Netherlandish School, c.1530-1540, A merry company out hunting. Oil on panel, 22¼ x 33½ in (56.5 x 85.2 cm). Estimate £40,000-60,000. Offered in
Old Masters Paintings &

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. With the help of works offered at Christie’s, specialist Maja Markovic is our guide 

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, Maja Markovic, a specialist from Christie’s Old Masters department in London, presents examples of staffage in works offered in our Old Master Paintings sale, as well as some previously sold examples. Like actors in a play, staffage give landscapes life by creating dramatic and harmonious narratives, such as...


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  • Figures strolling along the riviera

Italian view painters like Vanvitelli, and most famously Canaletto, peppered their vedute with figures from a cross-section of society, from fashionable merchants to beggarly paupers. Such anecdotal scenes are said to be accurate transcriptions of everyday life, giving us a glimpse not only of contemporary fashions but also of the seasons depicted. As a clear morning sun begins to flood Naples’ Riviera, some figures dress warmly in capes and hats, perhaps suggesting the weather of a cool crisp spring day.

Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli (16521653-1736), Riviera di Chiaia, Naples. Bodycolour on panel, 11⅜ x 18¾  in (26.3 x 47.7  cm). Estimate £180,000-220,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli (1652/1653-1736), Riviera di Chiaia, Naples. Bodycolour on panel, 11⅜ x 18¾ in (26.3 x 47.7 cm). Estimate: £180,000-220,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale: Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

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  • The animals and birds of Paradise

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 the below example, open the window onto a world of seemingly vast animal and bird staffage, teeming with movement and alive with sound.

Jan Breughel, the Younger (1601-1678), Paradise. Oil on panel, 21⅝ x 33  in (55 x 83.8  cm). Estimate £50,000-80,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

Jan Breughel, the Younger (1601-1678), Paradise. Oil on panel, 21⅝ x 33 in (55 x 83.8 cm). Estimate: £50,000-80,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale: Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

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  • Sleeping guards

The Liberation of Saint Peter, an event described in the Acts of the Apostles (12: 6-7), was particularly popular in the oeuvre of Hendrik van Steenwijk the Younger. The Flemish artist painted more than 25 different versions of the scene, each time rendering his sleeping guards in new and unique ways. 

In the biblical tale, the apostle Peter is liberated from prison by an angel. The act had particular resonance for viewers in its allusion to the soul of man being liberated from the prison of the tomb. 

Hendrik van Steenwijck II (1580-1649), The Liberation of Saint Peter. Oil on copper, 8⅝ x 10¾ in (22 x 27.3 cm). Estimate £15,000-20,000. Offered in
Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

Hendrik van Steenwijck II (1580-1649), The Liberation of Saint Peter. Oil on copper, 8⅝ x 10¾ in (22 x 27.3 cm). Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

By illuminating the larger figures at the forefront of the present work, the artist adds a sense of receding depth to the picture. As such, it is possible to make out the faint figure of Peter being led up the stairs from out of the dark vault.

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  • Or a village brawl

Each scene encapsulates a miniature 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.

Joost cornelisz. Droochsloot (1586-1666), A village with peasants and a feud in the foreground. Oil on canvas, 30⅝ x 40¾ in (77.8 x 103.5 cm). Estimate £15,000-20,000 (for a pair A village with peasants and a feud in the foreground; and A village with peasants merrymaking outside a tavern). Offered in
Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

Joost cornelisz. Droochsloot (1586-1666), A village with peasants and a feud in the foreground. Oil on canvas, 30⅝ x 40¾ in (77.8 x 103.5 cm). Estimate: £15,000-20,000 (for a pair: A village with peasants and a feud in the foreground; and A village with peasants merrymaking outside a tavern). Offered in Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

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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 Christ healing the masses

Northern European households in the late 16th and early 17th centuries had a particular appetite for landscapes with moralistic staffage, which served as reminders of a devout and virtuous life. 

This previously unpublished work by German painter Pieter Schoubroeck illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (19:1). In the biblical tale, Jesus leaves Galilee for the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan. Great crowds followed him and he healed them there.

Pieter Schoubroek (1570-1607), Christ healing the sick. Oil on copper, 11½ x 16⅜ in (29.2 x 41.7 cm). Estimate £40,000-60,000. Offered in
Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

Pieter Schoubroek (1570-1607), Christ healing the sick. Oil on copper, 11½ x 16⅜ in (29.2 x 41.7 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

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  • Biblical figures with moral messages

Biblical or historical figures acted as iconographic novelties for patrons with religious and moral preferences. In this colourful hunting scene, the artist also depicts the cave in which Mary Magdalene was said to have spent her days in contemplation, as well as a figure of John the Baptist preaching in the clearing at the foot of the rock. 

Netherlandish School, c.1530-1540, A merry company out hunting. Oil on panel, 22¼ x 33½ in (56.5 x 85.2 cm). Estimate £40,000-60,000. Offered in
Old Masters Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

Netherlandish School, c.1530-1540, A merry company out hunting. Oil on panel, 22¼ x 33½ in (56.5 x 85.2 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in Old Masters Paintings & Sculpture, 9-30 July 2020, Online

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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  • Townsfolk going about their day

By the 17th century, Dutch landscape artists were painting more realistic compilations of terrains and townscapes that were rarely uninhabited, with lands depicted as representations of the character of its people. 

Isaac Ouwater (1748-1793), View of the Westerkerk seen from across the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam. Oil on panel, 20¼ x 25⅞  in (51.5 x 65.5  cm). Estimate £100,000-150,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

Isaac Ouwater (1748-1793), View of the Westerkerk seen from across the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam. Oil on panel, 20¼ x 25⅞ in (51.5 x 65.5 cm). Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in Classic Art Evening Sale: Antiquity to 20th Century on 29 July 2020 at Christie’s in London

Landscapes such as Isaac Ouwater’s View of the Westerkerk seen from across the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam evoked memories of a city’s past and celebrated its present by being both topographically recognisable and a populated world in itself, open to interpretation.