Born in Amsterdam, Pieter Aertsen settled in Antwerp in or shortly before 1535, the year in which he enrolled as a master in the city’s painters guild. Aertsen, who was known by the moniker Lange Piet (‘Tall Pete’) on account of his height, returned to Amsterdam around 1555 and resided there for the remainder of his life. Upon his return to Amsterdam, he received important commissions for local churches, the vast majority of which were destroyed only a decade or so later during the iconoclastic furor that gripped the Lowlands in 1566. In both Antwerp and Amsterdam, Aertsen established large studios which efficiently fulfilled the large number of commissions he received. Among his most notable pupils were Johannes Stradanus and his kinsman, Joachim Beuckelaer.
This painting, which was for much of the past century in the Baron van Zuylen van Nijvelt van de Haar collection at Kasteel de Haar in Utrecht (fig. 1), takes as its subject a parable relayed in the Gospel of Matthew (22:1-14). The parable tells of a king who sent his servants out to invite his subjects to attend the wedding feast of his son. After the invited guests refused to attend the festivities, he sent additional servants out to invite them again. Some of the invited guests paid no attention to the king’s second request and instead went about their daily activities, while others captured, abused and murdered the king’s servants. Enraged, the king ordered his soldiers to destroy the murderers and burn their city. He then asked his remaining servants to invite anyone they could muster to attend the feast – laborers, criminals and beggars included. Among the newly gathered attendants, the king noticed a man who was not dressed in wedding clothes and ordered that he be removed from the festivities, noting ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen’.
Though rarely encountered in art, the subject was ideally suited to Pieter Aertsen, an artist best known today for his largescale market scenes. In 1559, Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert treated the theme in an engraving after a design by Maarten van Heemskerck (fig. 2). Coornhert’s composition may have provided a starting point for Aertsen’s own. In both works, the ill-attired man is viewed moving from right to left, occupying a prominent place in the foreground, and a long table of seated guests anchors the composition at left. However, in his print, Coornhert emphasized the narrative aspects of the story by depicting the moment at which the king encountered the man without wedding clothes. By contrast, Aertsen largely eschewed this in favor of an image that, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for a contemporary genre scene. And, unlike Coornhert, whose figures are clothed in historiated dress, Aertsen’s wear contemporary attire and have a livelier appearance owing to their more successful distribution through space.
Wouter Kloek, who most recently published this painting in a volume dedicated to Aertsen and his work, suggested that it dates to the 1570s and is likely a collaborative venture between Aertsen and his workshop. According to Kloek, the design and much of the execution is by the master, but certain details in the foreground figures, still life and architecture appear somewhat cruder than would be expected of him and should be seen as the work of an associate (loc. cit.). Such a collaborative working process is entirely consistent with artistic practice in the Lowlands during the sixteenth century.