1580, Antwerp - 1662
Oil on copper
37,5 x 50,2 cm
The Flemish painter and printmaker Adriaen van Stalbemt worked mainly in Antwerp, where he enjoyed a long and productive career. Although he is best remembered today as a painter of landscapes, in his own day, he was probably known chiefly as a figure painter. Besides landscape views, he painted religious, mythological and allegorical scenes, as well as gallery interiors. His oeuvre shows great stylistic variety, but owing to a paucity of dated paintings, it is difficult to establish a reliable chronology. A gifted figure painter, he was regularly invited to paint the staffage in the compositions of his fellow painters: among those with whom he collaborated were Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), and Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642).
The subject depicted here is taken from the Old Testament Book of Exodus. Exodus relates how Moses led the Israelites through the desert to Mount Sinai. After forty days on the mountain communing with God, Moses descended with the two stone tablets of the Law, and relayed to the Israelites the Lord’s command to build a tabernacle. A detailed description concerning its design and construction is given in chapters 35 and 36. Chapter 36, verses 8-17, describe the making of “ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet’, each with fifty loops. Painted in glowing colours on a copper panel, Stalbemt’s scene shows the Israelites working industriously beneath a makeshift awning slung between trees. Moses, a bearded, old man in a red cloak, can be seen standing on the right, giving instructions to a man and woman, holding a bolt of red cloth. A young woman in yellow, seated in the centre foreground, sews rings onto the edge of a blue curtain, while a turbaned man standing on the left, holding a pair of dividers and a measure, directs the efforts of a stonemason. Behind them, blacksmiths labour over a fire in an improvised forge, fashioning pieces of metal. In the right background, the framework of the sanctuary is taking shape. In the hazy blue distance, rises Mount Sinai.
Stalbemt also depicted a closely related subject, drawn from a slightly earlier episode in the narrative, in a painting representing The Israelites bringing offerings for the building of the Tabernacle (35:5-29), in the Schönborn collection at Pommersfelden.1 Executed on a copper panel of the same dimensions as our painting, it was clearly conceived originally as a pair to our painting, or possibly as part of a series. The Book of Exodus provided a number of popular themes for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painters, but the subject of The Building of the Tabernaclewith the Israelites sewing the Curtains seems to be without precedent. The subject of the companion picture is, on the other hand, relatively common.
The Building of the Tabernacle with the Israelites sewing the Curtains was long considered to be a work by the short-lived, but influential German painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), who worked in Rome in the first decade of the seventeenth century. As such it was included in Weizsäcker’s 1952 monograph as an early work, and linked with a small group of paintings with like characteristics, which he also considered to be early Elsheimers.2 In 1967, Kurt Bauch cast doubt on the attribution, suggesting that it might be by Jan Brueghel the Elder, on account of the Brueghel-like treatment of the wooded setting, and, in 1972, Malcolm Waddingham noted similarities between the present painting, and the others in the group, and the work of Adriaen van Stalbemt. Subsequently, Elsheimer expert Keith Andrews was able convincingly to reattribute our painting to Stalbemt, together with five others, all but one of which had previously been associated with Elsheimer. Furthermore, by comparison with a few signed and dated examples by Stalbemt, he demonstrated that the paintings in this group form a cohesive whole and that they may be dated to the years around 1620.
The influence of Elsheimer on Stalbemt’s early history paintings, which is evident both in the style of his figures and his compositional schemes, naturally raises questions as to how Stalbemt became acquainted with Elsheimer’s expressive manner of painting, since he apparently never went to Italy. Keith Andrews proposed that the likely intermediary was the Flemish painter David Teniers the Elder (1582-1649), who returned to Antwerp in 1605 from Rome where he had worked for a period in Elsheimer’s studio. And it is unquestionably the case that a number of Teniers’s paintings of biblical, mythological and allegorical subjects dating from after his return to Antwerp to the 1620s, are strongly reminiscent of Elsheimer. Equally, it is possible that Stalbemt had first hand access to some works by Elsheimer in Antwerp, since by the second decade of the seventeenth century, paintings by the German master were percolating north, encouraged by Rubens and others.
In his book of artists’ biographies, Het Gulden Cabinet, of 1661, Cornelis de Bie recorded that Adriaen van Stalbemt was born in Antwerp on 12 June 1580. Following the fall of Antwerp to the Spanish in 1585, he moved with his Protestant family to nearby Middelburg, where he most likely received his artistic training. In 1609, probably after the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce, which brought about a cessation of hostilities between the Catholic Hapsburg rulers of the Southern Netherlands and the Protestant Northern Netherlands, Stalbemt returned to his hometown, where, in 1610, he became a master in the Guild of St. Luke. In the following years, he trained three apprentices, and in 1617, became Dean of the guild. He was also a member of the closely associated chamber of rhetoric De Violieren. On 5 May 1613, Stalbemt married Barbara Verdelft, daughter of the art dealer Jan Verdelft: a daughter born to the union died young after which the couple remained childless. In 1632-33 the artist spent ten months in England, according to de Bie, at the invitation of King Charles. During his stay, he collaborated with the painter Jan van Belcamp in A View of Greenwich with Charles I and Henrietta Maria with a Group of Courtiers, today in the Royal Collection.3 The artist apparently lived the rest of his life in Antwerp, where he died on 21 September 1662.
1Adriaen van Stalbemt, The Israelites bringing Offerings for the Building of the Tabernacle, oil on copper, 37 x 50 cm, Schönborn collection, Pommersfelden.
2See: K. Andrews, op. cit. p. 302. Andrews found the clue that unlocked the formal connection with Stalbemt in the provenance of one of the paintings in the group, Saint Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, which was listed in the Lormier collection in The Hague in 1752 as ‘Stalbend’, and was sold as such in the Lormier sale in 1763, where it was purchased by Coenrad van Heemskerck. However, when it was sold two years later, it was called Elsheimer, an attribution it retained for over 200 years.
3Adriaen van Stalbemt and Jan van Belcamp (1610-1653), A View of Greenwich with Charles I and Henrietta Maria with a Group of Courtiers, oil on canvas, 83.5 x 107 cm, The Royal Collection, RCIN 405291.
Barberini collection, Rome (though not included in any of the 17th-century inventories)
By whom sold, Sotheby’s, London, 6 April 1977, lot 6, for £11,500 to Holsten
Acquired then or shortly after by the father of the previous owner
Thence by inheritance
Private Collection, Switzerland, until 2017
R. Longhi, in Proporzioni, vol. I, 1943, p. 45 (as Elsheimer).
H. Weizsäcker, Adam Elsheimer, vol. II, Berlin, 1952, pp. 8-9, no. 4 reproduced plate I (as Elsheimer).
K. Bauch, in Kunstchronik, vol. XX, 1967, p. 59 (as possibly by Jan Brueghel).
J. G. van Gelder and I. Jost, “Elsheimers unverteilter Nachlass II”, Simiolus, vol. II/I, 1968, p. 4 (in the list of “possible” Elsheimers).
M. Waddingham, “Elsheimer Revised”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIV, 1972, p. 602 and n. 15 (remarks on stylistic similarities with Stalbemt).
K. Andrews, “A Pseudo-Elsheimer Group: Adriaen van Stalbemt as Figure Painter”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXV, May 1973, pp. 301, 305-06, reproduced fig. 47, (as Stalbemt).