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A Vanitas: As we are born, we die

A Vanitas: As we are born, we die
oil on panel
26 3/8 x 36 in. (67 x 91.5 cm.)
inscribed ‘NASSE.TES MO~ / RIMVR’ (upper center, on the banner)
Mrs. Renard, Shepton Mallet, 1907.
Collection de Lafitte du Treihl, and others; Roos, Amsterdam, 16 April 1912, lot 1269, as ‘Goltzius’.
J.B. van Stolk, Haarlem.
with Dr N. Beets, Amsterdam, 1933-38.
A.E. Boer, The Hague, 1938.
Miss G. ten Cate de Vries, The Hague, and others; Paul Brandt, Amsterdam, 28 November 1961, lot 11, where (probably) purchased by a private collector, by descent until,
[From a Distinguished Private Collection]; Christie’s, Amsterdam, 7 May 1992, lot 110, where acquired by the present owner.
H.W. Janson, 'The Putto with the Death's Head', Art Bulletin, XIX, 1937, pp. 438-439, pl. 30.
G.T. Faggin, La Pittura del Anversa nel Cinquecento, Florence, 1968, p. 46.
M.J. Friedlander, Early Netherlandish Painting, XII, London, 1975, p. 111, no. 216, pl. 116.
B. Wallen, Jan van Hemessen: An Antwerp Painter between Reform and Counter Reform, Ann Arbor, 1983, pp.114-115, 315, no. 44, fig. 135.
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Lot Essay

A provocative meditation on the brevity of human existence, this painting is a late tour de force by one of Renaissance Antwerp’s most innovative and provocative painters, Jan van Hemessen. Datable to around 1554, as Burr Wallen notes it is a prime example of the type of works the artist produced under the general sense of crisis that dominated the Netherlands in the middle of the sixteenth century, coinciding with the Counter-Reformation (B. Wallen, op. cit., p. 109). In the third quarter of the sixteenth century, Hemessen began to move away from the flamboyant yet meticulous Mannerist style that had defined his paintings of the 1540s in favor of 'a frank, often brutal realism' accentuated with 'jarring stylistic deformations' (ibid.). Here, Hemessen portrays a muscular, nude boy reclining on a patch of cracked, barren earth. His body contorts around his waist, as he twists his chest toward the viewer. Shockingly, he props himself up against a human skull. An austere, yet majestic landscape fills the background, populated with rocky outcroppings and a few trees. At right, a fortress is seen in the distance, with an arcaded path leading down to a lake. The scene’s melancholic atmosphere is underscored by the presence of an isolated figure at left and a pair of men at right, whose progress along a path is about to be impeded by a gate.

The boy’s eyes are closed, suggesting that he has fallen asleep or, more ominously, that he has slipped into death. This latter reading is made explicit by the cartellino attached to the boy’s staff, which bears the motto 'NASSE(ntes) MORIMVR' ('As we are born, we die'). Hemessen’s erudite audience would likely have recognized that these words derive from the Astronomica, a didactic poem from the second decade of the first century AD by a Latin poet probably called Marcus Manilius. While the bulk of Manilius’ text is dedicated to describing the universe, its divine nature and the rule of fate, as well as the significance of the position of the signs of the zodiac and other constellations, the poet often digresses into philosophical musings. In the relevant passage, Manilius writes:

Oh, why do we spend the years of our lives in worry, tormenting ourselves with fears and senseless desires; grown old before our time with anxieties which never end; wasting our lives in the pursuit of gain; setting no limit to our wishes, so that their fulfilment leaves us still unblest, but ever playing the part of men who mean to live yet never do?...Fate rules the world, all things stand fixed by its immutable laws, and the long ages are assigned a predestined course of events. At birth our death is sealed, and our end is consequent upon our beginning [nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet].
(Manilius, Astronomica, G.P. Goold, ed. and trans., Loeb Classical Library 469, Cambridge, MA, 1977, IV: 1-16).

Though some of Manilius’ ideas were vaguely reflected in the writings of his contemporaries, the Astronomica is not mentioned in any known ancient sources. The text was rediscovered in 1417 by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini in one of the many libraries he visited in France, Germany and Switzerland while attending the Council of Constance. The Astronomica was quickly embraced by European intellectuals, with the first printed edition published by the German astronomer Regiomontanus around 1473 (see K. Volk, Manilius and his Intellectual Background, Oxford, 2009, pp. 1-3).

As Horst W. Janson (loc. cit.) observed, the iconographical juxtaposition of a sleeping putto and a skull has roots in Antiquity. A more direct source for Hemessen, however, would have been the Venetian Giovanni Baldù’s humanist medal of 1458 (fig. 1), which reintroduced the theme of the putto and skull to Europe (Janson, op. cit., pp. 428ff.). This memento mori tradition was popularized in the North through prints, such as the anonymous Italian woodcut of 1490 entitled L’Hora Passa (fig. 2; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) or the early engraving by Barthel Beham of 1525 (ibid., fig. 22). Hemessen might also have known Cornelis Anthonisz.’s 1537 woodcut, De vergankelijkheid, which bears the motto 'NASCENDO MORIMVR’ (fig. 3).

As Wallen observed, the present painting's ’soft tenebrism of modelling of flesh and atmospheric landscape’ is nearly identical in its evocative mood to Hemessen’s Allegorical Scene, possibly the Personification of Poetry with a Poet (Mauritshuis, The Hague), which has been tentatively identified as a double portrait of his daughter, Caterina van Hemessen and Chrétien de Morien, whom she married in 1554 (fig. 4; B. Wallen, loc. cit.). In addition to similarities in the treatment of the figures and landscapes, both works have strong ties to Italian Renaissance works of art. For the Mauritshuis painting, Hemessen drew inspiration from Titian’s Three Ages of Man, which had been sold to an Augsburg collector a few years earlier, as well as Cellini’s Salt Cellar of 1543 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which he could have seen at Fontainebleau (ibid., p. 114). The present painting reflects an awareness of Michelangelo and, as Wallen noted, of Savaldo, whose mannerisms inform Hemessen’s treatment of the putto’s splayed toes and wrinkles of flesh around the knee.

Hemessen’s composition proved to be enormously popular, and numerous copies with minor variations exist. An early variant depicting the infant in an interior was in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, while another was offered Christie’s, London, 25 November-9 December 2022, lot 130.

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