('Hey, look here, friends, see what the golden ox benefits from wearing a rosy hat in the streets. Even though he is petted sweetly, it is only for a short time, because alas, behind him follows the butcher with his axe. How stupid are most people; they rush, play and are busy, but they have no sense of what is to come. Therefore listen to this useful lesson, before all vile pursuits, think carefully about your own end, or about the final day.')
Catalogued as by Willem van Herp in the 1849 sale catalogue, and as anonymous when exhibited in 1930, this unusual picture was tentatively ascribed to Jacob Jordaens in 1935, before the great Rubens scholar Julius Held identified it in the 1980s as an early work by Boeckhorst, a painter from Westphalia who trained in Antwerp, moving there circa 1626, and studying with Jacob Jordaens and/or Rubens. Maria Galen noted that the costume of the flautist dated it before 1640, and suggested that it was most likely painted in the second half of the 1630s, circa 1636–38. The subject, a variant of the Vanitas theme, no doubt with origins in folklore, was first codified by Jacob Cats in his book of Emblems entitled Proteus ofte Minne-beelden, verandert in Sinne-Beelden, published in 1627, and illustrated by an engraving designed by Adriaen van de Venne, who supplied many illustrations to Cats. The painting follows Van de Venne's print in reverse: musicians precede the innocent bull garlanded with flowers, followed by the butcher with his axe, the instrument of the bull's intended demise, swung over his shoulder.
Hans Vlieghe first published this picture in 1987 in the context of the so-called Cardiff Cartoons: full-scale tapestry cartoons whose attribution to Rubens, the name under which the National Museum of Wales had acquired them, was widely disputed and is now not generally accepted; he did so in support of his attribution of them to Boeckhorst. Vlieghe preferred a slightly later dating than Galen, assigning it to the 1640s, at the same time as the Cardiff Cartoons.
This picture probably shares the same illustrious provenance since the mid-17th Century, and certainly since the first half of the 19th Century, as the pendant portraits by Jacob Jordaens of Rogier le Witer and Catharina Behagel, and of his mother Magdelena de Cuyper, sold in these Rooms, 12 July 2001, lots 36 and 37, for £2,000,000 and £850,000 respectively, and now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. All three were in the Du Bois sale in 1849, along with a Flight into Egypt by Jordaens still in the possession of the family, in which the Holy Family is preceded by a bullock who regards the viewer with a look of benign and placid innocence, so it is perhaps not surprising that this too came to be thought to be by Jordaens. The exact order of the provenance subsequent to the 1849 sale is not entirely certain: usually Louis du Boi de Caters is given as preceding Th. Bosschaert; but Bosschaert's name is annotated in one of the two surviving copies of the sale catalogue as the buyer.
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