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Death and the Miser

Death and the Miser
signed with initials ‘D. [O.] ff .’ (lower right)
oil on panel, the reverse with the panel maker’s mark of François de Bont (active Antwerp, 1637-1644)
8 7/8 x 6 3/4 in. (22.6 x 17 cm.)
Private collection, Switzerland, by whom sold,
Anonymous sale; Koller, Zurich, 17 September 2010, lot 3047.
with Salomon Lilian, Geneva, where acquired by the present owner in 2012.
Special notice
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Joshua Glazer
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Lot Essay

When this painting first emerged from a Swiss private collection roughly a decade ago, it became apparent that it was the prime version of a composition that had previously been known through at least nineteen works, all unsigned and on panel or copper and featuring almost identical compositions. Ursula Härting had presumed such a prime existed in her 1983 monograph on the artist, a hypothesis that was only confirmed when this painting came to light (see U. Härting, Studien zur Kabinettbildmalerei des Frans Francken II. 1581-1642, Hildesheim, Zurich and New York, 1983, p. 186). Härting has dated this painting to circa 1625, a few years before the autograph examples in the Kunstsammlungen der Universität, Göttingen, and Historisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main (for these paintings, see U. Härting, Frans Francken der Jüngere (1581-1642): Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Freren, 1989, p. 359, nos. 402 and 403). However, the artist's use of a panel with the maker's mark of François de Bont, who is only known to have been active from 1637 on, suggests it and the other panels may date to somewhat later in Francken's career.

Each of the paintings in this group depicts nearly identical compositions with only minute differences in detail within a vaulted interior. An old man is seated at a draped table on which can be seen coins, papers and a pair of spectacles. He holds a second pair of glasses in his right hand, gazing upward at Death personified as a skeleton. Death plays the violin and invites the man to participate in his final dance. With his left hand, the man points to his right foot resting on a stool, as if to indicate an affliction which is preventing him from joining. Death, in turn, rests his right foot on an hourglass, an indication that the man’s time is nearly up. In the lower left foreground, a money bag rests against a chest. An arched opening in the back wall leads to another chamber showing a second figure of Death arguing with a seated young man. An Italianate landscape can be seen beyond.

In addition to this group of roughly nineteen identical or nearly identical paintings, several close variants are known. In three examples the cabinet along the back wall of the front room has been removed, the corbel of an angel has been replaced by a plain one, a sculpture replaces the landscape above the doorway, the poses of the two figures of Death have been altered slightly and the young man in the back room now stands. This variant appears to have subsequently provided the model for four prints, two by Jacob Gole and one each by Pieter Schenk and Bernard Lens II. A second, signed variant in a horizontal format is in the collection of the National Bank of Belgium in Brussels, while six further versions by Francken and his workshop – four in horizontal format – replace Death’s violin with a lute.

The pictorial tradition of Death and the Miser ultimately derives from Hans Holbein the Younger’s woodcut from his Dance of Death series (fig. 1), which was first published in Lyon in 1538. Several details from Holbein’s print recur in Francken’s composition, among them the money bags leaning against the chest, the vaulted interior space and the barred window. Like Holbein’s woodcut, Francken’s paintings belong to the tradition of the memento mori and remind the viewer of earthly transience. The paintings are also a warning against greed and avarice because earthly riches are of no use upon one’s death. The old man’s gesture to his ailing foot may also allude to the Dutch proverb ‘De dans ontspringen,’ or to get away with something.

Despite the evident popularity of the subject as indicated by the numerous extant autograph and studio versions, it only seems to appear once, in 1671, in Antwerp inventories of the seventeenth century. This has led Härting to perceptively suggest that these paintings may have been set into harpsichords made by the Ruckers family in Antwerp (U. Härting, ‘Der Geigende Tod: zu einer Anzahl kleinformatigen Gemälde des Antwerpener Kleinfigurenmalers Frans Francken II (1581-1642)’, in Musikalische Ikonographie, eds. H. Heckmann, M. Holl and H.J. Marx, Laaber, 1994, pp. 121-132). Indeed, the Ruckers family coat-of-arms includes an angel playing a harp, very much like that which features on the corbel of this painting. Moreover, the average size of these paintings accords with a fitting spot in these instruments. While no such memento mori scenes are known on harpsichords, their subject fits well with the fleeting nature of music.

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