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A Rhenish landscape with a village festival

A Rhenish landscape with a village festival
signed in monogram and dated 'HS 1675' ('HS' linked, lower center)
oil on panel
15 ½ x 21 7/8 in. (39.5 x 55.4 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, 4 November 1974, lot 241a, where acquired by the present owner.
W. Schulz, Herman Saftleven, 1609-1685: Leben und Werke, Berlin and New York, 1982, p. 177, no. 198, as 'Johannesfest in Berglandschaft'.

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Lot Essay

Born in Rotterdam to an otherwise unknown painter of the same name, Herman Saftleven trained with his father in his native town before moving to Utrecht in 1632. In May of the following year he married and purchased a house near the city’s St. Pieterskerk, where he resided for the remainder of his life. Saftleven became a member of Utrecht’s painter’s guild in 1654, purchased citizenship in the city in 1659 and held various positions in the guild between 1655 and 1667. As a sign of success, Saftleven enjoyed the patronage of Alethea, wife of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, and organized the sale of a portion of the Earl’s collection in Utrecht in 1662. He was buried in the Buurkerk in Utrecht on 5 January 1685.

In the early 1650s, Saftleven embarked upon the first of several trips through the Rhineland. The region’s hilly landscape cut by river valleys made a lasting impression on the artist, who returned to it in small-scale, exquisitely rendered landscapes for the remainder of his career. These poetic and refined depictions of the Rhineland established Saftleven as one of the most original landscapists of the Dutch Golden Age and earned him the praise of contemporaries like the poet Joost van den Vondel, who penned several panygerics on Saftleven’s work and described him as the ‘geachten Rijnstroomschilder’ (‘esteemed Rhine river painter’).

This meticulous painting with rays of sunlight emanating from the sky at upper left and numerous figures cavorting in the foreground is among the finest and most compositionally complex of Saftleven’s Rhenish landscapes. Seldom is such a light source explicitly included within seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes (see F.J. Duparc, Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection, exhibition catalogue, Salem, 2011, p. 259, under no. 11). Perhaps more than any other artist in the period, Saftleven exploited its possibilities to full effect, in particular in late works from about 1670 on.

Wolfgang Schulz described the subject of this painting as a celebration of Saint John’s Eve, a festival which begins at sunset of June 23 and commemorates the birth of Saint John the Baptist (loc. cit.). The suggestion was no doubt based on the inclusion of the horizontal beam to which pine boughs are attached, as it was common to hang various perennial plants above doors and windows as a means of keeping witches and evil spirits away. Saftleven frequently included similar poles and pine boughs in his paintings, often in situations where no celebrations are taking place (see, for example, the painting from the same year sold in these Rooms, 15 October 2020, lot 4). As with a number of other instances in Saftleven’s work, the inn at left in this painting appears to be gaining an addition. The evergreens may have served as a marker for the builders, who, upon reaching the boughs – set at the maximum height of the building – were to receive a celebratory drink. A similar marker can likewise be seen atop the stern of a ship in mid-construction in a painting by Adam Willaerts (fig. 1).

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