collection, Bordeaux, until 2021
Anon. sale, Briscadieu Bordeaux, France, 6 November 2021, lot 80.
Claes Moeyaert belonged to a group of Amsterdam history painters who have come to be known as the Pre-Rembrandtists. He specialised in biblical and mythological subjects, but he also painted a fair number of portraits. He was in addition an excellent draughtsman and an accomplished painter of animals. Moeyaert enjoyed a long and productive career: he was already active by 1618, when he was praised by the poet and diplomat Theodore Rodenburgh in his laudatory poem Opsomming van de beroemdste Amsterdamse kunstenaars (‘Summary of the most famous Amsterdam artists’), and he was still painting in 1653, two years before his death. He regularly signed his paintings and often dated them.
Rodenburgh’s panegyric to the city of Amsterdam also makes clear that the artists who we now call the Pre-Rembrandtists – Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), Claes Moeyaert, the brothers Jan (c. 1583 - 1631) and Jacob Pynas (1592/3-after 1650), Jan Tengnagel (1584-1631) and François Venant (c. 1591-1636)– were considered to be the most important living painters in Amsterdam in 1618. Although their achievements have largely been overshadowed by those of Rembrandt and his School, they were highly regarded and influential in their day. Indeed the innovations they introduced laid the foundations for the further development of history painting in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.
The leading light of the Pre-Rembrandtists was Pieter Lastman. In 1603, like many of his generation, he undertook a journey to Italy, where he was greatly inspired by the art of great Roman and Venetian painters, as well as that of the German-born painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), who was working in Rome at the time. After his return to Amsterdam around 1607, Lastman developed a personal style based on the impressions he had gained in Italy. One of his great talents was his ability to transpose the monumentality of Italian painting to the more intimate format of cabinet pieces. He devoted himself almost exclusively to small, multi-figured history paintings, with subjects taken from the Bible, secular history, or mythology, many of which had previously been depicted only in prints and drawings. His paintings are typically colourful and full of action. He also paid great attention to telling the story as lucidly as possible and portraying his protagonists’ emotions. His novel subject matter and strong narrative style exerted a strong influence on his contemporaries and his brilliant pupil Rembrandt, who studied with him briefly in 1623.
Unlike most of the Pre-Rembrandtists, Moeyaert does not appear to have made a trip to Italy. Pieter Lastman was the main influence on his development both in terms of his thematic repertoire and his narrative style. At times, Moeyaert also drew elements from the work of Jan Pynas, and briefly in the 1630s, fell under the spell of Rembrandt. Nevertheless, he manifested an artistic personality that was very much his own. In contrast to Lastman, he eschewed powerful movement in favour of restrained gestures and emotions, and adopted quiet, simple compositions. His figures, which are characterised by broad shapes and elongated faces, have a statuesque quality. Like Lastman, he had a penchant for themes involving meetings, conversations, and the performance of miracles. Also like Lastman, he strove to achieve narrative clarity and to touch the emotions of his audience.
The subject here is taken from the Gospel of St. John (11:1-44). Lazarus, the brother of Mary Magdelene and Martha, fell gravely ill. His sisters sent for Jesus, but by the time he had arrived Lazarus had already lain dead in his grave for four days. Together with Mary and Martha Jesus went to the tomb, where he ordered the stone closing its mouth to be removed. Mary feared that by now the corpse would smell very bad, but Jesus told her that if she had faith she would witness a miracle. Then Jesus raised his voice and cried out, “Lazarus come forth” and the dead man rose from his grave still wrapped in his grave clothes.
In Moeyaert’s representation of the miracle, a crowd is gathered round the grave in a vaulted chamber. He has focused on the moment when Lazarus, just restored to life, emerges bewildered from an opening in the floor, still partially wrapped in white bandages. The still deathly pallor of his body is emphasised by a bright light falling from above. Jesus stands calmly beside him, his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing. The bystanders watch in amazement as the miraculous event unfolds, their faces and gestures registering their reactions. Some crane their necks forward to get a better view of what is happening, while others gasp and recoil in shock, or hold their noses against the stench of the decomposing body: a small child buries its head in its mother’s skirt. The sister of Lazarus kneels in the left foreground, her hands folded in a gesture of wonder and gratitude. Characteristic of Moeyaert is the arrangement of the figures in a shallow stage-like space as if characters in a theatrical drama. The association with the theatre is strengthened by the carefully directed lighting and the rich language of gesture.
The Raising of Lazarus was a popular subject with the Pre-Rembrandtists. Jan Pynas painted it as early as 1605[i], and Jan Tengnagel tackled it in 1615[ii]. Pieter Lastman painted the theme twice in 1622[iii] and again in 1629[iv]. The present painting, executed in the 1630s, appears to be the earliest occasion on which Moeyaert was drawn to the theme. He returned to it on two further occasions, each time in newly conceived compositions. Once in 1652, in a painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Reims[v], and finally in 1653, at the very end of his career, in a larger panel, now in the Muzeum Narodowe, in Warsaw[vi]. An untraced preparatory drawing for the latter is mentioned by Astrid Tümpel[vii].
The son of an aristocratic Catholic Amsterdam merchant, Claes Moeyaert was probably born in Durgerdam, near Amsterdam, but moved with his family to the city when he was about fourteen years old. The name of his teacher is not recorded, but it is assumed that he received at least part of his training from Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). Not only was Lastman the principal influence on his art, but he lived only a few streets away from the young Moeyaert and his family in the years following his return from Italy between 1605 and 1607. In 1617, Moeyaert married Grietje Claes van Zijl: both he and his wife were Catholic.
Moeyaert’s earliest dated paintings are from 1624, although he must have been active for some time before that date since he is counted among the most of important painters in Amsterdam in Theodore Rodenburgh’s laudatory poem of 1618[viii]. He painted mainly biblical and mythological subjects, but he also executed portraits, especially of Catholic dignitaries, and was an accomplished painter of animals. He received many commissions in the 1630s and 1640s and there is documentary evidence that he was a wealthy man. In 1638, Moeyaert designed tableaux vivants for the triumphal arches erected in Amsterdam in honour of Marie de’ Medici’s visit. He was involved with the Amsterdam Playhouse from around 1639 to 1641, for which he served as a regent. In 1640, he received his only known commission for a group portrait, the Regents and regentesses of the almshouse for old men and women (Amsterdam Historisch Museum). In 1639, Christian IV of Denmark commissioned him to paint two monumental paintings. His last dated paintings are from 1653, two years before his death. His pupils included the history painter Salomon Koninck (1609-56), the Italianate landscape painters Nicolaes Berchem (1620-83), Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-c. 1659/61) and Jacob van der Does (1623-73). He died in Amsterdam at the end of August 1655[ix].
[i] Jan Pynas, The Raising of Lazarus, 1605, panel, 45 x 60, cm, Aschaffenburg Museum.
[ii] Jan Tengnagel, The Raising of Lazarus, 1615, panel, 90 x 140 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
[iii] Pieter Lastman, The Raising of Lazarus, panel, 1622, 63 x 97.5 cm, Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden.
[iv] Pieter Lastman, The Raising of Lazarus, panel, 1629, 62 x 84 cm, Museum für Kunst und Kultergeschichte de Stadt Goch, Goch.
[v] Claes Moeyaert, The Raising of Lazarus, 1652?, canvas, 85.9 x 107.8 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims, inv. no. 999.61.
[vi] Claes Moeyaert, The Raising of Lazarus, 1653, panel, 83 x 118 cm, Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, inv. no. 112.
[vii] Astrid Tümpel, Oud Holland, Vol. 88, (1974), pp. 1-163, 245-90.
[viii] Theodore Rodenburgh, Opsomming van de beroemdste Amsterdamse kunstenaars (‘Summary of the most famous Amsterdam artists’), 1618, Amsterdam.
[ix] Biographical information taken from the biography of the artist in Jonathan Bikker, et. al., Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Volume I – Artists born between 1570 and 1600, P. 281.