PROPERTY FROM A SPANISH PRIVATE COLLECTION
Anonymous sale, Berlin, Lepke, 24 February 1903, lot 77 (as 'Willem Claesz. Heda');
Anonymous sale ("The Property of a Gentleman"), London, Christie's, 26 June 1970, lot 69 (as 'Willem Cleasz. Heda'), for 8,000 gns. to Peters;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, 9 July 1975, lot 63 (as 'Willem Claesz. Heda'), for £9,500;
With Leonard Koetser Gallery, London, from whom acquired by the father of the present owners in 1975.
London, Leonard Koetser Gallery, Important Old Master Paintings, 3 October - 15 November 1975, no. 9 (as 'Willem Claesz. Heda');
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Tesores de las colecciones particulares madrilènes, 1987 (as 'Willem Claesz. Heda');
Madrid, Sala de Exposiciones del BBV, El Haarlem de Frans Hals, 1994 (as 'Willem Claesz. Heda').
P. de Boer, `J.J. den Uyl', in Oud Holland, 1940, vol. LVII, p. 63, no. f (as 'possibly by Jan Jansz. Den Uyl but known only from an old photograph').
This rediscovered masterpiece has lain undetected as a work by Jan Jansz. den Uyl the Elder since 1903, and probably much longer before, its true identity being concealed by a persistent mis-attribution to Willem Claesz. Heda. Only Pieter de Boer, in his ground-breaking article on the artist in 1940 recognised this work as being by Den Uyl,1 and yet in spite of his re-attribution, when the painting next appeared on the art market, in 1970 and 1975 (see provenance), it was once again sold wrongly attributed to Heda. Furthermore, more recently it has been exhibited as such on two occasions in Spain (see Exhibited). Only now can this remarkable painting finally be restored to its rightful place, amongst the most captivating works of the mysterious painter, Jan Jansz. den Uyl.
Prior to De Boer's 1940 article Den Uyl's works had generally been exhibited under the names of Willem Claesz. Heda, Gerrit Willemsz. Heda or Jan Davidsz. de Heem. This is true of the vast majority of his recognised works: for example, the picture in the Boymans Museum, Rotterdam, was formerly attributed to Gerrit Heda, only in 1951 appearing in the Museum catalogue as by Den Uyl;2 and, most pertinently, given the compositional similarities with the present work, the picture in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, Berlin (now the Bode Museum; fig. 1) was catalogued as by Willem Claesz. Heda in the pre-1940 catalogues,3 and only after 1940 was it re-attributed to Den Uyl. To confound the confusion over the attribution of this work, when it was sold in Berlin in 1903 A.P.A. Vorenkamp suggested an attribution to Jan Jansz. Treck, who was later discovered to have been Den Uyl's brother-in-law and with whom Den Uyl is known to have collaborated in at least one still life. 4
De Boer's article began to make some sense of Den Uyl's oeuvre for the first time. In it he claimed to have "retrieved [the artist] from forgetfulness".5 That so little was known of Den Uyl prior to 1940 is unsurprising given the scarcity of information there was on him and it is thanks largely to De Boer's painstaking research, and later that of Ingvar Bergström,6 that we now have an albeit skeletal outline of his life and work. De Boer identified eight works which he considered definitely to be by Den Uyl, five of which were signed with an 'owl', and all of which he knew first hand; he then listed six further works that he knew only from old photographs, of which the present work was one. However, it had in fact been A.P.A. Vorenkamp, he who had earlier attributed this work to Treck, who was the first to propose the theory that several works bearing an image of an owl (usually engraved on a pewter flagon) were all by the artist Den Uyl. 7 But it was De Boer who proved that the small owl should be regarded as Den Uyl's signature (the Dutch word for owl is uyl) on the discovery on a work in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, of the signature JDUijl together with an engraved owl on the beaker.8 Indeed the present work may be signed in the form of a reflected owl on the right hand side of the lid of the pewter flagon. The great strides made in the unfurling of Den Uyl's oeuvre in the 1930s and 1940s were however somewhat confounded by N.R.A. Vroom who attempted to split the known paintings between Den Uyl and his son, also, confusingly, known as Jan Jansz. Den Uyl the Elder. The works he gave to the son are all now, as before, generally considered to be by the father, there being no evidence whatsoever that the son ever actually painted such still lifes.9
Den Uyl's still lifes are discernible from those of his contemporaries on many grounds, but nowhere more so than in terms of composition. The present work is one of several paintings by the artist which are built along the same unusual compositional lines. A principal group of elements, a large pewter flagon, a tall flute glass and a tazza on its side, is placed entirely at the left hand side of the composition. These three elements fit neatly between the two vertical lines of the niche in the background, and it is this verticality, continued into the draping white napkin, that gives the composition its balance and immense monumentality. Equally unusual, and innovative, is Den Uyl's use of colour in all these works, where the background is a light grey, the table-cloth a deep green while the napkin, in stark contrast, is a brilliant, dazzling white. In each work, furthermore, Den Uyl reproduces with extraordinary skill the scratches and dents on the metallic surfaces, imbuing these objects with a remarkable expressiveness and tangibility. The monumentality of the design, the richness of the objects reproduced, together with the life-like nature in which they are rendered, secured for the artist a reputation as one of Holland's foremost painters of still lifes, a notion corroborated by the fact that Rubens had at least three of his paintings in his own collection, all of which to this day remain unidentified.10
There being so little known of his life, perhaps due to the neglect of Dutch monochrome still life painting between the late 17th and mid-20th Century, it is extremely difficult to establish a chronology for Den Uyl's works. It was Ingvar Bergström who, helped by De Boer's work before him, made the first successful forays in this direction. On close inspection of a painting then in a Copenhagen private collection, more recently sold in New York, Sotheby's, 14 January 1988, lot 41 (for $2,200,000; see Fig. 2), Ingvar Bergström noticed the date 1633 on the handle of the pewter flagon and this is now recognised as the artist's earliest dated work. On the basis of similarities of composition and conception Bergström dated the Berlin painting (Fig. 1) to this date as well; so it is, given its numerous likenesses with both the ex-Copenhagen and the Berlin works, that the present painting may also be dated to circa 1633 or soon after. The similarities of this work with the Berlin painting are most evident in the arrangement of the four principal elements: the pewter jug, the tall flute glass, the tazza and the pewter plate balanced over the edge of the table; in the present work the pewter jug is turned slightly more clockwise, the tazza likewise, and the wine glass is replaced by a shorter version. This main group aside, all the other still life elements differ (as they also do in the ex-Copenhagen picture).11
As Bergström notes, Den Uyl's later pictures, from the late 1630s, differ somewhat from this group in as far as the defined architectural features of a room are replaced by a plain, undefined background; these later pictures are further marked by a disappearance of the monochromatic colour scheme and a less balanced, more random and restless arrangement of the still life elements. A good example is the painted dated 1637 which was last recorded in the collection of Mr. S. Anholt, Amsterdam.12
The few works we know of him reveal Den Uyl's interpretation of the Haarlem monochrome still life tradition to be a highly personal one. All are works of extremely high quality, and they certainly place him on an equal footing with Pieter Claesz. or Willem Claesz. Heda at their very best. Because of their extreme rarity, however, Den Uyl's mysterious allure - heightened no doubt by the punning owl signature peering out at us as in a reflection - has left him as little known as he is understood. While his works are highly prized by collectors, a wider public remains largely ignorant of him - he is not even accorded an entry in the Dictionary of Art, for example.13 Should further works that even approach the quality of this one appear in the future, his reputation can only grow.
1. See P. de Boer, under Literature. De Boer knew the painting only from an old photograph in the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorisches Documentatie in the Hague, which was there as a result of the Berlin sale in 1903 where it had been sold as by Heda.
2. See Museum Boymans, Rotterdam. Schilderkunst & Beeldhouwkunst, Rotterdam 1951, p. 103.
3. See, for example H. Posse (rev), Die Gemäldegalerie des Kaiser-Friedrich-Museums, Berlin 1911, p.289, reproduced.
4. See N.R.A. Vroom, A Modest Message, vol. II, Schiedam 1980, no. 668. It is signed by both artists.
5. De Boer, op. cit., p. 64.
6. I. Bergström, Dutch Still life painting in the seventeenth century, New York 1983, pp. 144-53. This was first published in 1947 under the title Holländskt Stillebenmalerei under 1600-talet, Gothenburg 1947.
7. See A.P.A. Vorenkamp, Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van het Hollandsch stilleven in de zeventiende eeuw, dissertation, Leiden 1933, p. 43.
8. For a good illustration see Vroom, op. cit., vol. I, p. 215, fig. 292, and vol. II, p. 128, no. 663, reproduced.
9. For the works he attributes to the son see Vroom, ibid., vol. II, p. 130, nos. 669-74.
10. See J.M. Muller, Rubens: The Artist as Collector, Princeton 1989, p. 143, nos. 302-4.
11. Two other paintings on canvas, in Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, and Groningen, Municipal Museum, repeat the Berlin composition almost exactly; see Vroom, ibid., vol. II, p. 130, nos. 669 and 670.
12. See Bergström, op. cit., p. 147, reproduced fig. 130.
13. An honour accorded to Jan Van der Meer II & III, for example.
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