19th Century European Paintings

Discoveries: A Tranquil Summer Portrait Passed Down Through Generations

By Mark Stephen

A discovery through the on-line 'request an estimate' platform, this beautiful painting – The Billiards Player by Willem Bastiaan Tholen – has been in the same family since purchase and has not been seen in public since 1930, when it was last exhibited. The work was sold for £287,500 in Sotheby's 19th Century European Paintings sale in London on 9 July.

The 1896 painting of the artist’s friend Piet Meiners playing billiards is a tranquil study in light and shading. The room is like a stage set, back-lit from the window behind, with the bright exterior contrasting with the dark smoky interior, and the figure portrayed with his back to the light. To paint the billiard-player leaning forward over the billiard table, with the light behind him, is technically difficult but masterfully achieved. The flashes of light on his jacket and hat are painted with confidence. His jacket is painted in tones of grey, blue and chalky white but convey the white crumpled linen perfectly. The light glinting on the billiard balls, the flat wood surface of the table gallery and on the branches of the chandelier are subtle and well observed, capturing the moment and the light in an Impressionistic style. The white dog snoozing on the window seat is lifelike and adds to the peaceful mood, while the whole scene has the convivial feel of hot lazy summers. One can almost hear the clack of the billiard balls and the shouting of the children playing in the distance.

It was painted at Ewijckshoeve estate, near Utrecht, at the house rented by the family of the artist Willem Witsen, which became a summer retreat for Tholen. The three artists – Tholen, Witsen and Meiners – all spent many summers together, painting and meeting other artists like Anton Mauve and Willem Maris who visited. From 1887, Tholen, who had by now given up teaching to concentrate solely on his own painting, lived in the Hague and became part of the community known as the Hague school, though this is a label he didn’t particularly like himself. He was best known as a plein-air landscape painter, particularly depicting the woods around Ewijckshoeve and Scheveningen, but another favourite theme was interiors with windows providing a view, and as this painting demonstrates, his portraiture could not be disregarded. His work is known for a subdued palette and emphasis on light, and he can be compared to French Impressionists of the period like Gustave Caillebotte.

In the 1890s Tholen and his wife shared a house in the Hague with Abraham (Bram) Arntzenius and his second wife Cobi Witsen, the sister of his friend and fellow artist Willem Witsen, and they often spent summers together painting at Ewijckshoeve. Tholen painted the Arntzenius teenage daughters many times, and one finished oil of 1895, showing the children reading, is now at the Gouda museum. The link is relevant as the painting of Piet Meiners has come to Sotheby’s having been passed down through the Arntzenius family. The vendor’s grandfather Henri, we believe the brother of Abraham, purchased the painting directly from Tholen or one of his circle of friends, and it has been in the same family ever since. Exhibited in Berlin, Rotterdam, The Hague (twice), Munich and Venice - demonstrating the regard in which it was held by curators – it has been in the States in recent years, having been inherited by the branch of the Arntzenius family who moved to America.

Sadly, Piet Meinders was to live for only seven more years. In 1903 he tragically drowned after cycling into a tree in the dark and falling unconscious into water. Tholen continued to paint, and near the end of his life was commissioned to paint a portrait of Princess Juliana and a portrait of Queen Wilhelmina.

The retrospective exhibition Willem Bastiaan Tholen: A Joyful Nature will take place later this year at the Fondation Custodia, Paris (21 September - 15 December 2019), and then the Dordrechts Museum (9 February - 31 May 2020).

Mark Stephen is Deputy Director in the London valuations department, responsible for online valuations with 35 years’ experience in the auction world. The variety and breadth of antique and often, not so-antique, objects and paintings sent to Sotheby’s via our online platform is an experience to see. We sift through watches, jewelry, wine, paintings from every period, silver, ceramics and objects so bizarre they cannot be categorised. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the antiques world passes through our hands on a daily basis.

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