Odd Man Out: Nicolaes Elias Pickenoy and Amsterdam History Painting in the 1630s and 1640s

Eric Jan Sluijter, University of Amsterdam

The styles that developed in Amsterdam history painting in the 1630s and 1640s were of a stunning variety. Beginning in the early 1630s, when the market for paintings was hugely expanding, a group of highly talented and aspiring young artists started their careers in Amsterdam; in this rapidly changing market each of them had to secure his own place and make a living. To those young men the situation must have felt comparable to Karel van Mander’s description of circumstances in Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century; a time, Van Mander stated, when prospering and art-loving patrons gave rise to a “positive battle [among painters] to be the fastest runner, while a burning diligence was fired, jealousy began to move its black wings in secrecy, and everyone did his best to win the highest price.”1

In 1630 Bartholomeus Breenbergh returned from Rome and began to depict mostly biblical scenes in his novel type of Italianate landscapes. In 1633 Rembrandt and Jacob Backer settled in Amsterdam, both having instant success with their portraits, but simultaneously making ambitious and highly innovative history paintings. The young Govert Flinck came to Amsterdam around the same time and started as an independent painter in 1635, after having learned Rembrandt’s successful style, “because Rembrandt’s manner was so generally praised at that time that everything had to be done along that line if one wanted to please the world,”2 as Arnold Houbraken would later affirm. Joachim von Sandrart arrived in Amsterdam in 1637 and soon managed to receive important commissions for portraits and history paintings from the upper echelons of society (until his departure in 1645), using a bright “Italian” manner as different as possible from Rembrandt’s. Salomon Koninck started his career sometime in the 1630s as well, while in the first years of the 1640s Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and Jan Victors appeared on the scene, all of them developing their own recognizably different variations on the manner of Rembrandt.

When these young men came rushing in, a group of older painters was still successfully working away, many of whom achieved the peak of their production in the 1630s and 1640s: Nicolaes Moyaert, who kept to the same “Lastman-lite” manner during his whole life; Adriaen van Nieulandt, who worked from around 1610 into the 1650s in a style that barely changed and still showed characteristics of late Mannerism, and Isaac Isaacsz, who had studied with Rubens in the early 1620s and was the first to introduce in Amsterdam a type of painting that depended on Rubens’s example. Apart from those painters there were a few outsiders, specialists in other fields, who now and then made surprisingly original history paintings: in particular, Pieter Codde, specialist in merry companies, and the portrait painters Thomas de Keyser and Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy.

No one has ever paid much attention to the few history paintings by Pickenoy’s hand, though they are of an evident quality and striking exceptionality in many respects. Since Alison Kettering, with her groundbreaking book of 1983, The Dutch Arcadia, magisterially gave new life to a fascinating category of Dutch painting that had been passed over by art history, it seems appropriate to present her with a short exploration of this unfamiliar, but surprising corner of history painting in Amsterdam’s Golden Age. In so doing, I will demonstrate that a self-consciously “academic” manner never died in Amsterdam history painting, even at the height of Rembrandt’s success.

Portraitist of the Amsterdam Elite

Born in Amsterdam, Pickenoy (1588–1650/56), like so many artists of his generation, was of Southern Netherlandish descent. His parents were both from Antwerp and lived in the Warmoesstraat behind the Oude Kerk.3 It is not known who his teacher was; a likely candidate is the most successful portrait painter of an older generation, Cornelis van der Voort. Pickenoy might have had some training in depicting histories through making copies in Van der Voort’s workshop after works by such painters as Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem and Pieter Lastman; this must have been a current practice there.4 Pickenoy became the favorite portraitist of the regent elite—no other artist painted so many militia and regent pieces as he did. His earliest dated portrait stems from 1617, but the high point of his career was in the 1630s, when he painted numerous portraits, among them the impressive full-lengths of the most powerful man of Amsterdam, Cornelis de Graeff, and his wife, Catharina Hooft (1636).5 In 1637 he bought the large house on the corner of the Anthoniebreestraat and the Anthoniesluis, where Hendrick Uylenburgh had resided since 1625 and which was originally the house and workshop of Cornelis van der Voort. As S. A. C. Dudok van Heel concluded, this house, which was situated next to the house that Rembrandt would buy in 1639, must have functioned for about thirty years as a workshop for the production of portraits.6 For six years Pickenoy was Rembrandt’s neighbour, but in 1645 he sold the house for 9,000 guilders; in 1647 he is mentioned as living on the Singel.7 It was in the 1630s and early 1640s that he also painted a few monumental history paintings. As was the case with the history paintings of his colleague Thomas de Keyser, his works in this category would have been special commissions.

Lutheran Commissions: Surprisingly Innovative with the Support of Old Prints

We know that Pickenoy’s most important still extant history painting, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, now in the Catharijneconvent (Utrecht), was originally in the possession of the Old Lutheran Church in Amsterdam (fig. 1).8 There also existed a much larger version of the same composition, formerly in Aachen but lost in World War II (fig. 2). Of the latter painting only a reproduction exists in a cut down version—it must originally have measured about 280 x 201 cm. When compared with the original composition—the Utrecht painting—one may conclude that it was cropped approximately 130 cm at the top. It seems likely that both paintings were commissioned when the Old Lutheran Church was built (the church was finished in 1633).9 Paul Dirkse argued convincingly that Pickenoy must have had contacts with prominent Lutherans. In particular, a certain Henrick van Tweeënhuizen, who donated a substantial sum for the building of the Lutheran Church, might have played a role in this commission.10 It is possible that the small painting hung in one of the two meeting chambers of the church. According to Dirkse the subject was of specific interest for Lutherans, because it exemplifies Luther’s notion of mercy, which was fundamentally different from that of the Catholic Church11 (and from that of the Calvinists as well, as Dudok van Heel remarked).12

Figure 1
Figure 1. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, ca. 1630–35, oil on panel, 70 x 53 cm. Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent, inv. no. RMCC S14 (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 2
Figure 2. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Christus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, oil on canvas, 148 x 201 cm (originally ca. 280 cm high). Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, inv. no. 141 (lost in WW II) (artwork in the public domain)

Dirkse pointed out that Pickenoy borrowed the composition as a whole, as well as specific motifs—such as the pose of the woman at the left, the bearded man with a book at the right border, and the two soldiers (especially the one half turning around)—from a woodcut by Maarten van Heemskerck (fig. 3).13 For the classicist architectural background, an arch with a view into a barrel vaulted chapel fronted by a temple curtain, Dirkse suggested as a possible model an engraving by Hieronymus Wierix after Maarten de Vos. Pickenoy must also, however, have consulted a print by Jan Baptist Barbé after De Vos (fig. 4).14 From this work he took the attitude of the adulterous woman herself, as well as an old man holding his glasses while peering at Christ writing on the floor (at the right in Pickenoy’s painting). De Vos had obviously based his composition on Van Heemskerck’s woodcut, and it is clear that Pickenoy studied both compositionally related prints when he executed this commission.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Maarten van Heemskerck, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, woodcut, 23.5 x 19 cm (Hollstein, no. 372) (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 4
Figure 4. Jan Baptist Barbé after Maarten de Vos, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, engraving, 18.0 x 21.5 cm (Hollstein, no. 302) (artwork in the public domain)

The resulting painting, however, is highly original and was very unusual in Amsterdam of the 1630s. Nothing recalls Lastman, Moyaert, or the then highly fashionable Rembrandt, nor any other Amsterdam painter at that time. Pickenoy used the severe classicist architecture of gray natural stone, constructed with a precise perspective, to create a well-organized, surveyable stage for the carefully outlined figures. He transformed the restless figures of Van Heemskerck and the Mannerist ones of De Vos into static, classically proportioned figures that act with a minimum of movement and gestures and are situated in two well-balanced groups. Simple but well-painted drapery emphasizes the verticality and the tranquil composure of the group. A strong light comes from the left, causing the figure of Christ to cast a heavy shadow on the floor. The figure types recall in some respects—the specific style of the turbans, the extravagantly feathered hat of the soldier, the old man with the glasses—figures by Hendrick ter Brugghen, but they act within a totally different kind of ambiance.15 When it was placed in the Old (then brand new) Lutheran Church in the mid-1630s (assuming that this was indeed the case), the large version, in which Pickenoy blew up the figures to a life-size format and strengthened the impression of symmetry by adding a woman at the left, must have been perceived as something strikingly different from what one was used to at that moment.

Rembrandt’s painting of 1644 of the same subject underlines the divergence of views on how to make a history painting (fig. 5). The author of a curious pamphlet on painting and architecture published in 1628, the unknown artist Jacques de Ville, would have been very satisfied with Pickenoy’s painting. De Ville’s main point was that painters should be able to make a geometrically constructed architectural setting as a stage for their correctly proportioned and well-drawn figures—without any display of a specific handeling.16 De Ville fulminated against painters who considered a specific manner of painting more important than correct drawing and whose art was, in his view, without any foundation (sonder fondament), by which he meant that they did not place their figures in a clearly constructed space. Such artists know nothing about correct perspective and proportions, he claimed. They only paint “two or three figures, grouped together and painted closely from life with stopped light” (gestopt licht, by which he means the suggestion of three-dimensional space by spotlighting figures against a dark background), “so that one sees a lot of brownishness.”17

Figure 5
Figure 5. Rembrandt, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1644, oil on panel, 83.8 x 65.4 cm. London, The National Gallery, inv. no. 45 (artwork in the public domain)

The thrust of De Ville’s criticism would have concerned, first of all, followers of Caravaggio, but Rembrandt’s work also contained everything that De Ville abhorred. For example, in Rembrandt’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, linear perspective does not play a role in the construction of the huge and mysterious temple space; it is suggested through the magnificent interplay of light, shadow, and color, through schikschaduwen (shadows to arrange one’s ordonnance), through houding (the subtle shifting of color and tone to create a suggestion of space), and through a very specific manner of painting, employing kenlijkheid (relief in the paint texture in the parts of the composition on which the eye focuses) and more thinly applied paint in the figures as they recede.18 The proportions of the figures’ anatomy are certainly not according to the rules De Ville would have favored, but close to the viewer’s world of experience. In light of De Ville’s criticism, we might consider Pickenoy’s painting to be representative of a conservatism that simultaneously heralded a new alternative to the more current, and at that moment more fashionable, “from life” ideology.19

One wonders whether Pickenoy’s two paintings of the Last Judgment were made for the same Lutheran church as well. As is the case with the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, there exist two versions of this work, a large one, measuring 158 x 254 cm, and a much smaller one of 91.5 x 90 cm (figs. 6 and 7).20 That Joris van Schooten had painted a Last Judgment for a Lutheran church in Leiden (where the painting is stillin situ), combined with the fact that this was not a very popular subject among the Dutch in the seventeenth century, makes this a plausible assumption. In 1742 a Last Judgment by Pickenoy was sold for 30 guilders.21 Did the church dispose of the painting at some point because of changes in the interior of the building—for example, when a new organ was installed in 1690? 22 (Or was it because all those tumbling nudes were too distracting for the devout community?)

Figure 6
Figure 6. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Last Judgment, oil on canvas, 158 x 254 cm. Cádiz, Museo de Belles Artes, inv. no. CE 20039 (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 7
Figure 7. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Last Judgment, oil on panel, 91.5 x 90 cm. Sale, Phillips, London, July 10, 1990, no. 57 (artwork in the public domain)

The composition follows the traditional arrangement, for which Pickenoy undoubtedly had a good look at late sixteenth-century prints of the Last Judgment. However, unlike the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, the Amorous Gods, and the Diana and Actaeon to be discussed below, I did not come across a print that clearly supplied most of the motifs. It comes closest to a print after Crispijn van den Broeck (fig. 8),23 where we find in the foreground a similar man with a shroud on his head, a man seen from the back at the left, and above him a woman with raised arms. The central position of the angel with two companions at both sides blowing the trumpets of doom is unusual; they take the position of Christ, who has become a tiny figure appearing in a blaze of light. With great competence Pickenoy updated the sixteenth-century disposition by using a low viewpoint and modeling the solid figures with strong contrasts in light and shadow. Simultaneously, he carefully observed from life the anatomy of the male bodies, while the smoothly painted, robust female bodies are drawn with taut contours. We do not know anything about its reception, but this painting must have been an exceptional presence in Amsterdam of the 1630s, and one would expect that it made a great impression.

Figure 8
Figure 8. Anonymous after Chrispijn van den Broeck, Last Judgment, engraving, 31.5 x 23.0 cm (Hollstein, no. 143) (artwork in the public domain)

Even Erotically Charged Nudes

As unexpected as the other two works is a life-size nude amorous couple with, in the background, a banquet of the gods (fig. 9). In this case an engraving by Jacob Matham of circa 1600–1605 (Matham’s own invention) was the direct starting point for the general composition, as well as for many specific details (fig. 10). Not only the amorous couple but also many of the merry-making gods in the background (they certainly are Olympian gods; we can recognize Mercury, Ceres, and Jupiter) and the music-making Muses in the middle ground are very similar. The subject is as unclear as in Matham’s engraving; in both pictures the love-making couple remained unspecified.24 Pickenoy put a rose in the woman’s hand, which reminds the viewer immediately of Venus. The man, however, seems to be too young to be Mars.

Figure 9
Figure 9. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Amorous Couple and Banquet of the Gods, oil on canvas, 150 x 110 cm. London, Colnaghi, 1992 (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 10
Figure 10. Jacob Matham, Amorous Couple and Banquet of the Gods, engraving, 22.9 x 17.5 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Hollstein, no. 216; Bartsch, no. 21) (artwork in the public domain)

Pickenoy transformed Matham’s stylized couple into painted figures with a convincing lifelikeness—altering the posture of the love-making woman, placing her more upright with one leg slung over her lover’s knee, as if taking the initiative of actively kissing the young male god.25 This change enhances the erotic charge of the subject, which was already emphatically present in the print by Matham. Pickenoy also changed the print’s long-legged Mannerist-type Venus: she has become a broad shouldered and quite sturdy, but classically proportioned, woman. The man sits in exactly the same pose as in Matham’s print, but his body has become very different: the shape and detailing of his back, thigh, and foot demonstrates that Pickenoy obviously studied a life model to get things right. By elaborating on the borrowed motif of the basket with fruit in the foreground, Pickenoy demonstrated that he was a competent still-life painter as well.

From several texts we know that not everybody considered such nudes to be an acceptable subject for paintings. In this case we can even point to a poem written by hand under this print by Matham (probably penned shortly after the engraving was made): “Tell me, what is the use of such a lascivious print? / Is it meant to present this randy lust as an example? / This should be far from us; God loves virtue; knock over this print / Do not follow these gods, but God the All-highest.”26 Such moralistic lines of poetry echo the conventional condemnations in religious circles.27 Obviously, there were many art lovers who greatly enjoyed such subjects; they had been produced in considerable numbers in paintings and prints between about 1590 and the 1620s and would again become popular in painting around 1650. Pickenoy’s work, which was probably painted in the 1630s or early 1640s, is exceptional not only because of its large format but also because of its blatant sexuality and its smooth, colorful style. It seems to be a harbinger of the nudes by Jacob van Loo, whose amorous couple of the early 1650s in the Rijkmuseum looks like a follow up (albeit on a much smaller format) of this painting.28

As a matter of fact, the Amorous Couple and the Last Judgment were not Pickenoy’s only paintings with nudes, since he portrayed a “Bath of Diana with Actaeon” as well, which was sold at a sale in 1743.29 This must be the striking painting that, tellingly, was attributed to the much younger painter Caesar van Everdingen, but for which also the names of Jacob van Campen, Carel van Savoyen, and Cornelis Holsteyn have been proposed (fig. 11).30 The unusual measurements mentioned in the eighteenth-century sale fit this oblong panel, and we recognize the same type of sturdy, smoothly painted female bodies seen in the Amorous Couple. More than any other artist who depicted this popular subject, Pickenoy kept close to a well-known print from the Metamorphoses series by Antonio Tempesta (fig. 12),31 which is in accordance with his method of working. However, he placed the women in mirror image, but kept the figure of Actaeon striding in the same direction, so that the latter is fleeing instead of turning toward Diana. A comparison of this work, which would have been painted in the late 1630s or early 1640s, with two paintings of the same subject by David Colijns (1639 and 1641, respectively) (fig. 13),32 an Amsterdam painter of quite modest talent, and with Rembrandt’s spectacular painting of Diana and Actaeon and Callisto of 1634 (fig. 14), not only demonstrates how artists of extremely diverse capacities painted the same subject but also the huge variety of styles extant at that time. All of them employed motifs from one or more prints of this popular subject—Rembrandt creatively marshaling motifs from a whole range of prints he had stored in his mind when devising his brilliant composition,33 Pickenoy employing one print for support, and Colijns “rapend” wherever it suited him; the results could not be more different.

Figure 11
Figure 11. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Diana and Actaeon, oil on panel, 61 x 122 cm. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, inv. no. 55.045 (as Caesar van Everdingen) (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 12
Figure 12. Antonio Tempesta, Diana and Actaeon, etching, 9.7 x 11.5 cm (From: Metamorphoseon sive transformationum Ovidii libri XV [Antwerp: P. de Jode, 1606], no. 25) (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 13
Figure 13. David Colijns, Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by Actaeon, 1641, oil on canvas, 99 x 131 cm. Whereabouts unknown (coll. Baron Reedts-Thott, 1914, Gauno) (artwork in the public domain)
Figure 14
Figure 14. Rembrandt, Diana and Actaeon and Callisto, 1634, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 93.5 cm. Anholt, Museum Wasserburg, Collection Fürst zu Salm-Salm, inv. no. 391 (artwork in the public domain)

One of Many Divergent Styles in Amsterdam in the 1630s and 1640s

With the few history paintings that he produced, Pickenoy demonstrated that he was a remarkably capable painter of histories who did not follow any other history painter of that time, but, on the contrary, added significantly to the strikingly wide range of different styles evident in the 1630s. Although he leaned heavily on prints to support him in the few cases when he had to devise the composition of a history painting, the result was truly divergent from what others did. For him, this practice does not seem to have been a matter of conscious creative imitation of earlier examples, as it was for Rembrandt, but of needing help in a field with which he was not very familiar. Taking as points of departure late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century prints, he simplified the compositions and changed the shapes of the bodies into sturdy, classically proportioned figures, very unlike Rembrandt’s bodies, the silhouettes of which follow the fashion in contemporary dress. To this he added details which show, in the case of the male bodies, that he, like Rembrandt, studied from life models. Pickenoy, however, stylized these models with clear and taut outlines and smoothly painted surfaces; the quite heavy contrasts between light and shade were used to give them a powerful relief. Thus he managed to create a style that was simultaneously conservative while pointing to new directions. Unlike Adriaen van Nieulandt, who lived at the opposite side of the same street and was, apart from Rembrandt, the only one who depicted nudes in this period, Pickenoy did not get stuck in a limp and half-heartedly updated version of late Mannerist history painting, nor did he follow Lastman’s or Rembrandt’s style. When looking at his paintings we realize that “academic” trends, which would return in full force in the 1650s with artists of a younger generation, never vanished, not even in the 1630s and 1640s, when Rembrandt’s highly innovative and temporarily fashionable manner was dominant.


Recommended Citation: Eric Jan Sluijter, “Odd Man Out: Nicolaes Elias Pickenoy and Amsterdam History Painting in the 1630s and 1640s,” Midwestern Arcadia: Essays in Honor of Alison Kettering (2015) DOI:10.18277/makf.2015.08

List of Illustrations

  • Figure 1. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, ca. 1630–35, oil on panel, 70 x 53 cm. Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent, inv. no. RMCC S14 (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 2. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Christus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, oil on canvas, 148 x 201 cm (originally ca. 280 cm high). Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, inv. no. 141 (lost in WW II) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 3. Maarten van Heemskerck, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, woodcut, 23.5 x 19 cm (Hollstein, no. 372) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 4. Jan Baptist Barbé after Maarten de Vos, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, engraving, 18.0 x 21.5 cm (Hollstein, no. 302) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 5. Rembrandt, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1644, oil on panel, 83.8 x 65.4 cm. London, The National Gallery, inv. no. 45 (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 6. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Last Judgment, oil on canvas, 158 x 254 cm. Cádiz, Museo de Belles Artes, inv. no. CE 20039 (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 7. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Last Judgment, oil on panel, 91.5 x 90 cm. Sale, Phillips, London, July 10, 1990, no. 57 (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 8. Anonymous after Chrispijn van den Broeck, Last Judgment, engraving, 31.5 x 23.0 cm (Hollstein, no. 143) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 9. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Amorous Couple and Banquet of the Gods, oil on canvas, 150 x 110 cm. London, Colnaghi, 1992 (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 10. Jacob Matham, Amorous Couple and Banquet of the Gods, engraving, 22.9 x 17.5 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Hollstein, no. 216; Bartsch, no. 21) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 11. Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Diana and Actaeon, oil on panel, 61 x 122 cm. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, inv. no. 55.045 (as Caesar van Everdingen) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 12. Antonio Tempesta, Diana and Actaeon, etching, 9.7 x 11.5 cm (From: Metamorphoseon sive transformationum Ovidii libri XV [Antwerp: P. de Jode, 1606], no. 25) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 13. David Colijns, Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by Actaeon, 1641, oil on canvas, 99 x 131 cm. Whereabouts unknown (coll. Baron Reedts-Thott, 1914, Gauno) (artwork in the public domain)
  • Figure 14. Rembrandt, Diana and Actaeon and Callisto, 1634, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 93.5 cm. Anholt, Museum Wasserburg, Collection Fürst zu Salm-Salm, inv. no. 391 (artwork in the public domain)

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