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Frans Francken the Younger

(1581–1642, Antwerp)

The Israelites Worshipping the Golden Calf. Red chalk. 27.2 x 36 cm.

Frans Francken II was the pupil of his father Frans I (1542–1616) and the best-known member of this influential Antwerp painter dynasty. After setting up as an independent master in his native city in 1605 he created an impressive oeuvre of paint ings in the course of his career. Francken painted Biblical, mythological and allegorical scenes, favouring small-format panels or copper plates. His magnificently staged compositions betray a predilection for crowd scenes, which owe their effects to a multiplicity of movement and an abundance of genre-like details. Of his drawings, on the other hand, only a few have survived. Most of these are drawings in pen and ink with wash, while drawings in red chalk are of the greatest rarity. Francken shows us how, in the absence of their leader Moses, the Children of Israel have succumbed to idolatry and are worshipping the Golden Calf with abandon. A company of revellers seated at a sumptuously set table, on which we discern a peacock pie, costly goblets and ornamental crockery, demonstrates the fervour with which the Israelites have surrendered to dissolute sensuality. The guests at the banquet – bare-bosomed, scantily clad young women and men in the bloom of their youth – are either lovingly facing or tenderly embracing each other. The artist has caught the vivid interplay of their gestures, taking a palpable delight in narrative detail. Interestingly enough, our drawing lacks any explicit reference to the moral message of the Biblical episode. In the middle distance we see a circle of men and women dancing merrily around a pillar which serves as a plinth for the graven image. The Golden Calf, the actual focus of the wild celebration, and the Prophet Moses have been left out of the scene, however. Francken treated the same subject in several paintings. All these works have an almost identical compositional scheme which was enriched to include the graven image and various simultaneous scenes featuring Moses and the Tablets of the Law. Our drawing probably served the studio of Frans II as a ricordo, a classic example of a lavish and artistically very successful composition, the popularity of which is documented by numerous painted versions. The strengths of his skill as a draughtsman are shown to full advantage in this work. With a sureness of touch and light, fluent strokes Francken has characterized the numerous figures of the company and artfully arranged them around the table. The grace and charm of the female figures in their flimsy flowing garments suggest carefree sensuality and erotic magnetism. In contrast to the exuberant Baroque idiom of his contemporary and colleague, Pieter Paul Rubens, Francken’s subtle and nimble drawing style radiates a Late Mannerist refinement, which has something retrospective about it. The soft, delicate transitions of the red chalk create a marked picturesque effect and bathe the high-spirited goings-on in a gentle light. Given the artist’s perfect mastery of the medium, the drawing in all probability dates to the late 1620s. A written statement by Dr. Ursula Härting, dated 22 September 2008, is enclosed.

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