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Frans Francken the Younger

The Seven Acts of Mercy

Frans Francken the Younger

Signed, lower right: D ov ffranck .IN. f.
On panel, 18 x 25¾ ins. (45.8 x 65.4 cm)

VP4830




Provenance

In the collection of the previous owner by 1965 (according to a label on the reverse)
Private collection, Belgium, until 2017

Essay

This multi-figured composition by the Antwerp painter Frans Francken the Younger is a representation of The Seven Acts of Mercy.  The subject enjoyed a long tradition in Netherlandish art.  A popular theme both in painting and printmaking, The Seven Acts were often depicted together, either in a single composition, as here, or a series of seven related works.  The subject of seven acts of mercy, or charity, comes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 25:34-36) in which feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless (or the stranger), caring for the sick and ministering to those in prison are referred to as acts of the “righteous” upon which a Christian’s salvation at the Last Judgement depends.  In the Middle Ages, burying the dead, a critical service in the time of plague, was added to make up the seven.

The outskirts of a Flemish town provides the setting for Francken’s narrative.  A young woman who is seated in the left foreground nursing a small child – the personification of Charity – introduces the scene.  With a gesture of her hand, she directs our gaze to the goods works which are being performed by the well-to-do of the town.  A table has been set up beneath an arch from which bread is being distributed to a hungry rabble: among those who surge forward with outstretched hands are men, both young and old, barefoot women and children, a cripple and a hurdy-gurdy player.  Over to the right, drinks are being dispensed to an equally desperate crowd, including a semi-conscious, young women with a tiny infant, who is being revived with a cup of water.  Behind them, clothes are being handed out to the needy.  In the left background, the act of visiting the sick is being observed in an open-sided house, while in front of the house, a group of homeless people is being led away to find shelter.  The act of charity involving the care of prisoners is alluded to by the round building that appears in the middle distance which serves as the town’s jail, and finally, the seventh act of mercy, that of burying the dead is being performed in the far distance. 

The Seven Acts of Mercy was an ideal subject for Francken since he excelled at scenes involving numerous small figures.  He painted the subject on a number of occasions in a variety of compositions.  Dr. Ursula Härting lists eight different versions in her 1989 catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work (i).  The present composition may be closely compared with that of a larger signed picture, dated 1630, in the Alte Pinakothek, in Munich (ii).  Both pictures adhere to approximately the same compositional scheme, but numerous differences may be observed in the various figure groups and the details of the individual figures. 


BIOGRAPHY

The most productive and illustrious scion of the Francken family of artists, Frans Francken the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1581.  He is presumed to have served his apprenticeship in the studio of his father, Frans Francken I, but also probably trained in Paris with his uncle, Hieronymous I.  In 1605, Frans II became a master of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke and, in 1615, he was elected Dean.  In 1607, he married Elisabeth Placquet by whom he had seven children.  Documents reveal that he worked directly for the art dealer Christian van Immerzeel and, although he only registered one apprentice in the Guild, he certainly had other assistants including his brothers and sons.  His greatest skill was as a figure painter and he collaborated with at least twenty of the leading landscape, still life and architectural painters of the day including Jan Brueghel the Younger, Abraham Govaerts, Joos de Momper II, Tobias Verhaecht, Bartholomeus van Bassen, Pieter Neefs I and II, Hendrick van Steenwijck and Paul Vredeman de Vries.  He died on 6 May 1642 and was buried in the Church of St. Andrea in Antwerp. 

Although several large altarpieces exist, Francken painted predominantly small-scale cabinet pictures with religious, mythological or allegorical themes.  He is also remembered for the innovations he made in certain types of subject-matter.  He was probably the first to depict the interiors of art galleries (kunstkammern or cabinets d’amateurs) which later became popular with artists and collectors alike.  He is also thought to have invented the subject known as the ‘monkeys’ kitchen’ which was subsequently developed by David Teniers the Younger and Jan van Kessel the Younger. 

P.M.


Biography

The most productive and illustrious scion of the Francken family of artists, Frans Francken the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1581.  He is presumed to have served his apprenticeship in the studio of his father, Frans Francken I, but also probably trained in Paris with his uncle, Hieronymous I.  In 1605, Frans II became a master of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke and, in 1615, he was elected Dean.  In 1607, he married Elisabeth Placquet by whom he had seven children.  Documents reveal that he worked directly for the art dealer, Christian van Immerzeel and, although he only registered one apprentice in the Guild, he certainly had other assistants including his brothers and sons.  His greatest skill was as a figure painter and he collaborated with at least twenty of the leading landscape, still life and architectural painters of the day including Jan Brueghel the Younger, Abraham Govaerts, Joos de Momper II, Tobias Verhaecht, Bartholomeus van Bassen, Pieter Neefs I and II, Hendrick van Steenwijck and Paul Vredeman de Vries.  He died on 6 May 1642 and was buried in the Church of St. Andrea in Antwerp. 

Frans Francken the Younger

1581– Antwerp – 1642

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