HAECHT, Willem van
(b. 1593, Antwerpen, d. 1637, Antwerpen)

The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest

Oil on panel, 100 x 130 cm
Rubenshuis, Antwerp

In 1628 Willem van Haecht portrayed the art gallery of his employer Cornelis van der Geest, a wealthy Antwerp merchant. A grand chamber is populated with important people admiring important art. It records the 1615 visit of Archduke Albert (r. 1599-1621) and Archduchess Isabella (r. 1599-1633), co-regents of the Spanish Low Countries, to Van der Geest's townhouse adjacent to the river Scheldt. The picture pretends to be accurate, even if some of the assembled guest were absent that day and not all of the art was displayed in this single room. Nevertheless, the comprehensive collection encompassed everything from copies of famous ancient sculptures up to contemporary paintings by Rubens.

With the publication of biographies of famous artists by Giorgio Vasari (2550 and 1568) in Florence and Karel van Mander (1604) in Haarlem, a consensus about which artists were historically significant began to emerge. Van Haecht's painting locates Northern Renaissance art, especially that of Antwerp, at the heart of this canon. For both Vasari and van Mander, Jan van Eyck, erroneously dubbed the 'inventor' of oil painting, was the first northern painter of international renown. His lost Lady at her Toilet, or a replica, hangs prominently on the right wall immediately above and intentionally related to the Hellenistic statue of Venus Pudica (Venus of Modesty). Dürer, already heralded as the greatest German artist, is represented by his engraving of the Standard Bearer (c. 1501) at the front of the centre table, and by his portrait wearing a black hat and cloak on the back wall. Given its context, the former may allude to Dürer's role as standard bearer and rallying figure in Northern Renaissance art. Tommaso Vincidor, Raphael's assistant, painted this now-lost likeness in 1520 during Dürer's stay in Antwerp. Around 1563 Van Eyck and Dürer were paired in bust sculptures attributed to Willem van der Broeck (Paludanus) on the house of painter Cornelis van Dalem in Antwerp.

The history of Antwerp's artistic heritage begins with Quentin Massys. At the lower left, Van der Geest lectures on Massys's Virgin and Child, of which several versions exist. Standing beside the archduke is Rubens commenting on its merits. Behind, Van Dyck gestures toward the painting. Pictures by, or in the style of Massys, Pieter BBruegel the Elder, Cornelis van Dalem, Frans Floris and Pieter Aertsen, among other sixteenth-century Antwerp masters, are proudly displayed. The candelabrum is done in the style of Cornelis Floris.

The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest testifies to the aesthetic preferences of a cultivated patrician whose collection was worthy of the attention of the Southern Netherlands rulers and leading artists. The composition reveals a growing historical consciousness. The noted Antwerp and Northern Renaissance masters are situated within the sweep of great European art. On the front table next to Dürer's engraving is a drawing Apelles Painting Campaspe in the Presence of Alexander the Great (1600) by Jan Wierix (1549-c. 1618). The gallery records the great Netherlandish heirs of Apelles. Indeed, Van Haecht, as painter and curator of the collection, plays Apelles to Van der Geest's Alexander.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.