This captivating small-scale work on copper is a masterwork by the renowned Leiden fijnschilder Frans van Mieris I. In his seminal Treasures of Art in Great Britain of 1854, Gustav Waagen praised this painting as being 'of that soft golden tone, and of that delicate feeling, which distinguish his [Van Mieris'] best pictures' (op. cit., p. 200). Likely dating from the mid-1650s, A traveler at rest depicts a red-haired man sitting on a rock in the shade of antique ruins, holding a bottle in one hand and resting a hat in his lap. A walking stick and fur-lined bag rest on the ground beside him. He appears to be a vagabond, the seam of his coat torn at the shoulder and one sock drooping, exposing his bare knee. Despite his disheveled appearance, the man's alert eyes, the velvety smoothness of his coat sleeves, and his graceful athleticism - evident from the relaxed way his hand rests on his knee - suggest the faded elegance of a bohemian traveler. Adding to the refinement of the painting is the luminous copper support, on which seemingly countless minute details have been rendered with meticulous, jewel-like precision. Upon close inspection, for example, it is possible to see that the walking stick is a tree branch from which small twigs have been removed, leaving circles on the bark. Also visible are individual hairs in the fur of the traveler's bag and the strands of woven straw covering his bottle. Van Mieris' extraordinary ability to render various textures is all the more impressive given the subdued palette of brown, gray and white tones, which also serves to emphasize areas of color such as the patch of blue sky at right and the red of the traveler's hair.
Van Mieris was apparently fascinated with the subject of the seated traveler, as it appears elsewhere in his oeuvre. A similar figure can be found in The Painter in his Studio in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (inv. 1751; see The Hague and Washington op. cit., no. 7; fig. 1). Painted around the same time as the present picture, this latter work depicts an artist and another man near a painting that closely resembles A traveler at rest. In the painting-within-a-painting, a man with a walking stick is seated among ruins; he has removed one sock entirely, leaving a foot exposed. As noted by Otto Naumann, this motif evokes the proverb 'un pied chaussé et l'autre nu' ('one foot shoed, the other bare') found in Carolus Bovillus' book of proverbs, Vulgarium proverbiorum libri tres, of 1591, which reflects the contemporary notion that tasks completed too quickly are done poorly (see Naumann, op. cit., II, pp. 18-19). A related emblem from 1614 by Roemer Visscher again links disheveled stockings to impulsive behavior (The Hague and Washington, op. cit., p. 100). Dutch and Flemish artists of this period often drew from these sources, and the drooping sock appears in paintings such as Simon Kick's Resting traveler (Koller, Zurich, 20 September 2013, lot 3063; fig. 2) which shows a seated man looking outward at the viewer with one fallen sock, his hand resting on his knee.
Drinkers looking out at the viewer was a favorite subject of Flemish artists such as Adriaen Brouwer (1605/6-1638), David Teniers II (1610-1690) and Michiel Sweerts (1618-1664), whose A Man Drinking of the 1640s now in a German private collection (see R. Kultzen, Michael Sweerts, Doornspijk, 1996, p. 90, no. 10, plate 10) provides a particularly compelling comparison to Van Mieris' picture. Sweerts' traveler also sits among ruins with a blue sky beyond, holding a bottle with a rounded base covered in a fitted straw basket, known as a fiasco. Even more similar is Sweerts' Old Peasant in the Capitoline Museum, Rome (inv. 171; see Kultzen, op. cit., pp. 89-90, no. 8, plate 8 and Naumann, op. cit., I, p. 46; fig. 3), in which a traveler sits in nearly the same position, facing the viewer and surrounded by similar accoutrements, with a bright blue sky visible through the archway at right. Although Van Mieris never visited Italy and thus could not have known this picture by Sweerts, he must have been familiar with similar types through copies or comparable works by Netherlandish artists who had traveled there. Indeed, in the present picture, the cerulean sky, classical arches, and sun-bleached landscape evoke the Roman campagna more than the waterlogged, dune-filled Dutch terrain.
The theme of the traveler is part of a long tradition in Netherlandish art, of which perhaps the best-known prototype is Hieronymus Bosch's The Pedlar in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (inv. 1079; fig. 4). Like Van Mieris' protagonist, Bosch's figure has a bag, hat, stick and untidy clothing. The Pedlar has been interpreted as embodying the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the young man who squanders his inheritance on frivolous amusements in a distant land before returning home repentant, or, alternatively, as representing all mankind, striving to improve himself even as he is surrounded by opportunities for sin (see F. Lammertse, Van Eyck to Bruegel, 1400-1550: Dutch and Flemish painting in the collection of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1994, pp. 91-95). The meaning of Van Mieris' traveler is similarly complex: he is unambiguously drinking and living as a vagrant, yet his clear, intelligent gaze and handsome features distinguish him from the boorish peasants of Brouwer and Teniers. A possible pendant, similar in size and also on copper, is Van Mieris' The Broken Egg in the Hermitage Museum. In this painting, a woman sits on the ground beside a basket of eggs, staring forlornly at one that has broken on the ground beside her, perhaps referring to her lost virginity (see Naumann, op. cit., I, p. 45). Together, the two pictures might signify a narrative linking her unhappy expression with the traveler's vagrancy, although the ambiguity of Van Mieris' imagery prevents a single, definitive interpretation.
Long known in the literature on Van Mieris, the Traveler at rest reappeared only in 1988, when it was recognized as being on copper rather than wood panel as had been previously thought. The earliest record locates the painting in the Hoofman collection, Haarlem, while in the early 19th century the painting surfaced in England, where it belonged to William Wells of Redleaf before 1819. In 1848, it was in the collection of Robert Staynor Holford (1808-1892), a Member of Parliament and art collector whose residence at Dorchester House, London, was based on the Villa Farnese in Rome. In 1857, Holford loaned the work to the groundbreaking Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester (fig. 5), which was fundamental to the transformation of the study of art into an academic discipline in England. Sometime after being sold at Christie's, London, in 1928, A traveler at rest entered the collection of Giovanni Agnelli, head of the automobile manufacturer Fiat, in Turin, before reemerging on the New York art market.
(fig. 1) Frans van Mieris, In the Artist's Studio, BPK, Berlin Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden Hans-Peter Klut Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 2) Attributed to Simon Kick, A man smoking in an interior, Christie's, Amsterdam, 10 November 2991, lot 127.
(fig. 3) Michael Sweerts, Old pilgrim, Musei Capitolini, Rome.
(fig. 4) Hieronymus Bosch, The Vagabond The Prodigal Son, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands The Bridgeman Art Library.
(fig. 5) Interior view of a section of the National Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, Manchester.