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The Denial of Saint Peter

The Denial of Saint Peter
oil on canvas
42 7⁄8 x 51 ¾ in. (109 x 131.5 cm.)
(Possibly) sold by the artist to the art dealer Jehan van Mechelen, Antwerp, as mentioned in a notarial document dated 27 January 1627.
(Possibly) Bartholomeus Floquet (circa 1650-1690), Vienna.
(Possibly) Visconti collection, Milan, by the eighteenth century.
Luigi Koelliker, Milan,
with Robilant and Voena, London, by 2005, whence acquired by the present owner.
J.T. Spike, Caravaggio and his world: darkness and light, E. Capon, ed., exhibition catalogue, Sydney and Melbourne, 2003-2004, pp. 124-125, no. 23, illustrated.
J. Bikker, The International Caravaggesque Movement: French Dutch and Flemish Caravaggesque paintings from the Koelliker collection, exhibition catalogue, London, 2005, pp. 36-37, illustrated.
G. Papi, Gherardo delle Notti: Quadri bizzarrissimi e cene allegre, exhibition catalogue, Florence, 2015, pp. 238–239, no. 52, illustrated.
A. Delvingt, ‘A Magnificent Nocturnal Work by the Flemish Caravaggist Adam de Coster', Varia: peintures, dessins et sculptures, de Coster a Hartung: acquisitions récentes, M. Korchane and G. Perthuis, eds., exhibition catalogue, Lyon, 2015, pp. 13-19 and 125-127, under no. 2, fig. 4.
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Caravaggio and his world: darkness and light, 29 November 2003-30 May 2004, no. 23.
London, Robilant and Voena, The International Caravaggesque Movement: French, Dutch, and Flemish Caravaggesque Paintings from the Koelliker Collection, 20 June-15 July 2005, unnumbered.
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Gherardo delle Notti: Quadri bizzarrissimi e cene allegre, 10 February-24 May 2015, no. 52.
Milan, Palazzo Reale, La Tour: L'Europa della luce, 7 February-7 June 2020, no. IV.5.
Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, on loan 1 November 2020-31 December 2021.
Norfolk, Chrysler Museum of Art, on loan 24 March 2022-1 December 2023.

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Lot Essay

This striking portrayal of The Denial of St. Peter is a characteristically forceful work by Adam de Coster. The oeuvre of this enigmatic artist was first reconstructed by Benedict Nicolson in two seminal articles published in the Burlington Magazine in 1961 and 1966 (B. Nicolson, ‘Notes on Adam de Coster’, Burlington Magazine, CIII, 1961, pp. 185-189, and B. Nicolson, ‘Candlelight Pictures from the South Netherlands, Burlington Magazine, CVIII, 1966, pp. 253-245). By the early 1630s, Adam de Coster had established himself in Antwerp as a renowned painter of nocturnal scenes, a pictor noctium, and he is labelled as such in a portrait etching by Sir Anthony van Dyck from 1626, later published in The Iconography. Though no signed or dated pictures have survived, a body of work has been ascribed to de Coster on the basis of an engraving by Lucas Vosterman of Tric-trac Players by Candlelight, a composition that shows de Coster's clear debt to Gerrit van Honthorst (fig. 1). De Coster frequently used the trope of the half-masked flame in his compositions, as found in this painting.

The episode of Saint Peter’s denial of Christ was a favorite subject for many northern followers of Caravaggio in the early seventeenth century. Indeed, de Coster treated this subject on at least one other occasion (sold Christie’s, London, 3 December 2014, lot 172). The story is familiar: following Christ’s arrest, Peter followed him into the courtyard of the high priest, where he sat by a fire. There, he was recognized on three occasions as one of Christ’s followers and, under the threat of imprisonment and execution, he denied knowing his master each time, thereby fulfilling Christ’s earlier prophecy that before the cock crowed that morning, Peter would have denied him thrice.

With the story unfolding at night, it provided the perfect setting to experiment with the effects of chiaroscuro and many of the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti, including Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Dirck van Baburen, produced variations of The Denial of Saint Peter. These compositions were often, as seen here, illuminated by a single light source from within the picture: a candle, a lantern or a fire. Given the clear Caravaggesque character of de Coster’s work, a sojourn in Italy seems likely, but documentary evidence to substantiate this has yet to found. However, in 1623, a certain ‘Adamo Fiamengo’ is recorded as living in a house on via Frattina, in the Roman parish of San Lorenzo in Lucina, in the company of the painters ‘Sebastiano Fiamengo, pittore’, ‘Cornelio, pittore Fiamengo’ (likely Cornelis van Poelenburgh) and ‘Francesco, pittore francese’ (G.J. Hoogewerff, Nederlandsche kunstenaars te Rome (1600-1725) : uittreksels uit de parochiale archieven, The Hague 1942, p. 92). As Adam was not a very common name among the Netherlandish painters in Rome, it is tempting to identify this ‘Adamo’ as Adam de Coster.

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