Frank Stella on Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Double Portrait

The American abstract painter purchased this intriguing Old Master painting at a Christie’s auction in the 1980s. Here he elaborates on his affection for the ‘spectacular’ double portrait, now being offered in New York on 1 May 

In 1532 the Flemish artist Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1504-1556) was in his Antwerp studio putting the finishing touches to what was one of his most important commissions to date. The work, titled Double Portrait of a husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables, was created to celebrate the wedding of a local couple whose names are now lost to time but are thought to have been a wealthy Flemish burgher and his new wife.

Van Hemessen had spent part of the previous decade travelling across Italy, where he studied the recently unearthed Laocoön  sculpture, on display in the Vatican, and contemporary Renaissance works by Michelangelo and Raphael.

After returning to the Low Countries he joined the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp and began synthesising the monumentality of Italian art with the rigid realism of the paintings of his native Netherlands, which is perhaps why this bourgeois couple asked him to paint their portraits.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1504-1556) Double portrait of husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables, 1532. Oil on panel. 43¾ x 50⅜ in (111.1 x 127.9 cm). Estimate $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Old Masters I on 1 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1504-1556) Double portrait of husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables, 1532. Oil on panel. 43¾ x 50⅜ in (111.1 x 127.9 cm). Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Old Masters I on 1 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

In Van Hemessen’s Double Portrait, the man stands proud in his pristine linen undershirt worn beneath a smart black doublet and lynx-fur cape. His wife, her hand resting on his shoulder, is adorned with a crisp linen hood and bright coral rosary beads. Unlike traditional Northern European wedding portraits, in which husband and wife would be painted on separate pieces of wood hung side-by-side, they are painted on the same panel.

On the table before them is a rectangular wooden board next to a platter of ripe fruit and a parrot. The board is being used for the game ‘tables’ — a variant on backgammon. Since medieval times, this game of chance had been an allegory of vice, temptation or transience; Van Hemessen became the first artist to use it to represent courtship in a portrait. 

‘I had a little money. You read the reserve price and you say, “Yeah, you can’t go wrong at that price”. And I knew the difference between that painting and the others’

The work is offered from the personal collection of Frank Stella, who describes the relationship between the husband and the wife and the game as ‘spectacular’.

‘You could say there is plenty of psychological possibility there,’ says Stella with smile. ‘It looks so benign, as though nothing’s really going on. But what’s going to happen for the winner? There are many possibilities — we won’t go there!’

‘What’s going to happen for the winner There are many possibilities,’ says Frank Stella

‘What’s going to happen for the winner? There are many possibilities,’ says Frank Stella

So how did this painting, which is both ambitious in scale and inventive in iconography — and among the first and finest double portraits to be executed during the Netherlandish Renaissance — come to hang for more than 30 years in the the bedroom of one of America’s greatest abstract artists?

Stella reveals that he bought it after seeing it in a photograph. ‘It was a startling picture. Van Hemessen’s work is quite dramatic,’ he explains. ‘Part of the experience of paintings and art history is getting a little mesmerised by the date. You can’t help it — 1532!’

‘It's about art being able to relax you. After you’ve been in the studio you don’t want to go home and look at your own paintings’ 

The artist acquired the work at a Christie’s auction in the 1980s. ‘I had a little money,’ he recalls. ‘You read auction catalogues and you read the reserve price and you say, “Yeah, you can’t go wrong at that price”. And I knew the difference between that painting and the others.’

Stella discusses ‘the bourgeois value of paintings’, and the idea of being able to ‘come home and sit in an easy chair and smoke a cigar and look at a beautiful painting. 

‘It’s about art being able to relax you. After you’ve been in the studio you don’t want to go home and look at your own paintings.’ Despite the attraction to van Hemessen’s masterpiece, it would be the first and last Renaissance painting that Stella bought.

Frank Stella in his studio in upstate New York

Frank Stella in his studio in upstate New York

‘I chased another painting later on, a similar painting by Pieter Aertsen,’ Stella reveals, ‘but I was in over my head and somebody else knew how good a painting it was and wanted it.’

After making art for around 25 years, Stella began lecturing. He says he wanted to explore how his own paintings related to art from before the 20th century. Whether talking about Guido Reni or Gothic architecture, he insists he always offered students his own interpretation of art history: ‘I am a practising artist relating to art history, not an art historian.’ 

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When it comes to the Old Masters, he admits that he doesn’t always get it right. ‘I was brutally and rightly criticised for knocking Poussin. For some reason, those paintings really annoyed me 20 or 30 years ago, but, Poussin is a wonderful painter. Of course I was wrong.’

Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Double Portrait of husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables  (estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000) is being offered in Old Masters I  on 1 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York.