According to Grosshans, in 1969 the not-quite-nonagenarian art dealer Hans Wendland confessed to the then-owner of the Virgin and Child that he had split it from a double-sided panel that originally bore a Man of Sorrows on the other side and sold both to him separately as the work of two different hands. The latter was sold at Sotheby's in 2017.1 The story is probably apocryphal, however, and it is unlikely that such a division took place, not least because of the lack of evidence that the two paintings once shared the same support. Moreover, the works differ considerably in style – one most likely painted before, and the other after, the artist's trip to Italy (1532–36). Wendland probably confused the pictures with another pair of the same subject.2 In Prof. Dr Ilya Veldman’s opinion, the Virgin and Child predates Heemskerck’s Italian trip and so is datable to 1532 or before. The date on the cartellino is probably a later addition, perhaps strengthening numerals originally inscribed on the work. Veldman considers the Man of Sorrows to have been painted a few years later, dating it to around 1538 (and not to the second half of the 1520s, as Grosshans argued).3 We are grateful to Prof. Dr Veldman for her comments.
In this painting the Virgin’s solemn gaze, directed towards the grapes, alludes to Christ’s future sacrifice, while the unadorned setting heightens the figures’ physical presence, brought into sharp focus by details such as the vine’s tendrils that echo the Christ Child’s blond curls, the pleats of the Virgin’s chemise and the ribbons in her hair. Heemskerck’s unconventional treatment of the subject derives its meaning from the inventive still-life element of the bunch of grapes in the Virgin’s outstretched hand. The grapes, symbol of the eucharistic wine – the blood of Christ – are the counterpart to the body of Christ, boldly expressed in the Child’s muscular figure.
Heemskerck’s imaginative variations on the subject of the Virgin and Child are a recurring theme in his work. Before leaving for Italy, the artist presented the Guild of Saint Luke with his now celebrated work Saint Luke painting the Virgin, completed on 23 May 1532, and housed today at the Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem (fig. 1).4 In that large picture Saint Luke is at work on an image that is a variation on the Virgin and Child under discussion, a painting that bears a marked resemblance in format and facial types to the Haarlem panel. Close comparisons may also be made with two other paintings by Heemskerck of Marian subjects. The first, with figures similarly posed but placed in a landscape setting, is The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, dated by Grosshans to about 1529–30, in which the graceful oval of the Virgin’s face, the arrangement of her braided hair and the muscular anatomy of the ruddy-cheeked Christ Child offer close analogies with this painting (Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC).5 The other comparable work is Virgin and Child in a landscape, dated 1530, last recorded in the Clavel collection in Basel.6 This arresting painting displays qualities common to all three.
1 Oil on canvas, 91 x 77.3 cm.; Sotheby's, London, 6 December 2017, lot 33; see I.M. Veldman, Maarten van Heemskerck and Dutch humanism in the sixteenth century, Maarssen 1977, pp. 26–27, fig. 7; and Grosshans 1980, no. 1, fig. 1.
2 Recorded on a list of Wendland's works, 'Aufstellung der als Raubgut verdächtigen Vermoegenswerte von Dr. Wendland’.
3 In the opinion of Prof. Dr. Veldman, the existing date on the Man of Sorrows (MDXXV) is unreliable because the inscription has undergone restoration, the lines of text are incomplete, and numerals are probably missing. The signature form supports this: the artist only signed his name ‘Heemskeric’ for a short period in about 1538.
4 Oil on oak panel, 168 x 235 cm.; Grosshans 1980, pp. 109–10, no. 18, plate II, fig. 19.
5 Acc. no. 1961.9.36; oil on panel, 57.7 x 74.7 cm. Grosshans 1980, pp. 96–97, no. 8, fig. 8.
6 Oil on panel, 90 x 70 cm. Grosshans 1980, pp. 97–98, no. 9, fig. 9.
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