703, whereupon his commitment to the Elector was increased to nine months every year.  He also worked for other royal patrons including the King of Poland and the Duke of Brunswick.  His principal pupil and assistant was his brother, Pieter van der Werff (1661-1722).  He died in Rotterdam in 1722. 

i  According to Dr. Eddy Schavemaker, whose catalogue raisonné of Eglon Hendrick van der Neer will
  contain a listing of van der Werff’s early paintings, the latter painted collaborative works with his master
  in the period after he became an independent artist in 1667 and before the departure of van der Neer from
  Rotterdam in 1679. 
ii  Adriaen van der Werff, Boy with a Mousetrap, signed and dated 1676, on panel, 38.1 x 32 cm, Private
  collection, Germany.
iii  Adriaen van der Werff, A Boy with a Mousetrap, signed, c. 1678-79, on panel, 19.2 x 13.3 cm, National
  Gallery, London, inv. no. 3049.
iv  Eglon Hendrick van der Neer, indistinctly signed and dated, on panel, 21 x 17 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle,
  Karlsruhe, inv. no. 280.
v  Jacob Cats, Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus, Amsterdam, 1622, p. 74, with motto “Amissa Libertate
vi  Daniel Heinsius, “Emblemata amatoria”, Nederduysche poemata, Leiden, 1621, p. 44. 
vii  Gerrit Dou, Girl with a Mousetrap and a Cat, whereabouts unkown.

Adriaen van der Werff

Kralingen-Ambacht 1659 - 1722 Rotterdam

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