Why the little people count The art of staffage

Why the little people count: The art of staffage

Like extras in a play, the anonymous figures in Old Master paintings — or staffage — imbue landscapes with life and create intriguing narratives. Here, Old Master Paintings specialist Maja Markovic presents a guide with examples taken from our Classic Week sales in London

In any Old Master landscape, townscape or villagescape, you may find figures embarking on their daily activities. ‘Staffage’, a term more commonly adopted in the late-18th and early-19th centuries — possibly derived from the Old French term estoffe, meaning 'stuff’, or the German staffieren for ‘decorate’ — refers to the human and animal figures that populate pictures, either with subtle anonymity or with historical and biblical significance. 

In his influential Schilder-Boeck (Book of Paintersof 1604, the Flemish biographer and artist Karel van Mander, known as the Vasari of the north, called these subordinate scenes of everyday life storykens (‘little stories’), and even introduced subcategories like cleen gerucht, which referred to elements with synaesthetic qualities, like a cart’s rattling wheels or the creaking of axles. As examples of active life, staffage play a complementary role to the subject matter of a painting, whether for merely decorative purposes or for reinforcing the main theme. 

Below, we present examples of staffage in works offered in our Old Master Paintings sales in London. To appreciate these figures more fully, click the lightbox option at the top right of each image. Like actors in a play, staffage give landscapes life by creating dramatic and harmonious narratives, such as...


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  • Venetians strolling across a piazza

Follower of Giovanni Antonio Canal, il Canaletto, The Piazzetta, Venice, looking north towards Piazza San Marco. Oil on canvas. 32⅝ x 50⅞ in. (82.8 x 128 cm.) Estimate £50,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Follower of Giovanni Antonio Canal, il Canaletto, The Piazzetta, Venice, looking north towards Piazza San Marco. Oil on canvas. 32⅝ x 50⅞ in. (82.8 x 128 cm.) Estimate: £50,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Canaletto and his followers peppered their piazzas with 18th-century Venetian society, from fashionable merchants to beggarly paupers. Such anecdotal scenes are said to be accurate transcriptions of everyday Venetian life, giving us a glimpse not only of contemporary fashions but also of the seasons depicted; while a clear sunshine floods The Piazzetta, the figures dress warmly in capes and hats, perhaps suggesting the weather of a cool crisp spring day.

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  • Fishermen cleaning their catch

Jan Brueghel II (Antwerp 1601-1678), A coastal capriccio of the Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli with fishermen selling the day’s catch on the shore. Oil on copper. 8⅜ x 9¾ in. (21.1 x 24.6 cm.) Estimate £30,000-50,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Jan Brueghel II (Antwerp 1601-1678), A coastal capriccio of the Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli with fishermen selling the day’s catch on the shore. Oil on copper. 8⅜ x 9¾ in. (21.1 x 24.6 cm.) Estimate: £30,000-50,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Like his father Jan Brueghel the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Younger used recurrent motifs of staffage to construct both space and meaning on a smaller scale. Highly finished landscapes such as this, small in format and intricately rendered, open the window onto a world of seemingly vast human and material staffage, teeming with movement and alive with sound.

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  • Travellers resting on a path

Gaspard Dughet, one of the greatest exponents of the classical landscape in the 17th century, used staffage to punctuate the natural rolls and sways of his terrains. Much like the trees, hills and sources of water, the figures are in harmony with their surroundings as if born from the land itself.

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  • Or even a man inconspicuously relieving himself against a wall

Francesco Albotto (Venice 1721-1757), The Grand Canal, Venice, looking east, from the Campo San Vio. Oil on canvas. 24¼ x 38⅞ in. (61.5 x 97.2 cm.) Estimate £50,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Francesco Albotto (Venice 1721-1757), The Grand Canal, Venice, looking east, from the Campo San Vio. Oil on canvas. 24¼ x 38⅞ in. (61.5 x 97.2 cm.) Estimate: £50,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Each scene encapsulates a small world, or microcosm, within which staffage act as anchors for viewers to assume their own role in the small and seemingly trivial incidents of life.

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  • As in a grand village kermesse

With a domino effect, Brueghel's ‘little stories’ ripple through his kermesses, with the force of their raucousness bursting from the canvas. In rendering this wide open landscape with a high perspective, the artist elevates the viewer inside the picture plane to observe the scene as if from the top of a house or even hidden in a tree. 

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  • Or figures conversing by classical ruins

Dutch and Flemish religious households in the late 16th and early 17th centuries had a particular appetite for landscapes with moralistic staffage, which acted as reminders of a devout and virtuous life. In their work, Flemish landscape artists in the 16th century included…

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  • Historical figures with moral messages

Jacob Grimmer (Antwerp 15256-before 1590), An extensive Italianate landscape with the calling of Cincinnatus from the plough, a view of Rome beyond. Oil on oak panel. 32 x 44½ in. (81.4 x 113 cm.) Estimate £40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Jacob Grimmer (Antwerp 1525/6-before 1590), An extensive Italianate landscape with the calling of Cincinnatus from the plough, a view of Rome beyond. Oil on oak panel. 32 x 44½ in. (81.4 x 113 cm.) Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Biblical or historical figures acted as iconographic novelties for patrons with religious and moral preferences, and although allegorical interpretations of staffage persisted throughout the 16th century, artists eventually turned to more secular figures in order to cater to a large anonymous market.

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  • Biblical figures, such as Mary, Joseph and Jesus on the left of this composition

Studio of Joos de Momper II (Antwerp 1564-1635), A winter townscape with figures on a frozen river and the Flight into Egypt. Oil on canvas. 35¾ x 65¾ in. (90.7 x 167.3 cm.) Estimate £15,000-20,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

Studio of Joos de Momper II (Antwerp 1564-1635), A winter townscape with figures on a frozen river and the Flight into Egypt. Oil on canvas. 35¾ x 65¾ in. (90.7 x 167.3 cm.) Estimate: £15,000-20,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale on 8 July at Christie’s London

By the 17th century Dutch landscape artists were painting more realistic, if imaginary, compilations of terrains and ‘symbolic topographies’ that were rarely uninhabited, with towns and lands depicted as representations of the character of its people. 

Symbolic landscapes, such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (below), reinforced memories of a city’s past and celebrated its present by being both topographically recognisable and a populated world in itself, open to interpretation. 

Jacob van Ruisdael (Haarlem 16289-1682 Amsterdam), View of Haarlem. Oil on canvas. 16⅞ x 16⅜ in. (42.9 x 41.3 cm.) Estimate £300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale on 7 July at Christie’s London

Jacob van Ruisdael (Haarlem 1628/9-1682 Amsterdam), View of Haarlem. Oil on canvas. 16⅞ x 16⅜ in. (42.9 x 41.3 cm.) Estimate: £300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale on 7 July at Christie’s London

The wide perspective of Ruisdael’s picture invites the viewer directly into the scenery via a roadway and its travelling entourage. Nature and culture become more aligned with the figures in the foreground (see below), which are presumed to have been painted by the artist Adriaen van de Velde, and help to place the observer in the role of the traveller. 

View of Haarlem (detail)
View of Haarlem (detail)

Landscape painters in 17th-century Flanders and Holland often employed other artists to paint staffage in their work, as such collaborations would have both compensated for their possible shortcomings in figure painting and also increased the picture’s market value through the involvement of an artist with a desirable and recognisable style.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, staffage gained a more dramatic role through the works of artists like Claude Lorrain and Claude Joseph Vernet. While many of Vernet’s compositions were idealised and largely imaginary, he was particularly accomplished in imbuing his scenes with unexpected figural animation.

This can be seen in this Mediterranean seaport, which enables viewers to imagine themselves inside Vernet’s picturesque panoramas. The distinctness of his style owes much to the aesthetic quality of human beings, which are both largely decorative accessories and integral to the harmony of his landscapes.

Whether for moral or aesthetic purposes, staffage figures weave narratives into their surroundings and, cast between objects and portraits, create relatable life-worlds that seek to direct the spectator’s attention across the theatre of the picture plane.