Gassel was the oldest and one of the most active of the generation who continued the 'world landscape' style of Joachim Patinir in the southern Netherlands in the mid-sixteenth century. To these sweeping panoramic views he added a teeming array of houses, gardens, palaces and people. Within them his subject matter, drawn from Old Testament or classical subjects such as Judith and Tamar or Mercury and Argus, are discreetly placed in the foreground while a vista of gardens or mountainous river valleys plays out beyond them. This painting is one of a group of paintings in which Gassel's protagonists are set within the grounds of a palace and its pleasure gardens, filled with seemingly innumerable tiny figures engaged in courtly or every day pursuits. Others of this type include, for example, a famous series of landscapes with the story of David and Bathsheba. The earliest and only signed example of these is that in the Restelli collection in Como, which dates from 1540, and another is in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.1
In this case the subject is drawn from the Gospel of Saint Luke. On the right of the painting we see the destitute and unkempt figure of the prodigal son welcomed back by his father, despite having squandered his inheritance, while on the left we see the fatted calf being slaughtered at the father's command to celebrate his son's homecoming. Although he was probably trained in Antwerp, Gassel's earliest biographer Karel van Mander tells us that he worked chiefly in Brussels, and it is quite plausible therefore that the abundance of detail of courtly life and leisure in these pictures may have been deliberately intended for potential patrons at the court in Brussels, where many of the Netherlandish nobles maintained their palaces, and where the regent Mary of Burgundy had established her court after 1544.
We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for endorsing the attribution to Lucas Gassel upon inspection of photographs.
1. For a discussion of this group see Wadsworth Atheneum Paintings Catalogue I: The Netherlands and the German speaking countries: Fifteenth to Nineteenth centuries, Hartford 1978, pp. 142–44, under cat. no. 55. Examples by or from the circle of Gassel were sold London, Bonhams, 6 July 2011, lot 114 and London, Christie's, 8 July 2005, lot 19.