Describing a painting seen on the British Antiques show, my co-worker Marsha reminded me of a conversation we had about masters of candlelight painting, and of Godfried Schalcken in particular. Years ago I saw one of his paintings in, I believe, the Louvre. It was a small evening scene of men wearing big black Dutch hats, all seated around a dining table. The candlelight made this jovial scene at once mysterious and inviting, especially as the viewer is greeted to the backs of the sitters, with the candlelight between them and the other side of the table of forward facing diners. The title, scribbled on a piece of scrap paper is long gone, and I’ve been searching for an image of it ever since.
Our library catalog has only three Schalcken titles, the third one listed as, “a catalogue raisonne of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French painters.” Published by John Smith between 1829 and1842 with one supplement, it lists all the artists on the title page and indeed Schalcken is one. Intrigued, I checked volume four and found 107 paintings listed. Even better, the Schalcken index at the end divides his work into candle and lamp-light subjects and compositions- various.
Of Schalcken, student of Rembrandt’s friend Gerrit Dou, the author writes, "…that he spared neither labour nor study to attain the utmost perfection in his candle-light subjects, is evinced by the method he is said to have pursued when painting them. Having placed his model, from which he intended to paint, in its proper position, and suitably illumined it with either a candle, or a lamp, in a darkened room, he looked through an aperture in the wainscot, and thus performed his work in an adjoining apartment."
The entries in Smith’s CR are numbered and titled. A brief description follows, but for the more complicated compositions, there is incredible detail, even facial expressions are nuanced, “57. A Group, composed of two women and a man, assemble round a table, formed of a board placed on the top of a cask; one of the former, a pretty young girl, is in the act of putting a pipe to her lip, while the other, who is evidently intended for her mother, appears to be much displeased: various accessories add to the interest and beauty of this capital picture.”
Measurements, provenance and present owner are included. If known, auction prices, exhibition history and engravers of the work are noted as well. Turning to the introduction, I find myself completely captivated by his rants against imprudent picture cleaners and his warnings to picture collectors of not becoming victims of knavery. Smith gives our reader examples of collecting dangers, copies being pushed as great paintings by fraudulent charlatans and the evils of taking in misattributed art as debt payment. Whew!
So it comes as no surprise to find that Smith’s CR is the basis for Hofstede de Groot’s famous catalogue raisonne of Dutch painters, who then matches the entry numbers for the two works. So, what’s my point here? Check out all your leads, and don’t neglect those dusty volumes on the reference shelf – you might be saved from unscrupulous picture dealers! And, I’m still reading those entries in search of big black hats.