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 Painters) of 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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.