Lot 8
  • 8

JOHANN LISS | The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalene

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 GBP
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  • The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalene
  • oil on canvas
  • 98.8 x 125.8 cm.; 38 7/8  x 49 1/2  in.


Possibly Richard Chauncey (d. 1760), Edgcote, Northamptonshire, and there framed as the overmantel in the former Billiard Room during the re-modelling of the house between 1747–52; Possibly his son, William Henry Chauncey (d. 1788);

By inheritance with Edgcote to his brother-in-law, Thomas Carter;

Possibly by descent to his granddaughter Julia Aubrey, who married William Ralph Cartwright (1771–1847) of Aynhoe Park, Oxfordshire;

Possibly inherited with Edgcote by his son by his second wife Richard Aubrey Cartwright (1811–1891);

Thence by descent to his grandson Ralph Cartwright (1880–1936);

Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Family Trust'), London, Christie's, 9 December 1994, lot 96;

Acquired in 1995 for the present collection.


H.A. Tipping, 'Edgcote, Northamptonshire', in Country Life, XLVII, 1201, January 1920, reproduced p. 51; H.A. Tipping, English Homes. Period V, vol. I, 1921, p. 296, reproduced pl. 256;

R. Klessmann in Johann Liss, exh. cat., Rathaus, Augsburg, 2 August – 2 November 1975, and Cleveland Museum of Art, 17 December 1975 – 7 March 1976, p. 86, under cat. no. A17;

R. Klessmann, 'Johann Liss's Temptation of the Magdalene', in The Burlington Magazine, CXXXVIII, no. 138, March 1996, pp. 187-9, reproduced;

R. Klessmann, Johann Liss. A monograph and catalogue raisonné, Doornspijk 1999, p. 143, cat. no. 14, reproduced pls 11 and 12;

A. Bader, Chemistry and Art. Further adventures of a Chemist Collector, London 2008, pp. 99–104.


The following condition report is provided by Henry Gentle who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Johann Liss A repentant sinner Oil on canvas, in a period gilt frame. The original canvas has been lined. The lining is approximately 60-70 years old and there is a loss of tension across the original canvas. Original paint can be detected to the tacking edges on three sides; the right hand edge is original. This original paint on the tacking edges has been compromised by the conservation and restraining processes. The paint layer generally, however, is in an excellent original condition. Under raking light conditions it appears raised and in some areas there is a vulnerability with some slight abrasion detected to the shadows of the blue cloak. The paint texture is very well preserved and the paint impasto has not been compromised by any previous conservation intervention. Removal of the degraded and discoloured varnish will improve the overall tonality and reveal colours that still retain their vibrancy. Nuances and subtleties to the flesh tones and the modelling and the fine details to the drapery and hair are in very good original state.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

When Johann Liss died in Verona in the winter of 1631, his early death before even his mid-thirties robbed the Baroque of one of its most extraordinary talents. His short life was spent far from his German homeland, in the Netherlands – first Amsterdam, Haarlem and then Antwerp – and then in Italy, in both Rome and Venice. His resulting exposure to the works of Rubens and Jordaens in the north and Caravaggio and the Venetians in the south resulted in an explosive fusion of stylistic trends into a style that mixed drama and brilliant colour with an extraordinary painterly facility. Here Liss typically imparts a very personal twist to the traditional iconography of the penitent Magdalene, portraying her turning away from worldly temptation towards an angel in a design that recalls traditional Netherlandish renderings of the Choice between Vice and Virtue. The exceptional freedom of handling of the paint and the contrasted lighting add a striking element of intense emotional drama to the scene. Though relatively few in number – and extremely rare on the market today – Liss’s works had a considerable influence upon the subsequent development of painting as far afield as the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany well into the eighteenth century. This is one of the finest examples of his work to remain in private hands. Liss’s remarkable style was born from his ability, almost unique among Dutch painters of his generation, to absorb artistic influences from a variety of sources and cultures and fuse them into a distinct and personal vision. According to his biographer, Joachim Sandrart (1606–1688), who knew him personally, Liss came from the extreme north of Germany, the Oldenburg region around Lübeck. His parents Johann and Anna are recorded as painters at the Schleswig court of the Dukes of Holstein, and it is there that he must have obtained his earliest training, before setting out around 1615 on the journey to the Netherlands customary for young German artists. According to Sandrart, between 1615 and 1616 Liss visited Amsterdam, where he aspired to the style of the artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) in nearby Haarlem.1 From there Liss must have travelled to Antwerp around 1617–18, for it was here that he was exposed to the work of Rubens, Jordaens and Abraham Janssens, which was to have a profound impact upon his art. The work of his Flemish contemporaries imparted to Liss a sense of dynamic movement and rhythm that can be felt throughout his subsequent work, especially upon a large scale.

Liss soon left the Low Countries for Italy, and his inscription on a drawing in Hamburg tells us that he had arrived in Venice by 1621.2 Here he would encounter the works of the Roman painter Domenico Fetti (1589–1623), who was then working in the city, whose expressive and painterly brushwork, composition and colour would have a significant influence on his work. Again, his sojourn was a short one, as he continued after a year or so to Rome where, according to Sandrart, he adopted a ‘a completely different manner’. Liss became a member of the Schilderbent, the confraternity of Dutch painters working in the city, and here he acquired the nickname ‘Pan’, perhaps as a result of the frank sexuality of his Prodigal son feasting with harlots (Germanische Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), which must date from this period, as the strong influence of Caravaggio and his followers such as Bartolomeo Manfredi is very evident.3 The dramatic realism of Caravaggio is again to the fore in Liss’s astonishing Judith in the National Gallery in London (fig. 4), which is generally acknowledged as his masterpiece from his Roman years, although the art of that city would scarcely have prepared the viewer for the onslaught of colour and bravura brushwork it possesses. By the mid-1620s however, Liss seems to have returned to Venice. In this final phase of his short career he was evidently regarded as the heir to Domenico Fetti, who had recently died. His most famous work of this period, the Dream of Saint Paul (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), generally dated to around 1627, surely warrants Sandrart’s observation that Liss had closely looked at the style of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese as well as that of Fetti.

In this painting, the repentant Mary Magdalene is shown with bare breasts and clasped hands, holding a skull to her body. On the left an Oriental old woman in a turban bows and offers her vessels made of gold, symbols of temptation. The saint’s rich clothing additionally hints at her sinful past. The skull similarly offers a vanitas reminder of the futility of such worldly pleasures. However, the Magdalene averts herself and turns to her left towards an angel, who gently takes her by the arm, at the same time offering a palm frond, which symbolises the heavenly reward that awaits the repentant sinner. Liss’s representation of the Magdalene between a temptress and an angel is unusual, and in Klessmann’s words ‘suggests a wilful fusing of diverse iconographic sources on the artist’s part’.Liss has clearly drawn upon the tradition of genre scenes of matchmaking, which had been popular in the Netherlands since the sixteenth century and which he must have seen in the work of Hendrik Goltzius, such as his Choice between Young and Old of around 1587 (Hollstein: Matham 330). An early drawing by Liss of around 1615 in the Prentenkabinet, Rijksuniversiteit in Leiden, follows just this theme (fig. 1).5 Two paintings of The Choice of the Magdalene between Good and Evil, painted by Jacob Jordaens around 1616, and known in versions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille and the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 2) clearly point to the Flemish origins of the theme.

Liss’s depiction of the subject of the Temptation of the Magdalene is known in one other version, a replica of slightly larger size today in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden (fig. 3).6 Until the appearance of the present canvas at auction in 1994, it was known only from old photographs, and was assumed by Klessmann and other scholars to be a copy of the Dresden canvas. Doubts about the authenticity of the Dresden painting had however surfaced at the time of the 1975 exhibition, and it is now clear the Edgcote painting is the prime original version of the composition.7 As Liss’s short career lasted for a mere fifteen years, any attempt to establish a real sense of dating for his works is hindered by the fact that few are signed and only one painting – an Agony in the Garden formerly in a Swiss private collection – is dated, and that indistinctly to 1628[?].8 Michael Jaffé argued for a very early dating for the present composition to Liss’s stay in the Low Countries, correctly pointing out the strong relationship between Liss’s design and Jordaens’s treatments of the same subject, as well as the pose of Rubens’s Penitent Magdalene, today in Vienna, all of which he could well have seen during his putative stay in Antwerp.9 However, most scholars concur in assigning a date for this composition to Liss’s Roman period, just prior to his departure for Venice in the mid-1620s. Moreover Klessmann points out that no known works by Liss can be securely connected with his putative stay in Antwerp. This argument seems to be well supported on stylistic grounds. The present painting can be most closely compared to other works which are thought to date from this period around 1622 to 1625. These include the famous Judith at the National Gallery in London (fig. 4), and notably the closely related Death of Cleopatra in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich (fig. 5).10 In both paintings we find again the dramatic lighting taken from Caravaggio, but also the painterly delight in rendering the creamy shining satins and folds of the draperies, which would be unthinkable without exposure to Fetti and the Venetians. The influence of Liss’ compatriot Johann Carl Loth (1632–1698), then working in Venice, is also noticeable in the Munich canvas. In this and the Temptation of the Magdalene the elegance of the composition, the psychological and physical treatment of the subject, and the rich liquid colour have taken Liss’s art to a new level altogether, and it is tempting to think that such richness is, in fact, an indication that these particular works might have been painted in Venice rather than Rome. As Neil MacGregor wrote in 1995, 'This is indeed a work of the very highest quality, superbly illustrating Liss's fluid brushwork, his inventive approach to composition and iconography, and his skillful treatment of facial expression... Liss's chromatic juxtaposition of the golden orange of the central figure's drape with the flashes of blue lining recalls similar passages in the later works of Veronese, and adds weight to the assumption that this painting was made in Venice.'11

Despite his short career, Liss’s final style, re-invigorated by this second contact with Venice between 1625 and his death, would ensure that the influence of his work would extend far beyond his lifetime into the eighteenth century. It is not hard to detect his influence, for example, in the work of Giambattista Piazzetta, to name but one artist. Sandrart, who was with him in Venice at this time, gives us an unusually frank glimpse of the lifestyle and working method of the young painter:

‘He was in the habit of thinking a long time before he started on his work but once a problem was resolved nothing could make him sway. When we lived together in Venice he would stay away from the house for two or three days and then come back into the room by night, quickly preparing his palette, mixing the colours the way he wanted them and spend the whole night working. In the daytime he would rest a little and then continue with his work for another two or three days or nights. He hardly rested and hardly ate. No matter how many times I told him he would ruin his health that way and shorten his life, it was no good. He continued that way, staying out several days and several nights – where I do not know – until his purse was empty. Then he continued making the night into day and the day into night.’

The early history of this painting still remains unknown. In 1660 Marco Boschini in his Carta del navegar pitoresco, mentions a painting by Liss with the subject of the repentance of Mary Magdalene in the Palazzo Bonfadina in Venice: 'De Gian Lis Madalena dolorosa Che l’Anzolo socore; e in tun canton Ghè quela maledata tentation Che studia in darno a farla ambiciosa' (by Johann Liss the sorrowful Magdalene rescued by the angel; and in a corner behold that cursed temptation seeking perniciously to make her ambitious).12

Boschini's description clearly matches the present painting perfectly, but in view of the strong relationship between the Venetian art critic and collector Count Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764) and Augustus III (‘The Strong’) King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (1670–1733), it has always been assumed by scholars that the canvas he refers to is most likely to be that in Dresden, where Augustus III’s collection is now preserved. The picture is first recorded in the collections there in a catalogue of 1765, where it is described as a Magdalene.13 The reference might equally apply, however, to the present painting, which would suggest that Liss might have painted it in Venice rather than Rome, or at the very least brought the picture with him when he came there. There is only one other possible early reference to a Magdalene by Liss. A life-sized Magdalene by Liss ('Eine Magdalena, in lebens Grösse von Joh. Liss')  is recorded by the German traveller and writer Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683–1734) as in the collection of Siewert van der Schelling in Amsterdam in 1711. Houbraken also refers to a work by Liss in the same collection, but is not specific as to its subject.14 However, this description could equally well apply to another painting of the Penitent Magdalene by Liss today in the Slavkov Museum in the Czech Republic (fig. 6).15 Considered by Klessmann to be a work from Liss’s last years in Venice, the Magdalene is here depicted alone at half-length, clasping a crucifix with a skull before her. For his design Liss has clearly returned to the central figure of the saint in the present painting. That Liss has employed the same head for this in both pictures suggests, as Klessmann observes, that he may have used the same preparatory drawing for both canvases. No such drawing has, however, survived. In the absence of any further evidence it is not really possible to establish which painting Houbraken may have been referring to. No early provenance is known for the Edgcote picture, but it may very well have come to England during the eighteenth century. Old photographs of the interior at Edgcote show the painting in a fine George II marble chimney piece by (fig. 7), which had formed part of the extensive improvements carried out by Richard Chauncey (d. 1760) in the house between 1747 and 1752.16 Chauncey was an enormously wealthy cloth merchant and three times Chairman of the East India Company. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the painting might have been part of the original decorative scheme of the 1740s, but there is no certain record of it having been there from that date. A possible clue, however, is provided by the chalk inscription on the stretcher giving the name 'Mr. Carter', which may very well refer to Thomas Carter, a wealthy lawyer from the Inner Temple, the husband of William Henry Chauncey's sister Anna Maria, who had inherited Edgcote from him after his death.

1 J. von Sandrart, Teutsche Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künste von 1675, A.R. Peltzer (ed.), Munich 1925, p. 187: ‘…and to take the manner of Heinrich Golzii [Goltzius] himself very seriously’.
2 The drawing is inscribed: Johann Liss Holsacia. A. 1621 a VEN. Reproduced in K. Steinbart, Johann Lis. Der Maler aus Holstein, Berlin 1940, pl. 4.
3 A second version is in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Kassel. For both works see Klessmann 1975–76, pp. 79–84, cat. nos A15 and A16, both reproduced.
4 Klessmann1975–76, p. 84.
5 See A. Welcker, ‘Bijdrage tot Lissiana I’, Oud Holland, LXII, 1947, pp. 135–37, reproduced Klessman 1996, p. 190, fig. 50.
6 Canvas, 114 x 131.5 cm. Klessmann 1975–76 pp. 84–85, cat. no. A17, reproduced fig. 17. Although this would indicate that the Dresden painting may have been of larger size, inspection of the present canvas shows that it has been folded over the stretcher and perhaps reduced along both its upper and lower edges. How much, if any, has been lost is impossible to determine.
7 See, for example, Richard Spear’s review of the Augsburg–Cleveland exhibition in ‘Johann Liss reconsidered’, Art Bulletin, LVIII, 1976, pp. 582–93. Although many of Liss’s compositions are known in more than one version – the London Judith, for example, is known in multiple versions – the juxtaposition of these during the 1975–76 exhibition demonstrated that in each case only one autograph original was involved. As Liss is not known to have had a studio it seems that these replicas were made without the painter’s collaboration.
8 Sold London, Christie’s, 7 July 1995, lot 106. Another, the Vision of Saint Jerome, painted for San Niccolò dei Tolentini in Venice, is documented by Sandrart – who accompanied Liss to Venice – to 1628–29.
9 M. Jaffé, in Jordaens, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1968–69, p. 93, under cat. no. 7.
10 Klessmann 1975–76, p. 85, cat. A18, reproduced fig. 18 and colour plate III.
11 Quoted in Bader 2008, p. 102.
12 M. Boschini, La Carta del Navegar pitoresco, Venice 1660, p. 567.
13 J.A. Riedel and C.F. Wenzel, Catalogue des tableaux de la Galerie électorale de Dresde, Dresden 1765, p. 147, no. 745.
14 Herrn Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach Merkwürdige reisen durch Niedersachsen, Holland und Engelland, part III, Ulm 1754, pp. 646–47. See also A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, Amsterdam 1718–21, P.T.A. Swillens (ed.), Maastricht 1943–53, vol. I, pp. 163–64.
15 Canvas, 90 x 80 cm. R. Klessmann, ‘Addenda to Johann Liss’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXVIII, no. 996, March 1986, p. 192, reproduced fig. 21, and Klessmann 1996, p. 188, reproduced fig. 46.
16 The chimney piece itself was apparently dismantled around 1925. The apparent folding or trimming of the canvas (see note 6 above) might therefore have been done in order to fit the canvas into its new location.