Issue Number: 93
With his hunger for success and astute marketing skills, David Teniers the Younger (1610–90) is an artist of the modern age. Born into an extended family of painters and not content with emulating the genre scenes of Jan Brueghel, he also married Brueghel’s daughter Anna, a match that brought him wealth and status as a young artist. Although painted with skill and speed, Teniers’ scenes of peasant weddings and festivals, or ‘kermesse’, are earthy and hark back to the tradition of the previous century. He avoided the grand style of his contemporaries Rubens and Van Dyck, yet he yearned for their worldly success and their close association with the royal families of Europe.
His opportunity came in 1651, when the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm von Habsburg, Governor of the Netherlands, appointed him court painter and curator of the royal collections. Moving to Brussels, Teniers embarked on an ambitious curatorial programme, making copies of works by Titian, Veronese and Raphael. He also delighted in painting imaginary views of the collection displayed in different layouts in the Coudenberg Palace, with the Archduke present, enjoying his possessions and accompanied by his courtiers and spaniels.
The beheading of Charles I and expropriation of the English aristocracy, notably the Duke of Hamilton, brought a windfall for the acquisitive Archduke, and Teniers travelled to London, snapping up gems from the English royal and aristocratic collections as they came on the market. In 1656, the Archduke returned to Austria, bringing with him the bulk of the collection, which had grown to over 1,400 paintings, and forms today the core of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Teniers remained in Brussels, publishing Theatrum Pictorium in 1660, the first printed and illustrated catalogue of an art collection.
This complex story is told in a Courtauld Institute exhibition that includes 25 of Teniers’ copies, two of his gallery interiors, as well as engravings of the Theatrum. A commendable exercise in art history, the exhibition is also a reminder that if things had gone differently for Charles I, some of the finest paintings in the Vienna museum might still be in London today. It is also a chilling reminder that if the Archduke had left his collection in Brussels, the magnificent Titians, Veroneses and Raphaels would have been in the Coudenberg Palace when, in 1731, it was completely destroyed by fire.
David Teniers and the Theatre of Painting, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London (020 7848 2777), until 21 Jan