- Paulus Bor
- Seated nude bathing by a stove
- oil on canvas
Probably Christie's, New York, 18 January 1984, lot 44 (as by School of Paulus Bor, where titled A Lady Washing Her Feet)
There purchased by Central Picture Galleries, New York;
There purchased by Giacomo Algranti, circa 1985;
From whom purchased by the present owner.
Bor was from Amersfoort, a city in the province of Utrecht about fourteen miles (22.5 kilometers) from its eponymous capital. He was the third son of a wealthy Catholic textile merchant and from what little information we have about him, seems to have enjoyed a rather good life. Almost nothing is known of his early years or artistic training, and the first record of him is a document of 1623, when he was living in Rome. He was one of the founding members of the Bentvueghels or Schildersbent, a society of painters, mainly Dutch and Flemish, who were active in Rome from about 1620 to 1720. In a drawing of around 1625 now in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, shows him and his fellow members of the Schildersbent happily drinking in the company of Bacchus. Bor returned to Amersfoort in 1626 and two years later married Aleijda van Crachtwijck. Their combined assets at the time were calculated at 10,000 guilders, the income from which assured Bor a comfortable living. Despite this he continued to work as a painter, though perhaps not terribly consistently, for today we know of only about two dozen works by him. He died in August 1669 and his friends marked the occasion of his funeral by drinking a barrel of wine in his honor.
Bor’s first dated painting is a group portrait of 1628, The Van Vanevelt Family Saying Grace, in the Saint Pieters-en-Blockland Gasthuis, Amersfoort. However, there are very few other dated works extant and as a result, the chronology of his pictures has been difficult to establish. His early style was informed by the older generation of Utrecht painters, such as Abraham van Bloemaert and Jan van Bijlert, while in Rome he was exposed to Italian art and the works of his fellow members of the Schildersbent. From the 1630s onward we see the influence of the Haarlem painters Salomon de Bray, Pieter de Grebber and Jacob van Campen, but it was the last who had the greatest impact on Bor and there are a number of pictures that have at different times been given to both artists.
In the present work a young woman is seated in a very spare interior, the most notable features of which are the expanse of greyish-brown wall and, in the left corner, a small stove. The woman is turned away from us, so we see her from behind in a three-quarter view. She has her feet in a tub and is completely undressed apart from a wreath of delicate blue and red flowers in her hair. In front of her, hanging from a barely visible line, is her shift; to her right, a basket of some kind, a sponge, a small piece of paper with its edges curling up; and furthest away, a mirror with a gilt frame propped up against a basket or ornamental box. The composition is so carefully arranged and the weight of the figure and objects so well balanced that we almost feel we are looking at a still life rather than a nude. The pervasive atmosphere is of stillness -- almost timelessness.
Bor’s inclusion of a nude – much less a full-length nude – in a genre scene is remarkable in the 1640s. While artists in the later 16th and early 17th centuries happily populated their classical and mythological scenes with nude women, this was not the case in representations of contemporary domestic life. One of the very few precedents for the present work is Salomon de Bray’s A Bathing Woman Combing Her Hair of circa 1630, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 1). She is shown in half-length with the edge of a shift visible just beneath her breasts and we have the sense that we are catching her unawares at her toilet. However, there is some question as to whether this is really just a picture of a woman combing her hair. In the recent exhibition catalogue of the De Bray family, the authors note there are no other examples of De Bray depicting a single nude female in a genre picture, and, in fact, such a work would have been highly unusual in the wider circle of Haarlem painters. As a result they conclude that the subject of the Louvre painting is probably a classical subject, perhaps a bathing shepherdess or nymph.2
There are no genre paintings comparable to the Seated Nude in Bor’s own oeuvre either. The closest work in composition and spirit is Ariadne in the Narodowe Museum, Poznan (fig. 2). Ariadne’s pose is nearly identical with that of the woman here, though she is seen from the front rather than the back and partly clothed rather than completely nude. Both women are seated on low stools or benches, their knees raised up, and their arms held against their bodies with the elbows bent. They appear to be of similar build and both have thick, slightly wild brown hair that frames their faces. Ariadne rests her feet on a basket that is a larger version of the one in the present work, and on the floor are an array of small objects, including a sponge and a curling length of twine or thread, the other end of which she holds hidden in her right hand. The twine and and the existence of a pendant, also in Poznan, whic depicts Bacchus, are the primary reasons for identifying the subject as Ariadne.3 As recounted by Ovid in his Ars Amoratia, Ariadne helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur by giving him a ball of thread, which enabled him to find his way out of the monster's labyrinth. Theseus later abandoned her, but Bacchus was touched by her plight and married her.
Given the extreme rarity with which nudes appeared in genre scenes in the 1640s and Bor’s tendency toward indirect and sometimes obscure iconography, it is worth considering that the present picture might not be a genre scene at all.4 It could instead be a scene from the Old Testament and the contemplative bather could be Bathsheba in a 17th century Dutch interior. The story of David and Bathsheba, related in II Samuel 11:1-27, had a long pictorial tradition in the Low Countries. One night King David caught a glimpse of Bathsheba bathing and was smitten with her, so he wrote her a letter asking her to come to him. In most representations Bathsheba is shown out of doors, usually with a servant attending her, holding David's letter. One of the most touching representations of the story is Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Contemplating King David’s Letter of 1654, in the Musée du Louvre, in which Rembrandt paints her not as a classically proportioned figure but as an ordinary Dutch woman.
Here the identification of the subject is less certain, but there are a number of elements that are inconsistent with its being a genre scene and that link it to the Biblical story. The first is the woman’s clothing: the wreath in her hair and the gold threaded robe she is sitting on. Neither would be part of the wardrobe of an ordinary Dutch woman in a plainly furnished room. The mirror, with its heavy gold frame, and the box and basket also seem out of place. Most telling is the small piece of paper on the floor, which could be David’s letter. Its presence would certainly account for the air of stillness pervading the composition as she sits and contemplates what she will do.
However, whatever the subject, whether a contemporary rendering of Bathsheba or simply what it appears to be, A Seated Nude Bathing by a Stove, it is a remarkable painting. It captures our attention, bringing us into this deceptively simple interior and asking us, like the sitter, to be still and reflect.
1. L. Slatkes confirmed the attribution to Bor and dated the painting to the 1640s in a letter of 6 April 1985. W. Sumowski confirmed the attribution in a letter of 21 March 1991 and identfied the subject as a Vanitas-Allegorie. Since that time the various scholars who have seen it firsthand have also reconfirmed the attribution and dating.
2. P. Biesboer et al., Painting Family: The De Brays, Master Painters of 17th Century Holland, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle 2008, p. 44.
3. J. Giltaij, in Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth Century Painting, exhibition catalogue, Rotterdam 1999, pp. 148-150, in fact questions whether the pictures should be considered pendants.
4. Bacchus and Ariadne are relatively familiar subjects in which the iconography is largely disguised. However, two other works by Bor, the Disillusioned Medea and Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple, in The Metropolitan Museum, New York and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, respectively, are far more obscure themes taken from Ovid’s Heroides.