Jacob de Backer is among the most mysterious artists of the 16th century Antwerp School. A precocious talent, he was short-lived, dying, according to Karel van Mander, at the age of 30. Despite his brief career, he seems to have been prodigiously industrious and prolific; and although he was well-regarded, neither his date of birth nor his date of death were recorded, and his lifespan is usually given as either c. 1555-1585 or c. 1560-1590. He therefore occupies a key moment in the development of Antwerp painting, between the generation of Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) and that of Rubens (1577-1640). According to van Mander, Jacob (or Jacques) de Backer was born in Antwerp, the son of a “very good painter” who emigrated to France and died there. Jacob was apprenticed to a painter and picture dealer of Italian origin but Protestant confession known as Antonio da Palermo (d. 1588/9). Van Mander tells us that Jacob’s works “are very sought after and wanted everywhere and enrich the cabinets or galleries of art lovers in many places… In short, he is easily one of the best colorists that Antwerp has known: he had a fleshy manner of painting because he highlighted not just with white but with flesh color, so that he earned eternal fame among painters” (K. van Mander, Schilder-boeck, Haarlem, 1603-1604, ff. 231v-232r, ed. and trans. H. Miedema, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, Doornspijk, 1994, I, pp. 185-6).
Van Mander’s praise of the young artist’s talents comes at the end of a brief biography without many details about Jacob de Backer’s oeuvre. In his essay on De Backer’s legacy, Eckhard Leuschner points out that “only three known pictures can be traced back by means of provenance to the days of De Backer” and serve as the basis for the attribution of “other, undocumented paintings” (“Defining De Backer: New Evidence on the Last Phase of Antwerp Mannerism Before Rubens”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, CXXXVII, no. 1587, 2001, p. 168). Two of these works are differing depictions of the Last Judgment – one painted for the funerary monument of a fellow Antwerp painter, Pieter Goetkind I (d. 1583), remembered chiefly for his role as an early teacher of Jan Brueghel I; the other for the funerary monument of Christopher Plantin (d. 1589), the pioneering, world-renowned printer and publisher. Both are documented as still in situ in 1759 by J.B. Descamps, who saw them respectively in the Antwerp Church of the Brotherhood of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwbroeders), also known as the Grand Carme or Shod Carmelites, and Antwerp Cathedral (loc. cit.). In 1794, the French armies, which had occupied Flanders, removed both works to Paris. The so-called “Plantin Epitaph” was returned to its place with the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and is still in the Cathedral; the trail of the Goetkind memorial, however, ran cold, and historians have struggled to identify it ever since. For some time it was suggested that a version of the present composition, modified to fill a horizontal format, which was bequeathed to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp by P.J. Taeymans in 1888, might have been the picture painted for Goetkind. This bears a signature and date, ‘D[eo]. O[ptimo]. M[aximo]. J. DE BACKER 1571’, although Leuschner argues that only the ‘5’ in the date is actually reliably legible (loc. cit.). Indeed a later date, closer to c. 1580, would make more sense. The composition of this ‘Goetkind’ Last Judgment was famous, spawning numerous repetitions, some of which may be attributable to De Backer himself. In his 1973 study, Dirk de Vos came to the conclusion the Last Judgment in Antwerp Cathedral was an autograph work, but that the lost Goetkind painting was known “only through a number of copies”, while the horizontal painting apparently dated 1571 “is a non-autograph compilation of those two works” (D. de Vos, “Het “Laatste Oordeel” door Jacob de Backer: een problem van oorspronkelijkheid”, Bulletin Koninklijke musea voor schone kunsten van België, XXII, 1973, pp. 59-72).
The present version of the composition, which is remarkable for its fine quality and numerous pentimenti, would appear to be the long lost prototype of this key composition, one of the major commissions of De Backer’s career. As Hessel Miedema reiterates, it and the Plantin Last Judgment are the essential touchstones for the reconstruction of the artist’s oeuvre. The subject of the Last Judgment is one of the most important in Flemish art, spanning its chronology from Bouts to Rubens and beyond. De Backer’s two differing Last Judgment compositions stand in an iconographic lineage which can be traced through works such as Jan Provost’s Last Judgment of 1525 and the treatment by Pieter Pourbus of 1551, both in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges.