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Allegory of the Death of William George Frederick, Prince of Orange-Nassau. Watercolour. 49 x 38 cm.
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This charming parkland scene shows putti grieving at a monument in honour of a military commander. In the foreground a veiled putto kneels in front of a portrait medallion of the deceased, while the attributes of his military activities lie strewn on the ground. It is an imaginary monument to William George Frederick, Prince of Orange-Nassau (1774–1799), who died young. He was the second son of William V, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, and Princess Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia. William George began his military career in the service of the Dutch Republic at an early age and distinguished himself by his bold resistance to the French invaders. In 1796 he entered Austrian military service as a major general. The flag with the Habsburg double eagle denotes his contribution to the Austrian cause. In February 1797 the young prince made his way with the army of Archduke Charles to Italy, where he died unexpectedly on 6 January 1799 in Padua. William George was unmarried and had no offspring. His premature death caused great dismay in the Austrian army and in the Netherlands, where he was revered as a successful military leader.
The allegorical depiction perfectly embodies the spirit of the age of sentimentality. The ethereal, poetic parkland is rendered in soft colours; a luxuriant weeping willow arches over the monument topped by an antique urn. In the left foreground a shaded larch tree with a striking silhouette serves as a repoussoir; a snapped-off branch on the ground symbolises that the young army commander’s thread of life has been severed. Through the leaves of the trees the viewer catches sight of a cavalry battle, a reference to the dead prince’s military successes. The commemorative character of the depiction notwithstanding, it radiates a Rococo-like lightness reminiscent of 18th century Dutch masters such as Jacob de Wit and Cornelis Troost. The author of this work, Jan Willem Pieneman, a painter of historical and genre scenes, was an influential figure in Dutch artistic life at the beginning of the 19th century. Largely self-taught, he originally worked as a drawing teacher. Pieneman owed his breakthrough to a series of monumental historical paintings devoted to the Napoleonic Wars of Liberation. From 1820-1853 he was director of the Academy in Amsterdam, where his teaching activities over several decades enabled him to exercise a major influence on the following generations of artists. The present watercolour dates to his early period. The composition has also been handed down in the form of an etching made in 1799 by Jacobus Wijsman (1768–1827), several different states of which are kept at the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.