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Antoon Claeissens

(c. 1536 - 1613 Bruges)

and Pieter Claeissens the Younger (between 1530-36 – 1623, Bruges). Mankind Before the Flood. Oil on copper. 37.6 x 47.2 cm. Signed: "Pet: Claessins. F. Anto: F:"

The present painting is a joint effort by the brothers Antoon and Pieter Claeissens, who belonged to the second generation of a family of painters active in Bruges since the 16th century. The composition is derived from a lost drawing by the Amsterdam painter Dirck Barendsz., which has survived in the form of an engraving by Johannes Sadeler I (Hollstein 264). The painting is roughly the same size as the engraving, which it reproduces with slight variations. Nevertheless, the lavish, gleaming colours and refined glazing technique enable the piece to rank as an autonomous work of art. The different flesh tones of the men and women are rendered with great subtlety and variety, giving them an almost velvety quality. The brothers Antoon and Pieter have treated the merry and debonair banquet scene with the precision of miniature painters. Unlike in the engraving the physiognomies of individual protagonists are given almost portrait-like features. With obvious relish and pride in their technical mastery the artists have put in details like the fruit still life on the left, musical instruments and elaborately wrought goblets. Grasses, herbs and leaves gleam in the cool light with a metallic brightness. The landscape in the background, overshadowed by the menace of a gathering storm, lies in a ghostly twilight. A peasant nonchalantly pushes his plough, drawn by two oxen, but other persons present are raising their hands to the heavens in a gesture of despair or seek refuge in the hills from the approaching disaster symbolized by the Ark on the horizon.

Antoon Claeissens became Master of the Bruges Guild of St. Luke in 1570 and served as town painter until 1581. His brother Pieter succeeded him in this office, which he held until 1621. Both artists designed festival decorations and created religious and allegorical compositions, some of which are preserved in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. Antoon, in particular, had a distinctly Mannerist style of painting, which is given full rein in the present picture. The lush colouration, the highly sophisticated artistic idiom and the subliminal erotic component of the portrayal are stylistic elements that are typical of the age and show striking parallels with the Rudolfine style. Exquisite showpieces of this kind must have been particularly prized by a select circle of collectors and connoisseurs. On the verso the plate shows a monochrome cartouche reminiscent of the ornamentation of Frans Floris and Hans Vredeman de Vries. It may have been meant as a frame for a moralizing inscription that was never realized.

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