The painter and graphic artist Jacques (or Jacob) de Gheyn was born in Antwerp in 1565. His father, also called Jacques, was a glass-painter, printmaker, and miniaturist. Jacques Jr. ‘lived in Haarlem between 1585 and 1590, where he trained as a printmaker with Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), the standard-bearer of Dutch Mannerism’ and ‘in Amsterdam from 1590 to 1595, where he consolidated his own career as a printmaker and publisher and trained various disciples,’ foremost of whom was Zacharias Dolendo, who made the print shown in the detail below, Saturn as Melancholy, after a design of de Gheyn’s, ca. 1595/6. Dolendo is said by a contemporary biographer as having ‘drank and danced himself to death;’ de Gheyn, too, is supposed to have led a rather dissolute life while in Amsterdam.
In 1595, Jacques married, and moved to the university city of Leiden, where he developed contacts with such notable figures as the jurist Hugo Grotius, the botanist Carolus Clusius, and the poet and emblematist Daniel Heinsius. During his time in Leiden, de Gheyn gradually turned from printmaking to painting, developing a particular interest in (and aptitude for) painting flowers and animals naer het leven, ‘from the life.’ In 1600 he finished his first still-life painting in oils, and, over the subsequent few years, he produced a remarkable ‘series of nearly two dozen exquisite watercolours of naturalia, now bound in an album housed in the Lugt Collection at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris.’ The following pair of details show two of these watercolours.
The Lugt Album, as it is now known, was purchased in 1604 by ‘Europe’s most renowned collector of natural and artificial wonders,’ the emperor Rudolf II. In these paintings, de Gheyn employed the techniques of miniature painting he had learned from his father. As painstakingly-observed but seemingly ‘unfinished’ compositions, they would seem to form an elaborate ‘model book,’ were it not for their having been set down on costly vellum, and decorated with gold leaf—suggesting that de Gheyn had hoped all along they might catch the eye of a wealthy collector. In style and execution they resemble the miniatures of Hans Bol and Joris Hoefnagel. By the time of the album’s completion and sale, de Gheyn and his family had moved to The Hague, where he was to spend the rest of his life.
My source for these images, by the way, is a book entitled Art, Science and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland, by Claudia Swan. This volume takes as its starting-point the contrast between de Gheyn’s painstaking renderings of naturalia done naer het leven, and the same artist’s drawings and prints of ‘foreboding landscapes, gypsies and witches,’ done nyt den gheest, ‘from the mind or spirit.’ The detail above, of a 1604 drawing entitled Witches in a Cellar, is an example of the latter category. These twin threads in de Gheyn’s work are never seen together, with one particular exception: a fascinating page on which a lifelike study of a hermit crab is juxtaposed with a sketchier group of grotesque figures—the following pair of details show two portions of this one page.
While it could simply be that de Gheyn sketched the crab with the bizarre group just to save paper, Swan suggests a possible (although tenuous) link between them, inasmuch as crabs were often portrayed as symbols of inconstancy and contrariness, and specifically linked by some contemporary writers with witchcraft. One is quoted as explaining that witches ‘turn their backs toward the Demons when they go to worship them, and approach them sideways like a crab.’ More generally, Swan speculates that de Gheyn’s portrayals of witches are partly founded in the belief, then gaining currency in the United Provinces, that these women were the pitiable victims of delusion, rather than malignant agents of the devil.
Beyond his successes as an engraver and a flower-painter (at which he was reckoned by many of his peers as the superior of Jan Bruegel the Elder), de Gheyn also painted historical scenes, and allegorical still lifes. He died in The Hague in 1629. His son—a third Jacques—had become a successful artist in his own right. Even near to his death, de Gheyn was still looking at ways of mirroring nature in paint, and was considering a project to depict, with the aid of a microscope, ‘those smallest objects and insects with a very fine brush,’ intended for compilation in a book to be entitled ‘The New World.’Posted by misteraitch at May 7, 2006 12:30 PM