The drawing shows an animated scene of a fish market, with figures in both the foreground and the background handling and preparing fish in all sorts of different ways. The scene fits into a tradition of market scenes that began at least half a century earlier, in the innovative paintings of Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer. Wtewael himself also occasionally painted scenes of this type, but following the examples of Aertsen and Beuckelaer, he almost always placed a smaller representation of a religious scene (the ‘real’ subject of his painting) in the background, in the established tradition of Mannerist inversion. One such painting is the grand Kitchen Scene with the Parable of the Great Supper, of 1605, in which we see in the foreground an elaborate kitchen scene, including a man preparing fish, his chopper raised in a pose very similar to that seen in the present drawing (fig. 1);3 but all the while the viewer is also very aware of the more significant events taking place in the background, highlighted, even, by the emphasis on fish, with all their Christian symbolism, in the foreground. Only a tiny handful of Wtewael’s paintings, such as the Fruit and Vegetable Market of c. 1618, in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, depict such market or kitchen scenes in isolation.4
In technical terms, this impressive, large drawing is particularly interesting. The main forms are drawn with a fine pen in brown ink, and then the whole composition is elaborated and developed in a variety of media: pen and black ink, grey and black washes, and white gouache heightening. The composition is very complete, yet thanks to the varied techniques the artist has used, also very lively. It is fully signed in a form that appears on several of the artist’s drawings, the most closely comparable signatures being on a 1608 design for a salt cellar, in the British Museum5, and on the only dated drawing from the highly important series representing an Allegory of the Dutch Revolt (also known as The Netherlandish History series), the scene of The Twelve Years’ Truce (1612), in the Maida and George Abrams Collection, Boston.6 In compositional ambition, technical originality, and sheer accomplishment in terms of handling, this newly discovered Fish Market can also be compared with the rather later (1622) drawing in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, representing one of the artist’s favourite subjects, The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis, which has been described, with justification, as ‘arguably his most accomplished work on paper.’7
Whether a drawing such as this was made as the design for a painting or print, as a ricordo of a painting, or as an independent work of art remains unclear, and Stijn Alsteens, writing in the catalogue of the recent Wtewael exhibition held in Washington, Utrecht and Houston, says that without a greater understanding than we currently have of the artist’s working method, these questions are likely to remain unanswered. Though relatively few of Wtewael’s drawings survive, in several cases we have multiple versions of the same composition, of subtly varied style and quality, all of which have been at times accepted as autograph. In this case, though, apart from the very weak, and apparently previously unnoted, copy of the present drawing in Braunschweig, no other version, painted or drawn, is known.
The first quarter of the seventeenth century was a particularly rich moment in the history of drawing in the northern Netherlands, a period that saw the flourishing of masters such as Goltzius, de Gheyn, Bloemaert and Esaias van de Velde. Joachim Wtewael was certainly no lesser draughtsman than any of those artists, but with the exception of a handful of drawings such as the Allegory of the Dutch Revolt series, his extremely rare works on paper remain very little known. Perhaps the discovery of this outstanding drawing, very different in composition from any of the artist’s other surviving drawings, yet totally consistent with his style, will help to rectify this undeserved obscurity.
1. Stijn Alsteens’s essay, ‘Wtewael as Draftsman’, in the recent exhibition catalogue, Pleasure and Piety. The Art of Joachim Wtewael, exh. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art/Utrecht, Centraal Museum/Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 2015-16, pp. 49-59, was the first attempt at a full account of the artist's drawings since the 1929 monograph by Lindemann.
2. A weak copy of the drawing is in fact in Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Inv Z. 1656, held under Wtewael’s name, but even so, it does not seem to have been suggested anywhere in the literature that the artist ever treated this theme.
3. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, inv. 2002; A.W. Lowenthal, Joachim Wtewael and Dutch Mannerism, Doornspijk 1986, no. A-38; Exh. cat. Washington, op. cit., no. 23
4. Lowenthal, op. cit., no. A-73. Another is a Game Market, c 1610-15, location unknown, Lowenthal no. A-57
5. Inv 1872,1012.3322; Exh. cat. Washington, op. cit., no. 44
6. Exh. cat. Washington, op. cit., no. 49. See also W.W. Robinson, Bruegel to Rembrandt, Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Maida and George Abrams Collection, exh. cat., London, British Museum/Paris, Institut Néerlandais/Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, 2002-3, no. 27
7. Alsteens, in exh. cat. Washington, op. cit., p. 53; Ibid., cat. no. 54
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