Eglon van der Neer
(Amsterdam 1635/36 - 1703 Düsseldorf)
Sophonisba with the Poisoned Cup, c.1680-85
Oil on oak panel, 25.2 x 19.4 cm
Signed right centre, on the book V[…] Neer Fc
- Sale Morel, Paris (Lebrun), 19 April 1786, lot 69), 300 livres;
- dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813), Paris;1
- Sale Marquis de Montesquiou (property of Lebrun), Paris (Lebrun), 9 December 1788, lot 159, 100,1 livres;2
- Sale Marquess of Linlithgow et al. (anon.), London (Christie’s), 18 June 1954, lot 71, as by Caspar Netscher (‘A Lady as the Magdalen’), £105;
- Vas Dias.
Peter Hecht, De Hollandse fijnschilders: Van Gerard Dou tot Adriaen van der Werff, exhib. cat. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum 1989, pp. 144-145, repr. fig. 28c;
Eddy Schavemaker, Eglon van der Neer (1635/36-1703): his life and his work, Doornspijk 2010, p. 477, no. 64, repr.
Sold various times in the eighteenth century as a representation of the ancient Queen Artemisia about to down a goblet containing the ashes of her beloved husband Mausolus, our painting is more likely to represent Sophonisba.3 The Carthaginian noblewoman lived at the end of the third century BC and was the daughter of the army general Hasdrubal Gisco Gisconis who played a leading role in Second Punic War. The most common source for Sophonisba’s love affair with the Numidian Masinissa, which was cut short by a tragic fate, is Livy, Ad urbe condita, bk. XXX, ch. 15. Sophonisba was initially betrothed to Masinissa. But her father married her off to King Syphax of Numidia to seek support against the Romans as soon Masinissa had defected to the latter. Syphax was defeated in battle and handed over to the Roman commander Scipio. Masinissa then promised Sophonisba that he would not allow her fall into Roman hands. Scipio, however, ordered him to break off his relationship with her, so Masinissa sent her a poisoned cup to allow her to meet a dignified end and escape the clutches of Rome. And so Sophonisba drank from the cup and died a heroic death.
Throughout the early modern era countless poets, playwrights, writers and artists were inspired by the tragic romance.4 In The Netherlands the story provided the subject for plays by Govert van der Eembd in 1621 and in 1626 by the artist Willem van Nieuwlandt, whose text was reprinted in 1635 and 1639. A Dutch translation of Livy existed by 1646 but any familiarity with the broader public no doubt would have largely stemmed from a poem in Jacob Cats’ widely-read Trou-ringh (Dordrecht 1637), which emphasized how the Roman victory bleaches in the face of Sophonisba’s virtue. The reworkings in the vernacular spurred a host of artists to take up the theme. The most famous is Rembrandt’s painting of 1634 in the Prado. One of two undated treatments by Nikolaus Knupfer is supposedly directly based on Livy’s Latin text.5 Van der Neer himself had already painted a more elaborate version with full-length figures in 1674, which his pupil Adriaen van der Werff freely copied shortly afterwards.6 Later Dutch artists depicting the subject include Gerard Hoet, Heroman van der Mijn and Matheus Terwesten.
Eglon van der Neer’s small picture of Sophonisba holding the poisoned cup elegantly lifting its lid is symptomatic of the master’s endeavours in the lofty realm of history painting. He was a true master in the rendition of all sorts of precious and gleaming materials and selected themes suited to displaying this talent. In our picture, the drama is relegated to the background, where we see a weeping lady-in-waiting and a, perhaps Roman, soldier rushing into the palace. The protagonist’s so-called à la hurluberlu hairstyle, with its wild array of corkscrew curls, was the height of fashion in the early 1680s and commands the viewer’s attention. Prominence is given to the delicately chased cup with a snake twisted around its stem evoking the poisonous nature of the liquid. In sumptuous metalware this type of elegant classicism was all the rage in the 1680s.7 In the 1640s Salomon Koninck represented Sophonisba being offered the poison in Adam van Vianen’s famous and still preserved 1614 auricular jug.8 Van der Neer may, too, have studied an actual specimen but no comparable piece has survived.
Datable to the first half of the 1680s, this gem-like picture was in all probability executed in the cosmopolitan town of Brussels where Van der Neer had settled in 1680. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands, Brussels accommodated a court that attracted foreign envoys and international high nobility. Van der Neer’s individualized Sophonisba may well record the face of an aristocratic lady. It had been long since a popular way of self-promotion to have one’s likeness integrated into the rôle of some exemplary mythological figure, classical deity or personification of some virtue drawn from historical or other tales. Eglon van der Neer treated nearly all genres and also experimented with hybrid formulas like the genre-like portrait and the portrait historié.9 The present panel stems from Van der Neer’s heyday and is comparable to such celebrated works as Judith in the National Gallery, London, which is from the same period.
Eglon van der Neer was the eldest son of the landscape painter Aert van der Neer, who was also his first teacher. Eglon, however, decided to become a figure painter and finished his education with Jacob van Loo. From 1655 to 1658 he was active in the principality of Orange in Southern France at the court of the Governor Friedrich von Dohna. Upon his return in 1658 to Amsterdam he married Maria Wagensvelt, the daughter of a well-to-do notary. By 1663 he had moved to Rotterdam and here became a sought-after painter of refined conversation pieces and portraits. He registered with the artist’s confraternity Pictura in The Hague 1671 without settling here. Van der Neer’s first wife died in 1677 and three years later he moved to Brussels where he married Marie du Chastel, daughter of the painter François du Chastel and a painter herself. In 1687 van der Neer entered the service of Charles II of Spain but remained in the Southern Netherlands. Marie du Chastel died in 1692 and five years later Eglon married again, this time with Adriana Spilberg, another painter and a daughter of the former court painter at the Electoral court at Düsseldorf, Johannes Spilberg. In 1698 Eglon was appointed court painter to Johann Wilhelm the Elector Palatine, a post he held until his death in 1703. During the last years of his career he concentrated on painting extremely detailed landscapes, many of which are preserved in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek.
1‘Artémise tenant l'urne où sont renfermées les cendres de Mausole : elle est vue à mi-corps, coeffée en cheveux bouclés, & découvrant à demi l'urne d'or qu'elle tient dans ses mains: derrirer, & à gauche, on voit une femme en pleurs ; une colonnade & deux autres figures s'apperçoivent dans le fond. Ce Tableau, du plus beau faire de ce Maître, est aussi d'une couleur & d'une harmonie rare. Hauteur 9 pouces, largeur 7 pouces. B[ois]’.
2 ‘Arthemise découvrant le vase d'or dans lequel sont renfermées les cendres de Mauzole son mari, elle est ajustée de perles & de riches vêtemens; Le fond offre l'intérieur du tombeau, où l'on voit deux soldats & une femme éplorés. Ce Tableau est du plus fin de ce Maître.’
3 As argued by Peter Hecht, see under literature.
4 For a survey of treatments by artists see: A. Pigler, Barockthemen: eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, 2 vols., Berlin 1956, vol. 2, pp. 413-14.
5 For which see J. Saxton, Nicolaus Knupfer: an original artist: monograph and catalogue raisonné of paintings and drawings, Doornspijk 2005, p. 160, no. 70. See for Knupfer’s other painting p. 159, no. 69.
6 For the Van der Neer - present whereabouts unknown – and Van der Werff’s copy – Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum - , see Schavemaker 2010, p. 474, nos. 59 and 59.I.
7 With thanks to Dirk Jan Biemond of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and Dr Lorenz Seelig, Munich for their invaluable advice.
8 Van Vianen’s jug is in Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, BK-1976-75. Koninck’s painting is in the USC Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
9 Another potential example of a portrait historié is Schavemaker 2010, p. 457, no. 17. See also in ibid., p. 480, nos. 70, 71, p. 492, no. 98.