Exhibition: The Painter’s Cabinet - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2012-10-16 • 2013-01-06

The Painter’s Cabinet

Frans Francken the Younger

Room 12

This typical scene shows an artist's classically designed salon, replete with paintings and grand architecture and featuring a large chimney held up by columns of human figures representing Atlas. In front of the chimney stands an Assumption of the Magdalene, accompanied by a fine painting portraying the Abduction of Deidamia. In the foreground, some books, a sphere and the sculpture of a classical head help to distance the characters. At the back, a painting showing The Death of Seneca centres the composition, aided by a Crucifixion and an Adoration of the Magi on either side. In front of the latter, on a mantelpiece, are two sculptured heads, one of an emperor, the other of an athlete.

The signature "D ou F. Franck", on the chest on the table at right, was the one Francken used after the death of his father, Frans Francken the Elder (1544-1618). Although identifying the style as Francken the Younger's is made more difficult by the soft, fluid brushstrokes, some of the characters have the black dab in the eyes that he was so fond of using. The highly individualized face of the artist confirms that this is a portrait, quite possibly of Francken himself, given the resemblance to Van Dyck's portrait, engraved by Pierre Jode.

Rather than being a casual space-filler, the young man in the foreground drawing a head from an ancient sculpture is actually fully symbolic: the apprentices are close to the renowned painters and wrapped up in their learning with their manual labours. The difference between the maestro and the craftsman is thus delineated and, seen from a different angle, this is the image associated with the humanist ideal of the thirst for knowledge.

The young lady posing naked for the artist plays with a red veil. The model teeters on a ball, symbol of the instability of Fortune, which she personifies; the posture also alludes to the uncertain, ever-changing luck of man and quite possibly, in particular, to the artist's own.

On the left-hand side of the composition, the books of engravings illustrate the way they were used and how they also served as thematic inspiration, just as the images portrayed in the paintings are the result of the painter's humanist education. Thus are the crafts and humanist knowledge delimited. The books and the globe are symbols of the fusion of the sciences and the arts. The painter's lavish attire signals prestige.

At the centre, the Death of Seneca, the philosopher who saw life as a preparation for death and disdained human glory, reflects the idea of the banality of earthly things; the motif is repeated in the work Croesus and Solon, hung on the upper part of the chimney. This may well be the painting's general message: everything points to death and human glory, as in Seneca's doctrine, is vain and worthless. These feelings were very much a part of the mindset of the times; in his works, Rubens did much to propagate them.

Text: Matías Díaz Padrón
Royal Academy of Archaeology and History of Belgium

Frans Francken the Younger (Antwerp, 1581–1642)
The Painter's Cabinet, c. 1623
Oil on opanel. 54 x 69 cm
Private collection, Getxo