Matthias Stomer, characterised by Leonard Slatkes as the ‘quintessential Caravaggist’, was one of the most eminently recognisable and prolific artists of the 17th century. Blowing Hot, Blowing Cold, which takes its subject from Aesop’s Fables, was one of three pictures that Brian Sewell owned by Stomer, all of which are offered in this sale, indicating his fondness for an artist who has been consistently popular amongst collectors but unjustly overlooked by scholarship.
The first detailed study on Stomer, by Henri Pauwels, was published in 1953, and it was not until 1977 that Stomer’s oeuvre was revised and updated when Benedict Nicolson published his key article in The Burlington Magazine. The details of Stomer’s early life remain scarce. As Marten Jan Bok has pointed out, the name Stom - by which he was known during his lifetime - is of Southern Netherlandish derivation, as many individuals bearing the name in the Dutch Republic had emigrated from that region of the Low Countries (M.J. Bok, ‘Matthias Stom’, in Nieuw licht op de Gouden Eeuw; Hendrick ter Brugghen en tijdgenoten, Utrecht, 1986-1987, p. 333, notes 16 and 17). It is entirely conceivable that Stomer himself was a Flemish émigré to the North, where he probably received his artistic training, in either Utrecht or Amersfoort. Thereafter his key movements are recorded: he was in Rome in 1630-32, before moving to Naples and then on to Sicily, where he remained for the rest of his life. It is Sicily, more than any other place, that is so closely associated with Stomer. Pictures can be found in Palermo and Messina, and the island is home to his only known signed and dated work, the 1641 altarpiece showing Isidore the Labourer, made for Chiesa di Sant’Agostino in Caccamo, just to the east of the capital.
It was in Sicily that he fully developed his trademark style that makes his pictures so identifiable. Though he is broadly characterised as a caravaggista, his influences were more subtle and varied - the vibrancy of his palette, which is far from the tenebrist strains of caravaggismo, and the spirited characterisation of the figures in his compositions show the traces of Flemish, Dutch and Neapolitan inflections. Roberto Longhi called his style a ‘caravaggismo romanzato’ (R. Longhi, ‘Ultimi studi del Caravaggio e la sua cerchia’, Proporzioni, I, 1943, p. 60), while Slatkes described him as ‘the quintessential international Caravaggist’ (L.J. Slatkes, ‘Matthias Stom. Birmingham’, The Burlington Magazine, CXLII, no. 1164, March 2000, p. 182). As an outsider who settled in Sicily, Stomer’s career was rather unusual, though he was not the only major artist to come to the island; he had two immediate, and illustrious, predecessors, in Caravaggio and van Dyck, who each influenced Stomer’s development. There Stomer succeeded in creating a style that was, as Slatkes says, truly international and eminently recognisable.
The subject of the picture in question derives from The Satyr and the Traveller, in Aesop’s Fables. The tale goes:
'It is said that once a man entered into a friendship with a satyr. Winter had come and the cold weather with it, so the man raised his hands to his mouth and blew upon them. The satyr asked him why he did that. The man replied that he was warming his hands because of the cold. Then they were served a meal. As the food was very hot, the man took it in small portions, raised them to his mouth, and blew on them. The satyr again asked him why he acted thus. The man replied that it cooled his meal because it was hot. ‘Oh well, friend’, said the satyr, ‘I give up on your friendship, because you blow hot and cold with the same mouth.’'
It is a simple moral tale, open to complex interpretation, that was popularised by the 17th century poet Joost van den Vondel, who published the story of the ‘Satyr en Boer’ amongst a collection of poems based on the engravings by Marcus Gheeraerts, Vorstelijke Warande der Dieren. The subject was frequently represented in Dutch art in the seventeenth century – Jacob Jordaens alone returned to it on many occasions and Stomer is known to have treated the subject in at least one other canvas, where an extra figure was included (formerly with Heim-Gairac, Paris, by 1974).
Brian Sewell bought this picture in 1962 from Frank Smith, an antique dealer in Hungerford. The story of the acquisition is told in Sewell’s autobiography, where he explains the purchase returned to his mind later in life: ‘Years later, long after his death, Frank Smith stared at me from the window of the Fine Art Society – a portrait painted by Maxwell Armfield – and I bought it, an act of pure sentiment’ (B. Sewell, Outsider: Almost Always, Never Quite, London, 2011, p. 224). This portrait is offered as lot 173 in this sale. The Sewell picture was exhibited at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in 1999 in the first ever public show dedicated to the work of Stomer. In his catalogue entry for the picture Richard Verdi suggested that the canvas, given its subject matter and style, dated to Stomer’s earliest Caravaggesque period, probably before he moved to Italy, circa 1628. Nicolson, however, dated both this work and the other version of the same subject to Stomer’s first years in Naples, circa 1633-35 (op. cit., p. 238). Nicolson noted moreover that the picture features motifs that occur in other compositions, such as the single, central candle and the dog stage left, which both appear in Christ at Emmaus (Grenoble, Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture), and he draws a more general comparison with Esau Selling his Birthright (Berlin, Staatliche Museen). Stomer here uses light to almost cinematic effect, to create a sense of both intensity and intimacy, traits that pervade all his pictures, and can be seen with equal measure of success in the two other pictures offered in this sale, the Saint Jerome, lot 117 and The Adoration of the Magi, lot 122.