One of the relatively few larger scale works by Simon de Vos, proudly signed by the artist at lower centre, this work is a great rarity of the 17th-century Antwerp School. Closely associated with the virtuosic circle of artists around Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck, Simon de Vos became a prominent member of the tightly-knit community of painters, many of whom married into each others’ families, who made 16th- and 17th-century Antwerp one of the most vibrant artistic centres in all of history.
Born in Antwerp, at the age of 12 Simon de Vos (whose surname means ‘The Fox’ in Dutch) was apprenticed to Cornelis de Vos (no relation), a contemporary and sometime collaborator of Rubens. By 1620, at the age of 17, Simon de Vos was already a full master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke, the elite institution which regulated the trade and production of paintings, one of the most important components of Antwerp’s economy at a time when the city dominated European commerce and financial markets (the concept of a stock exchange spread to other cities from Antwerp at this time). The years 1621-1628 in De Vos’s career are a bit of a mystery – he seems to have benefited from time working in Rubens’s studio, the best place for local artists to hone their skills, if they were lucky enough to be admitted, but also to have travelled south to France and Italy. The celebrated Portrait of three men dated 1626 (Paris, Louvre) may be a self-portrait in the company of two other Antwerp artists, painted in Aix-en-Provence. In Italy he felt the influence of Caravaggio and the Bentveughels, and may have known the German virtuoso Johann Liss, who was in Venice and Rome at the same time.
De Vos may have been back in Antwerp by 1626, when he married the sister of the noted still-life painter Adriaen van Utrecht. From 1629, when he was 26, De Vos started taking on pupils; two are recorded between 1629 and 1642. His standing amongst the Antwerp confraternity of artists is indicated by the inclusion of his portrait in Van Dyck’s Iconografia (c. 1632-1644), alongside the greatest artists, politicians and thinkers of the age; Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who in his private life was a collector of great taste and discernment, owned at least one painting by Simon de Vos.
The present work was probably painted after circa 1640, when De Vos passed increasingly from small-scale, secular paintings to larger-scale, religious works. Moved perhaps by the death of Rubens, with which Antwerp painting lost its greatest genius, De Vos invokes his titanic colleague in the present picture both in its composition and the choice of figures, transposing the composition of The Adoration of the Magi (Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique); a flushed Rubensian Mary (cf. The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, Potsdam, Schloss Sanssouci) looks down at the bowing King amidst an impressive roster of Rubensian faces, in which we can identify, for example, the ecstatic face of Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Washington, National Gallery of Art). These visual allusions would have been immediately recognisable to viewers who had been raised on Rubens’s work, and constitutes a touching tribute to the recently departed master, as well as an eloquent manifesto of Antwerp art.