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Jan Brueghel II (Antwerp 1601-1678)
The property of a Gentleman
Jan Brueghel II (Antwerp 1601-1678)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Jan Brueghel II (Antwerp 1601-1678)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
oil on panel
12 ¼ x 17 ¾ in. (31.2 x 45 cm.)
Acquired by Franz Urbig (1864-1944), Villa Urbig, Babelsberg, circa 1915, and thence by descent.

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Lot Essay

This atmospheric, brilliantly rendered nocturnal landscape is a fine elucidation of one of the most popular hagiographic subjects in art history. The story of the temptation of Saint Anthony had been disseminated throughout Europe by Jacobus da Voragine’s The Golden Legend and served as a continuous source of imagination and invention for generations of artists. This small work combines Jan Brueghel the Younger’s technical assurance and inventive capabilities with his skill in creating impressive, panoramic Weltlandschaft views.

The composition of The Temptation of Saint Anthony is based on a drawing by Jan Brueghel the Elder, the painter’s father, now in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (fig. 1). The drawing focuses on the lower left of the composition and the host of demons and devils clamouring around the saint and appears to have established the precedent for the subject for both Jan Brueghel the Elder and his son. The Elder produced six variations of the subject: the closest version to the present work, and the Hamburg drawing, is a painting now in a private collection (K. Ertz and C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625), Lingen, 2008-10, II, pp. 616-20, no. 293), which likewise focuses the scenes of temptation at the lower left of the composition, allowing the rest of the picture surface to be filled by a vividly rendered nocturnal landscape, enlivened by the light of burning buildings (one clearly identifiable as the famed ruins of the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli which had been carefully studied by both Jan Brueghel the Elder and Younger during their respective journeys to Italy). The greatest departure from these prototypes in the present panel is in the figure of the richly attired young woman reaching out to touch the saint. In Jan Brueghel the Younger’s panel, she appears to more actively pursue her temptation of the saint; her features are softened and her face turned towards him, in a way the same figure does in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Temptation of Saint Anthony in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. 667), shown seated beside the saint who diligently ignores her advances. In line with the precedents established by his father, the present woman is dressed in clothes fashionable for the end of the sixteenth century with a high standing ruff, loose over dress and tight bodice. The fantastic creatures which fill Saint Anthony’s leanto hut are, for the most part, faithfully transferred from the Hamburg drawing, from the winged creature (standing just behind the saint’s temptress) holding a charger on which sit two frogs, to the horned devil who holds a lavish gold chain and covered cup to distract the saint’s attention from his Holy book.

The picture was acquired by Franz Urbig, a German banker and entrepreneur, who in 1915 commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design his home in Potsdam-Babelsberg, the so-called Villa Urbig. The villa, where this panel was displayed until circa 1943, served as a salon for the Berlin art world in the 1920s, frequented by writers and artists including Carl Zuckmayer and Max Liebermann. During the Potsdam conference Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee stayed in the villa; it was restituted to the family after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

We are grateful to Professor Klaus Ertz for confirming the attribution after inspection of the original.

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