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Pieter Coecke van Aelst

(1502 Aelst – 1550 Brussels)

Attributed. Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well. Pen and brown ink, green and brown wash, with cream-coloured heightening. 20.4 x 30.5 cm.

As a painter and draughtsman Pieter Coecke van Aelst is as versatile as he is evasive, and any attempt to circumscribe his artistic oeuvre is extraordinarily difficult in view of the paucity of biographical details and his widely ramified studio activity. According to Carel van Mander, he was a pupil of Barent van Orley in Brussels. We know that the artist was in Antwerp in 1525 and that two years later he was admitted as a free, independent master to the guild there. Later on, Pieter Coecke distinguished himself as a specialist in altar paintings and a designer of tapestries and stainedglass windows. It has been proved that he stayed in Italy between 1521 and 1524–25. In 1533 Coecke was in Constantinople, and the posthumously published woodcut cycle Moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz (Hollstein 4), an artistic record of this trip which was evidently intended to interest the Turkish Sultan Suleiman II in Flemish carpet manufacture, is a piece of artistic and cultural history.

Pieter Coecke’s graphic oeuvre is small and stylistically very heterogeneous. Pen drawings predominate. The present sheet probably belongs to the artist’s late Italianate phase and is stylistically very closely related to an Inn Scene, executed circa 1540 and now in Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen,
which shows a comparable technique and is considered to be the only drawing by the artist signed in his own hand. The stylistic affinity is quite obvious, not only in the overall picture, but also in details of the graphic treatment. A very characteristic feature, for example, is the way in which Coecke renders the ridges of the women’s noses with a fine straight stroke of the brush. Both drawings manifest a new, Renaissancist artistic ideal, which draws upon a wide range of sources of inspiration. The present drawing, which is done in a free and fluid style, shows an intricate group of figures that owes its appeal to the intriguing variety of body movements. The intimate nature of the proceedings and the discreet gesture with which Rebecca hands Eliezer the water jug are very finely observed. The rich clothing of the women gathered at the well and their elaborate hairstyles are taken directly from Italian models. The fine shades of colour and the masterly use of heightening generate dynamic lighting effects which are inspired by the chiaroscuro woodcuts of Ugo da Carpi and other Italian printmakers of his time whom Coecke was trying to emulate. Drawings of this kind may have inspired masters of the next generation of artists, such as Frans Floris and Dirck Barendsz., to make similar ventures into chiaroscuro technique (see Van Pisanello tot Cézanne. Keuze uit de verzameling tekeningen in het Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam, edited by G. Luijten/A.W.F.M. Meij, Rotterdam, 1990, no. 16, pp. 57–59).

On a 18th century mount. From the collections of P. H. Lankrink
(Lugt 2090), P. Sandby (L. 2112) and V. W. Newman (L. 2540).

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