The present nocturnal view shows a masquerade parading on the Meir in Antwerp. Two elegant couples in colourful dress, three of them wearing masks, are accompanied by a buffoon in red, carrying a large sword and a torch. A lute player guides the group in the direction of the “Maandstraet” - currently Twaalfmaandenstraat. At the end of the street, behind the entrance of the stock exchange, one of the towers of the cathedral rises up. More figures carrying lanterns can be seen further down the street. The bourgeoisie in the Southern and Northern Netherlands could choose from several occasions during the year as a pretext to dress up, among them kermises, Shrove Tuesday and wedding parties. Here, it is not entirely clear which of these occasions prompted Vrancx’s protagonists to venture on the streets at this hour of time.
Sebastiaen Vrancx is known as the inventor of the battle scene, but started his career in Italy painting Mannerist cabinet-sized Biblical scenes that are reminiscent of Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel the Elder. When he moved back to Flanders he turned to genre subjects, of which the present lot is a superior specimen. Vrancx beautifully captured the effects of moonlight and torchlight and renders the nocturnal ambiance palpable with such naturalistic and keenly observed motifs such as the two cats in the centre – shown as mere silhouettes – which are ready to attack each other. Striking as well is the attention lavished on the attire of the figures, an interest also reflected in Vrancx’s designs for a series of prints by Pieter de Jode depicting the dresses of various countries (Variarum Gentium Ornatus). This charming street view is datable to 1600-1610, when Vrancx had just returned to Antwerp.
Our painting boasts an impeccable provenance as once having been in the collection of the famous Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813), one of the greatest connoisseurs of his age and the compiler of the authoritative Galerie des Peintres flamands, hollandais et allemands (3 vols., 1792-96) in which he illustrated a print after Vrancx’s painting (fig. 1; mirrored). Oddly, the masquerade was attributed at the time to the mysterious painter “R.S. de Burges”, by which is possibly meant Roger van der Weyden.
A copy after this painting is in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne (inv. 1990).