Abraham Janssens was born in Antwerp in 1567 and trained from 1584-1585 with the Flemish painter Jan Snellinck (1548-1638). He then continued his training in Italy where he was student of Willem van Nieulandt the Elder, and was recorded in 1598 and 1601 in Rome. Janssens returned to Antwerp from his Italian sojourn around 1602. In the years before Rubens returned to Antwerp at the end of 1608, Janssens established his reputation as a professional artist, became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke, and welcomed countless important commissions. Upon Rubens’ return, an artistic rivalry commenced. Although Rubens would eventually surpass Janssens, masterpieces such as the present painting confirm his prominent position alongside Rubens throughout his career.
The Renaissance masterworks that Janssens encountered during his Italian travels undoubtedly inspired his artistic output. In the present work, one can detect influences of Michelangelo’s prophets and ignudi in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s bearded Heraclitus in his School of Athens. At the same time, Janssens would have encountered countless examples from classical Antiquity, and the distinct outline of the figure in the present work is emblematic of an interest in the sculptural art form that would become a defining element of his compositions. Comparisons can even be drawn between the figure in the present work and the famous Belvedere Torso in the Vatican, a work that also inspired Rubens to complete a number of drawings that he used for later compositions.
During his training abroad, Janssens would have also been aware of the contemporary developments in Italian art, witnessing firsthand the innovations of artists such as the Carracci and Caravaggio, the latter of whom was working in Rome from 1592-1606. Caravaggio’s influence can be seen in the dramatic highlights and shadows cast on Saint Jerome from a light source above as well as in the naturalism of the saint’s bulging veins, dirty toenails, and wrinkled brow. Additional similarities are visible in the present painting and the contemplative and clothed figure in Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness dated circa 1604 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, inv. no. 52-25). In both paintings the artists have placed the saint at the forefront of the picture plane, rendering the composition with a captivating and palpable sense of immediacy.
The portrayal of a contemplative Saint Jerome seated within a darkened interior proved to be a popular compositional prototype for the artist, for it is known in a number of other versions, each with slightly differing dimensions. In addition to the one recently sold in these rooms for $492,500,1 other examples are found in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virgina (inv. no. 71.459)2; The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (inv. no. 731)3; and in Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire.4
1. 190 by 149.5 cm. Anonymous sale, New York, Sotheby's, 25 January 2017, lot 27.
2. 152 by 118 cm., see D. Weller, Saints and Sinners, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and his Dutch and Flemish Followers, exhibition catalogue, 1998, p. 152, cat. no. 26, reproduced.
3. 181 by 141 cm., ibid., p. 154, reproduced fig. 1.
4. 176.5 by 141 cm., reproduced on a photo card in the Witt Library.
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