In this painting, the glow of a single flame illuminates the various rich fabrics and delicate features of a young woman set against a dark background. Vivid shadows cast throughout the composition define her engaging visage as well as the patterned details of her sleeve, the tufts of fur that line her robe, and the wispy tendrils of the distaff she holds near the candle. The same rich crimson color found in her robe and striped headdress is also subtly detectable in her supple lips, the apple of her cheeks, and the sheen of the stem of the candlestick. Distinct affinities are apparent between the present painting and de Coster’s A Man Singing by Candlelight (circa 1625-1635, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, fig. 1), a work, like the present canvas, once thought to be by Honthorst.3 Both works depict a single figure dressed in a fur-lined costume, beautifully lit by the flame of what appears to be the same candle stick. Although it is tempting to think these two canvases may have once been pendants that hung at opposite sides of a grand gallery, the figures face in the same direction and hold slightly different places in the picture plane. Nevertheless, the undoubted connection between the two illustrates de Coster’s reworking of a successful and captivating compositional prototype.
Little is known of the biography of Adam de Coster. Born in 1586 in the Flemish city of Mechelen, a province of Antwerp, he appears to have spent much of his career in Antwerp and became a Master of the Guild of Saint Luke around 1607. His portrait was reproduced as an engraving in Anthony van Dyck's Iconography, where he was described as "pictor noctium," signaling that his reputation as a painter of night scenes had firmly been established in Northern Europe by the 1630s.4 Although documentary evidence only ever records de Coster outside of Antwerp in 1635 when he visited Hamburg, Nicolson has noted that correspondences between his paintings and the works of the Lombard artist Antonio Campi suggest a possible sojourn to Italy.5
The idea of the artist's Italian travels becomes even more intriguing when considering the provenance of the present work, for it is said to have remained in a private collection in Palermo from the 17th century until the mid 20th century. The model, in her fur-trimmed red dress with an elaborate white sash and a striped red turban, reappears in another painting by de Coster with possible Italian provenance, The Denial of Saint Peter (private collection, fig. 2).6 The stylistic similarities between these two paintings also suggest they were executed around the same time. That they both appear to have remained in Italy for centuries further hints at the possibility that de Coster may have once been active south of the Alps.
Whether or not he ever left the Low Countries, Adam de Coster undoubtedly was influenced by the Caravaggesque style that spread throughout Europe in the early 17th century. Particularly relevant are the works by Northern Caravaggisti such as Gerard Seghers, from Antwerp, and Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit von Honthorst, and his student Matthias Stomer from Utrecht, among whom vivid chiaroscuro compositions, enhanced by an artificial light source such as a candle or brazier, were extremely popular. With this in mind, it is not surprising that attributions to Gerrit von Honthorst and Matthias Stomer were once proposed for the present painting, which for centuries acted as a pendant pair to Matthias Stomer's Cavalier lighting a pipe from an oil lamp (private collection, fig. 3) while both paintings hung in the Palazzo Galati in Palermo.7 The pair remained together until their sale in these Rooms in 1992. The recent appearance at auction of direct copies after this pair, which also come from a private Sicilian collection, reconfirms their old Italian provenance and their former connection as pendants.8
1. See B. Nicolson, “Notes on Adam de Coster,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 103, no. 698, May 1961, pp. 185-189; B. Nicolson, “Candlelight Pictures from the South Netherlands,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 108, no. 758, May 1966, pp. 252-256; and B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement: List of Pictures by Caravaggio and his Followers throughout Europe from 1590 to 1650, Oxford 1979, pp. 44-45.
2. For a reproduction of the engraving, see A. von Schneider, Caravaggio und die Niederländer, Marburg 1933, plate. 39b.
3. B. Nicolson, “Candlelight Pictures from the South Netherlands,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 108, no. 758, May 1966, pp. 253.
4. For Anthony van Dyck's grisaille portrait of Adam de Coster, see S. Barnes, N. de Poorter, O. Millar, and H. Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven, 2004, p. 367, cat. no. III. 148, reproduced.
5. B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford 1979, vol. I, p. 100.
6. Sold in these rooms, 5 June 2008, lot 58.
7. Mattias Stomer's Cavalier lighting a pipe from an oil lamp was sold in these rooms, 17 January 1992, lot 46a and referenced in B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford 1979, p. 187. The relationship between the present painting by de Coster and this Stomer lead Matraga (see Literature) to propose an attribution to Stomer for this pair.
8. See Anonymous sale, Genoa, Wannenes, 30 November 2016, lot 656. This pair was offered as Manner of Mattias Stomer.
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