Peeter Baltens, called Custodis


Peeter Baltens, called Custodis

Details & Cataloguing

Old Masters Evening Sale


Peeter Baltens, called Custodis
ANTWERP 1527 - 1584
signed lower left on the face of a rock: PEETER/ BALTENS

oil on oak panel
116.9 x 163.5 cm.; 46 x 64 3/8  in.
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Paul Delaroff, St Petersburg, by 1907 (according to Hulin de Loo); bears his inked stamp on the reverse of the panel;

His deceased sale, Paris, Petit, 23–24 April 1914, lot 16, for 3,900 Francs;

Madam D.;

Her sale, Paris, 3 June 1920, lot 2;

Perhaps Carminati collection, Milan (according to Hoogewerff);

Achillito Chiesa, Milan, before 1925;

His sale, New York, American Art Association, 27 November 1925, lot 45;

Professor N. Castellino, Rome, where seen by Hoogewerff in 1926;

Thence by descent in Rome and Switzerland until after 1954;

With Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna, 1990–91;

From whom acquired for the present collection.


Kassel, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, inv. No. 1153 (on loan circa 1991–92);

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Von Bruegel bis Rubens, 4 September – 22 November 1992, no. 21.1;

Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, De Bruegel à Rubens, 12 December 1992 – 8 March 1993, no. 107;

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Von Brueghel bis Rubens, 2 April – 20 June 1993, no. 21.1;

Essen, Kulturstiftung Ruhr Essen, Villa Hügel, Die Flämische Landschaft 1520–1700, 23 August – 30 November 2003, no. 37; and subsequently in Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 23 December 2003 – 12 April 2004, and Antwerp, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 8 May – 1 August 2004.


G. Hulin de Loo, in R. van Bastelaer and G. Hulin de Loo, Peter Brugel l’ancien, son œuvre et son temps..., Brussels 1907, pp. 373–74, no. 4;

J. Héjjas, 'Ein neues Bild von jüngeren P. Bruegel im Budapester Museum der bildenden Künste', in Az Orszagos Magyar Szépmüveszéti Műzeum evkönyvei, vol. IX, 1937–39, p. 202;

G.J. Hoogewerff, Het landschaap van Bosch tot Rubens, Antwerp 1954, pp. 54–55, reproduced fig. 36;

L. van Puyvelde, La peinture flamande au siècle de Bosch et Breughel, Brussels 1964, p. 149;

G. Marlier, 'Peeter Balten, copiste ou créateur?', in Musées des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Brussels). Bulletin, vol. XIV, 1965, pp. 129, 132;

S.J. Kostyshyn, An Important Landscape by Peeter Baltens, Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna 1990, pp. 1–9, reproduced;

A. W[ied], in E. Mai and H. Vlieghe (eds), Van Bruegel tot Rubens, exh. cat., Antwerp 1992, pp. 234–35, no. 107, reproduced;

A. W[ied], in E. Mai and H. Vlieghe (eds), Von Bruegel bis Rubens, exh. cat., Vienna and Cologne 1993, pp. 293–94, no. 21.2, reproduced;

J. R[ees], in E. Mai (ed.), Das Kabinett des Sammlers, Cologne 1993, pp. 5–7, no. 3, reproduced;

A. W[ied], in Von Brueghel bis Rubens, exh. cat., Vienna 1993, pp. 293–94, no. 21.1, reproduced;

S.J. Kostyshyn, “Door tsoeken men vindt”: a reintroduction to the life and work of Peeter Baltens alias Custodis of Antwerp (1527–1584), doctoral diss., Case Western Reserve University 1994, vol. I, pp. 225, 232, 246, 248, 251–52, 327, vol. II, pp. 558–72, cat. no. 26, reproduced vol. III, figs 12–14;

A. Wied, in A. Wied, K. Ertz and K. Schütz, Die Flämische Landschaft 1520–1700, exh. cat., Lingen 2003, pp. 114–15, no. 37, reproduced.

Catalogue Note

This exceptionally large panel is one of less than fifteen autograph surviving paintings by Peeter Baltens, and unquestionably the finest left in private hands, and is in remarkably good original condition for a work that is almost exactly 450 years old. Baltens was the almost exact contemporary of his townsman Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whom he certainly knew well, although he outlived him by some fifteen years. In some of Baltens’ paintings, and especially those depicting kermesses, Bruegel’s inevitable influence is palpable, but considerably less so in this work, in which the artist adopts a different approach both to narrative and the envisioning of landscape. 

Baltens and Bruegel’s careers were somewhat intertwined. Both collaborated in 1551 on an altarpiece, no longer surviving, commissioned by the Mechelen (Malines) Glovemakers guild, and in the following century Pieter Brueghel the Younger used motifs from Baltens’ paintings, for example an Ecce Homo, in his own work. The present painting however, dated by Kostyshyn circa 1570, the year after Bruegel’s death and shortly after Baltens became Dean of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp, emphatically demonstrates his complete artistic independence from Bruegel, as Hulin de Loo observed when he catalogued the then seven known works by Baltens, and as Kostyshyn confirmed.1 One reason for this is that it is essentially a relatively sparsely inhabited landscape painting, in which the great diversity of terrain, from the agricultural to the mountainous and estuarine distances, dominates the composition, and thus it is at some remove from Baltens’ more Bruegelian multi-figured kermesses and other subjects, some of which were no doubt produced in response to popular demand following Bruegel’s premature death. This is in accord with Karel van Mander’s description of Baltens as 'a very good painter of landscapes' (although he was under the impression he had entered the Antwerp Guild in 1579). In a phrase not known in Van Mander’s day, the present painting is the epitome of the 'World Landscape', in which the viewer has the impression that within a vast illimitable panorama all the known world is encompassed. Baltens has here made a key development of the World Landscapes pioneered by Joachim Patinir and taken up by Cornelis Massys, Lucas Gassel, Herri Met de Bles and others, with their lofty viewpoints and soaring atmospheric perspective, and has introduced an almost intimate domestic scale to the foreground, with a low viewpoint, and the key participants brought up close to the picture plane – so much so in the present work that one might imagine that if the closest recumbent peasant were to roll over in his sleep he would literally fall out of the picture.  

The subject is one of the Parables, and is taken from the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 13, verses 36–39:

'36. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38. The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39. The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.'

Not surprisingly, given that it provided artists with an excuse to depict landscape on a lavish scale, the subject enjoyed modest popularity in the latter part of the sixteenth and the early part of the seventeenth centuries. Jan Mandijn may have been one of the earliest to do so after Baltens, in a panel in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, followed by Hans Bol and Frans Hogenberg in prints, both Jacob and Abel Grimmer in paintings, and Jacob Savery, whose design was engraved by Simon Frisius. The Master of the Prodigal Son painted the subject in four similar versions. Jacques de Gheyn made a beautiful pen drawing of the subject in 1603, with a devil rather similar to that of Baltens.2 Some artists who treated the subject may well have been aware of the present picture: panels by Jacob Grimmer, in a private collection, and Kerstiaen de Keuninck, formerly in Berlin, follow a similar compositional scheme to it, with a central clump of trees, farm buildings to the left, a ploughed field in the centre foreground and a panoramic landscape extending beyond a village to the right; while Abraham Bloemaert’s design for an engraving by Jacob Matham may reflect knowledge of the present picture, since the centre ground is occupied by a clump of two principal and several secondary trees, with sleeping peasants in the immediate foreground.3

The subject specifically prefigures the Last Judgement, as subsequent verses in the Gospel of Matthew explain. Baltens was aware of this too, since his four-line Latin inscription on a rectangular stone block in the lower-right corner can be translated: 'the evil one sows the tares, but at the time of the harvest, the skilful crimes of the hellish dog would be seen. When the righteous man will be led to the shining court of the heavens, the impious man will be the prey of eternal Charon'. However, Kostyshyn and others have speculated that this subject might have been interpreted as a symbol of religious tolerance and a plea for freedom from persecution – relevant in Antwerp, which was in the grip of the Counter-Reformation. This is because according to the parable, the tares (weeds) and the good wheat are left to grow up together and the crop destroyed after the harvest.  

The sleeping peasants in the foreground are influenced by Pieter Bruegel, who included them, for example, in his harvest subjects, but in other respects the painting is a summation of earlier trends in Flemish painting: most obviously that of the World Landscape. Here Baltens is drawing on earlier landscape traditions as Bruegel also did himself. In one other sense the painting is however Bruegelian, in that the constituent parts of the landscape blend perfectly into each other, and are superbly integrated with the narrative. The means by which Baltens achieves this are his own, however, and he exploits to the full the possibilities given by this rare subject. In the Parable of the Tares, the Devil or Satan is sowing weeds in the recently sown cornfield, while the peasants – farmers – sleep, their ploughs and carts with sacks of seed resting with them. Baltens presents us with a wide ploughed field spanning the picture plane in the foreground in a grand curve. Thus the entire foreground forms part of the narrative, in a way that other popular subjects of the time in landscape settings, such as The Flight into Egypt, cannot do. The foreground field blends seamlessly and realistically into the middle ground where other pastoral activities take place – to the left birds are being fed and beyond there is a bleaching field with linen drying. Between these a road leads away from the viewer to the right towards a village seen through the clump of trees in the centre of the picture, then winds left again towards blue distant hills. To the right of the trees the ploughed field runs all the way to the village with two monks making their way across, while to the right the field ends on a bluff which descends unseen to the river that meanders away towards the far estuary. Marking off the right of the composition is a rough cross, reminding us that while the pious peasants may sleep, thus allowing the devil to do his evil work, the Almighty is watching. Of course, when we look at the painting, we do not need to understand its structure to appreciate its genius. It just feels right, unlike so many Mannerist landscapes. As Baltens was no doubt aware, the naturalism of his treatment of the subject is perfectly suited to the subject of a Parable, in which Christ relates a story that is set in the present, not the Biblical past.   

Although Baltens’ compositional scheme can be related in some respects to some of those of Bruegel – the topography with agricultural land falling away to the right and towards the distance is reminiscent of the structure of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, for example – Baltens’ solution to the integration of narrative and landscape is entirely his own, and probably because it does not rely at all on prototypes, it is entirely successful. Nothing whatsoever jars in this most natural of landscapes, except, rather shockingly the presence of the Devil in person.

Bruegel’s paintings enjoyed a loud resonance in subsequent Flemish painting, perpetualised of course by followers such as Marten van Cleve, but more especially by his sons and grandsons and their workshops. In its own way however, this painting, a paradigm of Baltens’ œuvre, has strongly influenced subsequent Flemish paintings of landscape settings. The rural scenes of Jacob and Abel Grimmer and Cornelis Molenaer, for example, are imaginable without Bruegel’s precedent, but are clearly modelled on this landscape, and the solution to integration of narrative and landscape that is the precept it creates.

1 See Hulin de Loo 1907, Kostyshyn 1990 and Kostyshyn 1994, vol. I, pp. 558–72, no. 26.
2 Monogrammed and dated 1603, pen and brown ink on paper, 265 x 417 mm.; Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin; see I.Q. van Regteren Altena, Jacques de Gheyn, Three Generations, 3 vols, The Hague 1983, vol. II, p. 28, no. 50, reproduced vol. III, p. 125, pl. 236.
3 For one treatment of the subject by Jacob Grimmer, see R. de Bertier de Sauvigny, Jacob et Abel Grimmer, Belgium 1991, p. 124, no. 3, reproduced fig. 66. For the Kerstiaen de Keuninck, which was destroyed in 1945, see H. Devisscher, Kerstiaen de Keuninck 1560–1633, Freren 1987, pp. 184–86, no. B 40, reproduced, as circa 1610.

Old Masters Evening Sale