311 Love in the huiskamer

Between the 1610s and 1650 an enchanting form of painting was produced in Antwerp and Antwerp alone: the kunstkamer painting, an evocation of an art collection in which actions of various kinds take place. Love of art is not the only kind of love expressed in these paintings. In one of the very earliest examples of the genre, Schwartz discovers conjugal and filial love as well as love for God.

This text was written upon the invitation of the art-history students of the Radboud University, Nijmegen, for a theme issue on the interior in their journal Desipientia: Zin en Waan. With thanks to the editors for permission to make the article available on the Schwartzlist, and to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp for providing a good scan of the painting by Frans Francken that is the main subject of the article. For  van Haecht, download my article on him in Tableau (pdf; 3 Mb). See also Schwartzlist 305

In 1996 I published an article entitled “Love in the kunstkamer.”[1] There I showed that all the known kunstkamer paintings by the Antwerp artist Guillam (aka Willem) van Haecht (1593-1637) have to do with love. Most obvious is that two of them take place in the studio of Apelles as he paints a model with whom he has fallen in love.[2] The beautiful Campaspe was the mistress of Alexander the Great, to whom Apelles was court painter. Out of his high regard for Apelles, Alexander presents him with Campaspe. Although Apelles had allowed his carnal desires to become inflamed, with potentially fatal results, his love for Campaspe is not censured. Alexander’s generosity turns it into a token of respectful exchange between the two men.

In a painting that was last seen at an auction in Berlin in 1936, van Haecht places in a kunstkamer love of the wrong kind. The wife of the Egyptian officer Potiphar has been seized so powerfully by lust for her husband’s servant Joseph that she culpably tries to pull him into bed.

These two motifs show opposing instances of the consequences of succumbing to the concupiscent gaze. Apelles contains himself and is rewarded with the possession of his loved one. The wife of Potiphar has surrendered to her libido and fails to win the object of her desire. That these scenes are acted out in art chambers underscores the point that it was the sense of sight that engendered these dangerous outbreaks of love.

In his two other known kunstkamer paintings, van Haecht brings to the fore depictions of divine love of a markedly physical kind. A painting in the collection of the Marquess of Bute presents as the main display in a kunstkamer a painting by Anthonie van Dyck of the mystic marriage of St. Catherine with the infant Jesus. Jesus puts a wedding ring on the finger of his loving worshipper. In The Kunstkamer of Cornelis van der Geest in the Rubenshuis the featured painting, the object of a tug of war between the merchant collector van der Geest and his visitor, Archduke Albrecht, is a tender representation of the Mother of God kissing her baby on the lips. The story of the encounter is told in a small book on the master who painted the Madonna, Quentin Matsys:

A certain Madonna and child by Matsys once had as its owner the great art-lover Signor Cornelis van der Gheest: and when in the year 1615, on the 23rd of August, their Illustrious Highnesses Albertus and Isabella were in Antwerp and came to see the “Konst-kamer” of the above-mentioned van der Gheest as well as a mock battle that was to take place on the Scheldt behind his house, the archduke so fell in love with this picture of Mary that he used all the means of the suitor to acquire the same. But since two minds with but a single thought were opposed to each other, the owner’s and the archduke’s, his Highness was rejected with the most respectful courtesy and [the owner’s] own love [or self-conceit: “eyghen Liefde”] prevailed above the favor of the prince.” [3]

The archduchess too is marked as the victim of love: a page is holding up a statuette of Cupid firing an arrow in her direction. The thrust of these iconographical elements is that there is no contradiction between love of art objects and love of God. Sin comes into the picture only when delight is carried to an uncontrolled extreme.


A similar constellation can be discerned in the more modest interior of a burgher family painted ten years before van Haecht’s paintings by his older colleague and predecessor as a painter of kunstkamers, Frans Francken II (1581-1642). In the recent exhibition Room for art in seventeenth-century Antwerp in the Rubenshuis and the Mauritshuis, Francken’s Kunstkamer with a married couple and their son from the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp was displayed.[4] The tensions between the uses of aesthetic vision in positive and negative ways (in bono and in malo) that are brought into play by van Haecht are present here as well.[5]

In the dark left corner hang two paintings with unmistakably negative connotations. In one painting Samson lies with his drunken head in the lap of his treacherous Philistine wife Delilah, about to be captured – and blinded – for his sins. On the back wall, between the man and the woman, is a painting of Susanna and the elders, another exemplary illustration of the guilty salacious gaze.

As the calm and pious atmosphere of the interior signals, there can be no suspicion that the husband has misbehaved in the manner of Samson or the horny elders. On the right side of the painting we are vouchsafed a glimpse of the marital bed in which the couple’s son was presumably conceived and brought into the world. On the wall opposite the bed hangs not an erotic painting of the functional kind that is sometimes encountered in bedrooms, but a large cross. Sexual congress in this marriage is of the sacramental variety sanctioned by the church. The nature of the relationship is symbolized by the sleeping dog, emblem of chastity and marital faithfulness.

Leaning against a chair before the threshold of the bedroom is a painting of the very subject that van Haecht elevated into a main feature, Apelles painting Campaspe, with Alexander looking over his shoulder. In the context of Francken’s bourgeois interior, I would interpret the role of the painting as a reference not to princely favor but divine favor. The juxtaposition of the Apelles to a church interior behind it strengthens this association. The love of Apelles for Campaspe can be seen as a sign that looking at beauty is not reprehensible in itself, that it can be praiseworthy behavior, deserving of reward.

A similar message is conveyed by the main painting within the painting, The adoration of the Magi. In the decades following the iconoclastic devastations in the Netherlands, this iconography had enhanced significance. The iconoclasts challenged the legitimacy of the bond between material objects and divine worship. The honors paid by the wise men of the east to the Christ child, in the form of precious gifts, provide a scriptural basis for challenging that point of view. If Christ himself accepted gold, myrrh and frankincense from worshippers, with what right do we condemn material offers to the church? That the painting is superposed above the couple’s altar-like cabinet of costly objects is in my view not coincidental. The constellation accords with a principle that was described by Ursula Härting thus, regarding a similar kunstkamer painting by Frans Francken: “Here too the religious history painting occupies a central position and impressively conveys the message of salvation that is implicit in all the paintings and objects in the collection. Art, especially paintings, reveal to the ‘amateurs’ … an awareness of God’s greatness. The love of art, which in moral terms is an unnecessary luxury, is justified by this awareness. The kunstkamer becomes a theological instrument that, as it were, ennobles the art collector.”[6] The same applies to precious objects other than works of art, as the gifts of the magi show.

In the second half of the 1610s Frans Francken participated in a conspicuous confluence of art and faith in the Dominican church of Antwerp, the Sint-Pauluskerk. The Dominicans exercised control over a particular sequence of prayers that until today remains the most popular form of individual devotion for Catholics, the rosary. To say a rosary, one recites a certain number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. To keep count, a string of beads is used, a material adjunct to an immaterial act. In the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, the rosary was associated with the fifteen mysteries in the life of the Virgin – five joyful, five sorrowful and five glorious. To add a visual dimension to the tactile and auditory experience of the worshiper, a suite of fifteen paintings was ordered depicting the fifteen mysteries. They hung – and still hang – in a row on the north wall of the church. The paintings were ordered from the leading painters of the city, including Francken, who painted the second of the fifteen, The visitation. The commission was issued not by the Dominicans, but by lay members of the Confraternity of the Rosary. This was a devout society for pious men – and, in contrast to the exclusively male Jesuit brotherhoods – women as well. So powerful was the gesture that it inspired Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), in 1620, to buy Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) Madonna of the Rosary and present it to the Sint-Pauluskerk to be hung alongside the work of the Antwerp painters.

Francken’s kunstkamer painting here discussed seems to feature a rosary in the open cabinet in the center of the composition. The string of red beads with a hanger at the end – in the seventeenth century rosaries did not all have a cross or crucifix – looks enough like a rosary to make one think of one. The conjunction of these elements – a pious couple with a rosary, a painter commissioned to honor the rosary in a prestigious commission – is too suggestive to ignore. In a further stage of research, one could investigate the age and progeny of the donors of the Sint-Pauluskerk mysteries in search of candidates for the identity of the sitters.[7]

The above interpretation of Frans Francken’s Kunstkamer with a married couple and their son is based on an analysis of the motifs in the painting and their mutual relationships. Without insisting on the literal accuracy of the interpretation, it seems to me that the burden of disproof is on those who would deny that the painting incorporates an outspoken Christian meaning, tied up with its tribute to the visual arts. The picture that emerges comes very close to the complex of meanings already encountered in the work of Guillam van Haecht. The most concrete unifying factor is the motif of Apelles painting Campaspe. However, Frans Francken’s painting anticipates in other ways as well the love theme in the work of Van Haecht, most notably the opposition between the sins of the gaze and sensual delectation on the one hand and their blessings on the other. In this regard, Frans Francken must be regarded as the source for major iconographical as well as formal features of the art of Guillam van Haecht.

One documented instance of collaboration between the two artists is an eloquent testimony to the role of devout patronage in post-iconoclasm, Counter-Reformation Antwerp. In 1626, Cornelis van der Geest decided to pay for the repair of the altarpiece of St. Gummarus from the Sint-Gummaruskerk in Lier, his family home. The altarpiece had been nearly destroyed by iconoclasts in 1580. Van der Geest paid to have the altar transported to his house in Antwerp, where Frans Francken and Guillam van Haecht supplemented the missing parts.[8] The physical repair of the consequences of iconoclasm had a more spiritual and doctrinal dimension, which is reflected, as I see it, in the kunstkamer paintings of the two masters.


1. Gary Schwartz, “Love in the kunstkamer: additions to the work of Guillam van Haecht (1593-1637),” Tableau 18 (1996), Summer issue, pp. 43-52.

2. The main version is in the Mauritshuis, The Hague. The second of the two versions, auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York on 28 January 2010. For the status of the painting, see Gary Schwartz, “Worlds within worlds: paintings and prints missing from the van Haecht exhibition,” Schwartzlist 305 (http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/schwartzlist/?id=153, accessed on 29 September 2010).

3. Alexander van Fornenbergh, Den Antwerpschen Protheus, ofte Cyclopshen Apelles, Antwerp 1658, pp. 25-26. Whether or not the incident took place as described, I find it to correspond convincingly to the scene acted out in van Haecht’s Kunstkamer of Cornelis van der Geest. For contrary opinions on the subject, see Fiona Healy, “Vive l’esprit: sculpture as the bearer of meaning in Willem van Haecht’s Art cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest, in Munuscula amicorum: contributions on Rubens and his colleagues in honour of Hans Vlieghe, ed. Katlijne Van der Stighelen, vol. 10 in series Pictura Nova, Turnhout (Brepols) 2006, pp. 423-41, p. 438, note 5.

4. Ariane van Suchtelen and Ben van Beneden, Room for art in seventeenth-century Antwerp, Zwolle (Waanders) 2009, cat. nr. 8, fig. 4. Published in Dutch as well, under the title Kamers vol kunst in zeventiende-eeuwse Antwerpen. See there too for further literature. The sitters were formerly identified as the family of the Antwerp magistrate Sebastiaan Leerse.

5. For a brilliant exposition of the implementation of this principle in Antwerp painting, see Julius Müller Hofstede, “Non saturatur oculus visu: zur ‘Allegorie des Gesichts’ von Pieter Paul Rubens und Jan Brueghel d.Ä.,” in Wort und Bild in der niederländischen Kunst und Literatur des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, ed. Herman Vekeman and Julius Müller Hofstede, Erfstadt 1984, pp. 243-89. Ursula Härting devoted an excellent study to this aspect of our subject: “>Doctrina et pietas<: über frühe Galeriebilder,” Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, pp. 95-133. She interprets all visual art in Francken’s kunstkamer paintings in a positive sense.

6. Härting, art. cit., pp. 124-25.

7. For the commission of the Sodality of the Rosary, see the websites of Monumental churches of Antwerp (mkaweb.be/English/157.mv) and the databank of the CRKC, Centrum voor Religieuze Kunst en Cultuur, Belgium.

8. Hertha Leemans, De Sint-Gummaruskerk te Lier, vol. 1 in the Inventaris van het Kunstpatrimonium van de Provincie Antwerpen, Antwerp and Utrecht (De Nederlandsche Boekhandel) 1972, pp. 299-300.


© Gary Schwartz 2010. First published in print in Desipientia: Zin en Waan 18 (2010), nr. 2, pp. 45-47. Published on the Schwartzlist on 22 January 2011. P.S. added on 28 January; publication announced on that date.

Writing for the Nijmegen students, I did not wish to engage in polemics. In the Schwartzlist I feel no such constraint. In the catalogue of Room for art, no attention is paid to the moral dimension of kunstkamer painting. The importance of Counter-Reformation Catholicism for the emergence of this genre in Antwerp has been demonstrated by scholars like Justus Müller Hofstede, Ursula Härting and myself. The organizers of the exhibition concentrate exclusively on more conventional factors like Antwerp civic pride, the taste of art collectors, the reinvigoration of the Flemish school. Nothing is said about the fact that nearly all painters of kunstkamer paintings belonged to the Jesuit brotherhoods that in weekly meetings impressed upon their members the use of visual imagery for divine worship and that aesthetic delectation without religious devotion was potentially sinful. If the authors do not agree that this is relevant to the creation of kunstkamer paintings, they should have said so instead of simply ignoring the entire issue.

Had Saddam Hussein still been alive and in power in Iraq today, tomorrow he would have been gone, overthrown not by a hated invading army at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, hundreds of billions of dollars in largely corrupt payments and immeasurably harmful betrayal of trust, but by his own people.

Peter Vos (15 September 1935-6 November 2010)
Jur Oskamp (28 April 1939-5 December 2010)
Daan Romeyn (5 November 1923-30 December 2010)
Maarten Brinkgreve (13 June 1946-31 December 2010)
Saam Nystad (d. 5 January 2011)
Anneke Wertheim (18 January 1965-9 January 2011)
Els Poortman (1934-22 January 2011)

A sad season.

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