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 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, 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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
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.
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.