Peter Carmichael (1809-1891), Arthurstone House,
Meigle, Perthshire, by c. 1870
Thence by descent within the family
Private collection, West Midlands, 2022
The son of a notary, Jacob van Loo was born in Sluis, near Bruges, in 1614, but he moved with his family first to Vlissingen and then to Middelburg when he was still young. The details of his early life remain sketchy. The name of his teacher is not known, but both his smooth, elegant style of painting, and the fact that he was related by marriage to the famous Mijtens family of painters in The Hague, suggest that at least part of his training was undertaken in The Hague. By 1642, van Loo had settled in Amsterdam, where he quickly made a name for himself as an accomplished painter of portraits, genre and history subjects. The following decade saw him prosper: during these years, he produced his best work and enjoyed the patronage of wealthy and distinguished patrons, including members of the Huydecoper-Hinloopen family. His career in Amsterdam, however, came to an abrupt end in 1660, when he became involved in a fight that led to another man’s death. Accused of murder, he fled to Paris. There, he was able to resume his career and continued to enjoy the support of patrons and colleagues.
This previously unpublished painting, which has recently come to light in an old Anglo-Scottish collection, is a major addition to van Loo’s oeuvre. Painted in 1654, when the artist was at the height of his powers, it depicts the well-known Old Testament story of the Finding of Moses (Exodus 2:3-10). In response to the Pharaoh’s decree that all new-born sons of the Hebrews should be killed, the infant Moses was placed by his mother in a basket and hidden among the bulrushes growing in the River Nile. When the Pharaoh’s daughter came with her maidservants to bathe in the river, they discovered the infant. Seeing that the princess had taken pity on the child, Moses’s sister Miriam, who had been keeping watch nearby, came forward and offered to find a nurse for him. In this way, Moses was returned to his own mother Jochebad. After weaning, Jochebad brought Moses to the Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him as her own son at the Egyptian court.
Van Loo sets the scene beneath a tree on the banks of the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter, wearing a small crown, stands in the centre of the composition, surrounded by her handmaidens. The women are scantily dressed having recently emerged from the water. The artist has captured the moment when the newly discovered Moses is brought before the Egyptian princess. Visibly moved, she starts forward, one hand reaching towards the child. The tender gestures and the exchange of glances between the women express their compassion. One of the young women, who is holding the basket, looks out towards the viewer, as if to acknowledge our presence. Miriam, dressed in long flowing robes, has appeared from her hiding place and is on the point of addressing the Pharoah’s daughter. In the background, we catch a glimpse of the Pharaoh’s palace. Characteristic of van Loo’s mature style are the bright, varied colours and smooth brushstrokes.
The subject of this painting appears to be unique in van Loo’s oeuvre. Though the picture illustrates an episode from the Bible, van Loo seized the opportunity to demonstrate his skills at depicting a group of nude or semi-nude women in a variety of poses. What is more, he did not shy away from giving his figures the sensuous treatment normally reserved for mythological stories. However, just as in his portrayal of nudes in his mythological scenes, van Loo aimed to represent an idealised concept of feminine beauty. This he achieved through the classical proportions of the women’s bodies, captured in graceful and decorous poses. A similar treatment can be observed in, for example, his large canvas of Diana and her Nymphs (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen)[i], also from 1654, in which he depicted the semi-naked goddess of hunting standing in a woodland glade, encircled by her attendants in various stages of undress.
Van Loo’s reputation clearly rested to a large degree on his prowess at portraying nudes. Writing in the early eighteenth century, Arnold Houbraken remembered him as “being excellent at painting nude figures, especially vrouwtjes (small-scale pictures of women)”[ii]. In his day, his work was innovative and exerted an influence on others. His decision to focus on subjects that called for nude figures, a specialism unique at that time, allowed him to stand out from his contemporaries and position himself advantageously in the highly competitive art market of mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam.
When van Loo arrived in Amsterdam, Rembrandt was the dominant figure in the city’s art scene. His rapid success had attracted numerous pupils and followers and his impact on portraiture and history painting was pervasive. Many ambitious young artists felt compelled to emulate Rembrandt’s manner, and yet van Loo seems to have remained virtually impervious to his influence. From the outset, he steered a different course, taking his inspiration from Flemish Baroque models, and pursuing dissimilar artistic ideals. These differences strengthen the hypothesis that his formative years were not spent in Amsterdam, but in The Hague. By the late 1640s, he had apparently already established a strong network of contacts in the city, including in the highest court circles. In 1647 or 1648, Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of the Stadholder, Frederik Hendrik, added his name to a list of “the seven or eight best painters of the land”[iii], being considered for the decoration of the Oranjezaal, in Huis ten Bosch Place, in The Hague[iv]. In the event, van Loo was not chosen to participate in the project, but he was evidently reckoned to be a history painter with the ability to undertake history paintings on a large scale. However, he did succeed in securing the patronage of the Frisian Stadholder, Willem Frederik, who noted in his journal on 5th & 6th December 1648 that he visited the studio of master van Loo and sat for him to have his portrait painted[v].
Relatively few history paintings from van Loo’s early career are known today. Those that have come down to us, such as his magnificent Diana and her Nymphs Resting, dated 1648, in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin[vi], or his similarly dated painting of the same theme in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick[vii], already display classicising tendencies. The compositions are carefully structured, and the figures classically proportioned, with well-defined contours, cool flesh tones and draperies in rich blues, yellow and white. In the following decade, van Loo developed an increasingly elegant and courtly manner: his palette became brighter and more varied, and his figures more graceful. During this period, he painted many mythological subjects, especially episodes taken from the tale of Diana, as well as themes from literature, such as Cimon and Iphigenia, and from the Bible. He was now at the top of his game and was regarded by his contemporaries as being among the best painters in the city[viii].
Van Loo’s portraiture followed a similar stylistic evolution to his history paintings. By the mid-1650s, he had developed a courtly mode of portraiture that appealed to a privileged group of wealthy regents and merchants. Frustratingly, very little is known about the early owners of van Loo’s history paintings, but as the sitters of his portraits reveal, he regularly worked for members of Amsterdam’s regent elite. It is possible that his history paintings are mentioned only rarely in contemporary inventories because they were not regarded as movable goods having been created as part of a decorative scheme, or as a chimney-piece let into the panelling. Regrettably, nothing is known about the present painting’s early provenance, or for whom is was executed, but its size and the complexity of the composition suggest that it was most likely a commissioned work. Furthermore, the painting had completely escaped the attention of art historians until now, and it is therefore not mentioned in the literature on the artist. It is first recorded in the collection of Peter Carmichael (1809-1891), who probably acquired it around 1870 for his newly acquired home, Arthurstone House, in Meigle, Perthshire. An inventor and senior partner of Baxter Brothers of Dundee, Carmichael helped to make the firm a world leader in flax spinning and linen manufacture. The painting has remained with his descendants until the present day.
The son of the notary Jacques van Loo, Jacob van Loo was born in Sluis, near Bruges, in 1614. The family moved to Vlissingen in 1620, when Jacob was about six years old, and then to nearby Middelburg in 1631. It is possible that his artistic training began in Middelburg, although the name of his teacher is not recorded. Where and with whom he continued his training has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Recently a convincing case has been made for van Loo having served an apprenticeship in The Hague with Isaac Mijtens (1602-1666), perhaps alongside the young Jan Mijtens (c. 1614-1670). Later, he was to become related to the Mijtens family through his marriage to a young woman from The Hague, and it has been speculated that he met his future wife during his pupillage in The Hague[ix].
It is possible that van Loo was already living in Amsterdam by 1635, when a man by the name of Jacob van Loo is mentioned in a contract between Marten Kretzer, a merchant, art dealer and collector based in Amsterdam and Heyndricksz. Admirael, a wealthy man who lived on Prinsengracht. However, the name van Loo was common at the time, and the person named in the document cannot be certainly identified as the painter Jacob van Loo. In any event, van Loo was without doubt living in Amsterdam by 1642, when his name crops up in a document in connection with the transfer of a bond[x]. In 1643, Jacob married Anna Lengele, the daughter of a well-to-do notary from The Hague and a sister of the portraitist Martinus Lengele (c. 1615-1668). Through this marriage, van Loo became related to the Mijtens family of painters as his mother-in-law was Anneke Mijtens (d. 1631). The couple had seven children (Jacob, Philip, Anna, Maria, Abraham, Johannes and Isabella) all of whom were baptised in the Protestant Old Church in Amsterdam. The birth of her last child may have taken its toll on Anna since she died on 24 July 1656, three months after her daughter Isabella was born. Five of the children reached adulthood, with two of them becoming renowned painters in France.
By 1648, Van Loo had apparently made a name for himself as a portraitist as can be judged from the fact that Willem Frederik, Stadholder of Friesland, recorded in his journal in December 1648 that he stopped in Amsterdam to pose for van Loo while en route to The Hague[xi]. A year later Constantijn Huygens (1596-1647), Secretary to the Stadholder, included van Loo’s name on the list of artists selected as potential candidates for the decoration of the Huis ten Bosch. In the event, van Loo did not secure a commission. On 24 January 1652, Van Loo became a citizen of Amsterdam, together with a group of artists, including Govaert Flinck (1615-1660), Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), Nicolaes van Helt Stockade (1614-69) and Jan Asselijn (c. 1610-1652). In 1654, the poet Jan Vos praised van Loo in his Zeege der Schilderkunst, ranking him alongside Rembrandt (1606-1669), Govaert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol, among others. In 1656, he was living on the Fluweleburgwal, part of the respectable Oudezijds Voorburgwal. In 1658 and 1659, van Loo received commissions to paint two large group portraits of the regents and regentesses of the Aalmoezeniers Werkhuis in Haarlem (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem).
In 1660, four years after the death of his wife, van Loo drew up a Will naming his six children as his heirs. At the time, he was living on the Rozengracht in Amsterdam and was evidently in poor health. Shortly afterwards, his life took a tragic turn when he became involved in a fight with the notoriously aggressive wine merchant Hendrik Breda, resulting in van Loo inflicting a knife wound in his adversary’s stomach from which he died shortly thereafter. The incident appears to be completely out of character for van Loo, who is repeatedly described in contemporary documents as honourable and a gentleman. The artist did not wait for the case to be heard, but fled with his children to Paris. As a result, he was convicted in absentia and banished for life from Holland and West Friesland on pain of execution by the sword.
In Paris, van Loo continued to enjoy success. In 1663, he was admitted to the Académie Royale, having submitted a portrait of the painter Michel Corneille (1601-64), now in the Louvre. For the remainder of his career, he received a steady stream of portrait commissions from Dutch diplomats at the court of Louis XIV, old Dutch patrons visiting Paris, and new Parisian clients. He was a prominent member of the community of Netherlandish artists in the Saint-Germain district of Paris, where he lived in a house in the rue de Fosse-Saint-Germain until his death on 26 November 1670. His son Abraham Louis van Loo fathered a generation of leading French artists, including Carle van Loo (1705-65). Van Loo’s only pupil from his Amsterdam period was Eglon van der Neer (1634/36-1703), whose work nevertheless bears no trace of his master’s influence.
[i] Jacob van Loo, Diana and her nymphs, oil on canvas, 9.5 x 135.5 cm, signed and dated 1654, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
[ii] A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, The Hague, 1718-21, p. 172. .
[iii] ‘(…) van 7 off 8 de beste schilders van het landt”, stadholder Willem Frederik of Friesland in his diary entry for 13 July 1648 (Gloria Parendi, Dagboeken van Willem Frederik, stadhouder van Friesland, Groningen en Drenthe 1643-1649, 1651-1654, publ. J. Visser, ed. G. N. van der Plaat, The Hague, 1995, p. 540).
[iv] The list included Jacob Backer, Nicholaes Berchem, Dirck Bleker, Salomon de Braij, Caesar van Everdingen, Pieter de Grebber, Gerard van Honthorst, and van Loo. Quoted in Albert Blankert, et. al., Dutch Classicism in seventeenth-century painting, exh. cat., Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam & Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, p. 13, note 4.
[v] “I arrived in Amsterdam at noon, ate there and had myself painted by master van Loo”. Quoted by Judith Norman, Art, Honor and Success in the Dutch Republic: The Life and Career of Jacob van Loo, Amsterdam, 2020, p. 16 & 49. The portrait is unknown today.
[vi] Jacob van Loo, Diana and her Nymphs, 1648, oil on canvas, 136 x 170.6 cm, Gemäldgalerie, Berlin, inv. no. 765A.
[vii] Jacob van Loo, Diana and her Nymphs, c. 1648, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick, inv. no. 274.
[viii] Van Loo’s name is listed in Jan Vos’s laudatory poem of 1654 along with Rembrandt, Govaert Flinck, Bartholomeus van der Helst and others as being among the painters whose talent reflected well upon the city of Amsterdam. The poem is quoted by Judith Norman, op. cit., p. 31.
[ix] Judith Norman, op. cit., p. 44-45; E. J. Sluijter, Rembrandt’s Rivals: History Painting in Amsterdam 1630-1650, p. 378.
[x] The document describes him as “Jacob van Loo, painter, of Sluis in Flanders, currently living within this city”. See Judith Noman, ibid., p. 26, footnote. 42.
[xi] See note ‘v’ above.