Although van Schendel painted portraits, genre scenes, historical and biblical subjects, he earned fame from his evocative scenes of night markets, illuminated by a lamp or a candle and the moon. Not only a painter but an engineer, the artist experimented with illumination and was intrigued by the possibilities of chemical light sources. His careful observation is evident in this depiction of The Hague’s Groenmarkt, where vegetable sellers, fishmongers, and other vendors have congregated since the Middle Ages. The diffused light of the fabric wrapped lantern at left casts an atmospheric glow for the four figures and their apples, pears, carrots, leeks and cabbages. As a merchant crouches beside his basket of fresh fish, he places his candle on the ground, its brilliant flame reflected on the wet cobblestones and the shadows in the foreground. The dimmer candles of the market beyond highlight the costumes and expressions of market-goers, while the cool, omnipresent radiance of an unseen moon reveals the distinctive architecture of the city’s central square, notably the spire of Saint Jacob’s church, at left.
Aside from the pipe-smoking vegetable seller, kneeling vendor and top-hatted figure in silhouette, the scene is primarily populated by women. Maids, cooks, and perhaps ladies of the house were the most frequent market visitors, and van Schendel takes great pleasure in painting their distinctive bonnets, skirts, shawls and baskets; the figure carrying a basket atop her head is characteristic of the women of Scheveningen, a fishing village in The Hague. Like all of van Schendel's masterpieces, the present work should not be viewed quickly, as the intimate scene slowly reveals itself from the dark backgrounds, turning a bustling market into an evocative narrative of Dutch life. Such elaborate compositions were particularly appreciated by collectors throughout Europe and, by the end of the nineteenth century, American connoisseurs.
Inspired by Dutch genre-painters of the Golden Age, notably Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), and the Utrecht Caravaggisti, van Schendel grew up in Breda and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. By the early 1850s, when the present work was painted, Schendel was at the height of his artistic powers and had an international reputation. Queen Victoria acquired a work by van Schendel through the dealer C.J. Nieuwenhuijs as a birthday present for Prince Albert, and it remains in the British Royal Collection.
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