Giovanni del Campo’s Allegory of Virtuous Love comes from the collection of the economist and pioneering art historian John Michael Montias (1928-2005), who was renowned for his scholarship on Dutch 16th and 17th-century painting, and his revelations about the life of Johannes Vermeer in particular.
‘Allegory of Virtuous Love had long gone as an unattributed painting, and various proposals had been made but nothing really stuck,’ reveals John Hawley, Associate Specialist in Old Master Paintings in New York, in our film. ‘Montias was working in the mid-1970s in the Delft archives and came across a description of this very painting, said to be by del Campo.’ It was a deposition by the Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer, who was in Rome with del Campo, and notes that he acquired a painting of this subject, returned with it to the Netherlands, and shortly thereafter sold it to a doctor in Delft.
In 1979, at a Christie’s auction preview in New York, Montias recognised the work he had seen described — ‘a standing angel, seen to the hips, with two wings and a sheep’s skin around his body and a small laurel crown in his hand’ — from the archival document, which had been written in 1672. Montias purchased the picture and convincingly suggested an attribution to del Campo — making it one of only a handful of securely attributed works by the artist.
Antwerp-trained del Campo (1600-1648) — also known as Jean Ducamps — belonged to a group of 17th-century Flemish and Dutch painters known as the ‘Bentvueghels’ or ‘Birds of a Feather’, who travelled to Rome to study the work of contemporary Italian painters, the Renaissance masters, and the revolutionary realist style of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).
‘They were drawn towards Rome so that they could look at Caravaggio’s paintings in the flesh,’ explains Old Masters Head of Sale, Jonquil O’Reilly. There, these Flemish painters lived cheek-by-jowl with French, Spanish and Italian artists, and competitive attitudes coupled with excessive drinking often led to unruly behaviour.
Much like Caravaggio, del Campo got himself into trouble. He had brushes with the law for gambling and fighting, and one spell in prison was extended following a botched attempt at escape.
‘This painting is very sensuous, and this was a major part of what the Caravaggists were trying to achieve’ — Jonquil O’Reilly
‘What was so striking about Caravaggio’s paintings — as opposed to what had come before — is his use of models who look like “the everyday”, and his dramatic use of light,’ O'Reilly continues.
Rather than working from sketches, Caravaggio famously painted his scenes straight to canvas from models posing in his studio. He also pioneered chiaroscuro — the strong contrast between areas of light and dark paint, as well as the use of dramatic shadows, to create an intensified sense of three-dimensionality and drama.
‘Here you have this dark background and this figure, just emerging into the light, and the light is bathing his face and flesh,’ continues the specialist. ‘It’s very, very sensuous, and of course this was a major part of what the Caravaggists were trying to achieve.’
‘The subject of virtuous love is the sort of subject we can imagine a wealthy Italian nobleman wanting to have,’ adds Hawley, explaining that the figure’s laurel wreaths symbolise justice, temperance and fortitude. ‘It is intended as a private, domestic picture as opposed to something for public consumption.’
‘I think what I love about the story is that Montias remembers this one fleeting reference to Virtuous Love painted by del Campo… and that that jumped back to him when he saw this painting come on the market,’ says O’Reilly. ‘The painting stops you in your tracks.’
Allegory of Virtuous Love will be on view 25-29 October ahead the Christie’s Old Masters auction on 30 October 2018, part of New York Classic Week.