PROPERTY FROM THE WALTER MORRISON PICTURE COLLECTION AT SUDELEY CASTLE, SOLD BY ORDER OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE LATE G.M. DENT-BROCKLEHURST
That he was a catholic, and presumably had catholic patrons, may explain the crucifix that Steen first painted affixed to the wall. Its replacement with vanitas emblems on the shelf is not only a compositional improvement but also deepens the meaning of the painting and reinforces its mood of modest pious humility.
In its quiet mood of unadorned dignified piety this is an unusual work by Jan Steen, and a highly remarkable one. As Arthur Wheelock wrote in his entry for the painting in the Jan Steen exhibition catalogue, "Much of the forcefulness of Steen’s image results from the surety of his painting technique. Rarely did he convey weight and texture so intently. He carefully modelled his figures with light and shade, endowing them with classical grandeur. He meticulously rendered the woven pattern of the frayed cloth over the barrel, and the crisp folds in the clean white table cloth under the bread and cheese. Finally he convincingly suggested the worn appearance of the father’s chair and the rough wood of the window frame."1 In few other works did Steen attain the same level of attention to detail and understanding of light and texture.
The subject itself is not unknown in Dutch art. Both protestant and catholic families commissioned portraits of themselves in prayer, often with biblical texts displayed, as here. As Peter Sutton observed and Arthur Wheelock reiterated, Steen was probably influenced by Adriaen van Ostade’s etching of the same subject, which dates from 1653 (see fig. 1). Though unusual in Steen’s oeuvre, the subject was evidently in demand from him, since this picture was the earliest of at least four treatments of it by him, all compositionally different. One of these, a work on canvas from circa 1663-65 in the collection of the Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle, includes three more figures, but has the same text on a placard above the fireplace.2 In both the Sudeley and Belvoir pictures, and in a version in the John G. Johnson collection in Philadelphia, also from circa 1662-66, passages from the Lord’s Prayer are inscribed on the belkroon.3
In 1660 Steen was living in Warmond, just outside Leiden, but he had spent part of the previous decade in Delft. The understanding of space in the Sudeley picture, and in particular the diagonal view through the open window to a house and beyond it trees, may well have been inspired by works that he had seen by artists working there, including Pieter de Hooch, although the most analogous works by De Hooch probably date from after Steen moved back to Leiden. The interest in the internal space and the fall of light on the plaster wall and on the different woods of the window frame and shutters may also reflect Steen’s understanding of developments made by painters in Delft, including Vermeer as well as De Hooch. As Wheelock and others have noted, the open window serves a multiple purpose. It admits light into the room and controls the lighting within it, but it also admits a free flow of fresh air, emphasizing the physical as well as spiritual healthiness of the family, who live within the community represented by the house and trees beyond to which they are linked by the open window, as well as within the internal bonds of the family.
The title given here is an English translation of the traditional Dutch title given to pictures of this subject: Gebed voor de Maaltijd. In England the traditional title is "Grace before Meat," but in not all pictures of this subject is meat on the table. A painting by Jan Steen of this title, painted in the mid-1660s is in the National Gallery, London.4
This picture has always been catalogued as in the collection of Edmund Phipps, London, where noticed by Gustav Waagen, the second of two works there by Jan Steen, and described as 'A man, a woman, and child. Also animated, clear and delicate'.5 This must however have been a different picture, either another composition entirely, or another version or copy of this one, because the present picture had been lent by James Morrison to the British Institution in 1848, and Waagen did not begin his visits to British collections until the spring of 1850.
Gustav Waagen did however see this picture a few years later, when he admired it in the collection of James Morrison in Harley Street. Waagen, who had clearly not set eyes on it before was struck by the painting’s unusually tranquil and reflective mood as well as its outstanding quality: "A remarkable specimen of the fact that this uproarious master could also occasionally represent the touching scenes of humble but happy domestic life. In other respects also, excellence of drawing, decision of forms, equal carefulness of execution in a solid impasto and great transparency, this picture belongs to the finest works of the master."6
Although Mary Dent-Brocklehurst inherited the present picture from her father James Archibald Morrison in 1934, by which time her husband John Henry Dent-Brocklehurst had inherited Sudeley Castle, it was lent by her elder brother Simon Archibald Morrison to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1938, perhaps because the latter lived in London.
A copy after the Sudeley picture was in the Alfred Wallach sale in Paris, 3 April 1962, lot 17, reproduced in the catalogue. Wybrand Hendriks made a drawn copy of it in the late 18th century, probably while it was in the collection of Johannes Enschedé in Haarlem, where Hendriks lived (now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
1. See Wheelock, under Literature, 1996, p. 139.
2. Wheelock, op. cit., pp. 190-192, no. 28, reproduced.
3. For a full listing of Steen’s treatments of this subject, see Sutton, under Literature, 1982-3, pp. 29-31, especially n7 & n10.
4. See MacLaren & Brown, under Literature, 1991, vol. 1, pp. 427-8, no. 2558, reproduced vol. 2, plate 353.
5. G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. II, p. 227.
6. See Waagen, under Literature, 1854, p. 108.
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