Although one of the foremost history painters in Antwerp during the final decades of the sixteenth century, little is known about Jacob de Backer’s short life and career. In more recent years scholars have established that he led a busy workshop and was quite prolific but for some time no more than three works could be attributed to him with certainty on the basis of their provenances harking back to De Backer’s time. These still form the core of the oeuvre and two of them are depictions of the Last Judgment. One was painted for the funerary monument of the Antwerp painter Pieter Goetkind I (d.1583), still known as an early teacher of Jan Brueghel I. The other was a commission for the funerary monument of Christopher Plantin (d. 1589), the illustrious printer and publisher. The “Plantin Epitaph” is still in Antwerp’s Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Cathedral. The other painting was recently sold with Christie’s in New York on 28 January 2015, lot 107.
Of nearly every composition by or attributed to De Backer two or more versions exist and large-scale depictions of the Last Judgment were one of the signature products of De Backer’s studio, and were produced in large numbers. The present work is a competently executed version of the aforementioned Goetkind epitaph. The composition and graceful figures recur in De Backer’s treatment of the Last Judgment in the Antwerp Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten (inv. 653), a painting that has long been regarded as the artist’s earliest dated work of 1571, but both the date and its authenticity are doubted by Professor Eckhard Leuschner of Julius-Maximilians-Universität in Würzburg, who has published extensively on De Backer. In his articles Professor Leuschner observes there is a varying quality and a “plurality of substyles” within the works attributed to the artist and he prefers to speak of the “De Backer group” instead of attempting to make a strict division between fully autograph works and those produced by members of the studio. Based on digital images Leuschner also attributes the present panel to the “De Backer group”.
De Backer’s imposing and complex multi-figured compositions testify to the exceptionally high artistic standards that he and his studio were able to uphold. The subject of the Last Judgment allowed for the depiction of large groups of naked figures and invited De Backer to explore a novel stylistic idiom inspired by contemporary Florentine and Roman art – especially Bronzino, Vasari and Salviati – and which places the idealized beauty of the human body at centre stage. The present panel exemplifies De Backer’s art beautifully.