Frans Snyders’s Leningrad Markets: Provenance and Program Reconsidered or the Revelations of Secret Agent Macky
College Art Association Meeting, Open Session chaired by Professor Mary Garrard
February 1991, Washington, D.C.
The subject of my paper this afternoon is Frans Snyders’s four Markets in Leningrad [St Petersburg], the largest surviving set of market scenes, consisting of a Game Market, a Fruit Market, a Vegetable Market, and a Fish Market (Figs. 1-4). Each canvas measures more than six and a half feet high by over eleven feet long, and each is signed; none are dated, however. Like many Flemish paintings in the Hermitage, the Markets originate from the renowned Walpole collection. Beginning in 1717, Sir Robert Walpole (Fig. 5), England’s first Prime Minister, began to buy art voraciously, and within a mere twenty years, assembled one of the most distinguished private collections in England, which he displayed in London and most importantly at Houghton Hall in Norfolk (Fig. 6). Designs by Walpole’s decorator, William Kent (Fig. 7) drawn between 1727 and 1730, show the hanging of the Markets in the Saloon (Fig. 8); but the plan was not followed, as the diary of the earl of Oxford indicates. On a visit to Houghton in 1732, Oxford notes that the pictures are “oddly put up one above the other” and observes, correctly, as we shall see, that the Markets “were painted to one point of view, and to be even with the eye.” The pictures remained in the Saloon until 1743, when they were moved to a new gallery, whose installation is documented in unpublished drawings, possibly by Horace Walpole (Figs. 9, 10). The younger Walpole appears to have been unaware of the Markets’ provenance, since he fails to mention it in the guide he wrote to his father’s collection. Michel corrects this omission in his 1771 biography of Rubens, where he relates that Antoine Triest (Fig. 11), bishop of Bruges and archbishop of Ghent, commissioned the pictures; later they graced the Brussels’s goldsmith guild hall until purchased by a dealer who sold them in London. This provenance was accepted by John Smith, the nineteenth- century cataloguer of Dutch and Flemish paintings, and, thereafter, became canonical. It is erroneous, hwoever, as new documents prove. These show that the goldsmiths did not own the Markets. And that Triest did not commission the pictures—an absurdity in any case, since a prelate would not have expended the monies of his first ecclesiastical position on a spectacular set of secular paintings with a commercial theme, rather than on altarpieces. The documents in question are two letters written by Robert Walpole’s secret agent John Macky and a 1707 inventory of the contents of the van Ophem—de Villegas hôtel in Brussels.
For more than three decades the Scotsman John Macky acted as a spy for various English governments. When Robert Walpole rose to power under George I he too employed Macky as an agent, but extended his charge to include the acquisition of art. On the lookout for pictures and other treasures that might please his patron, Macky kept Walpole informed about his finds. The letter posted from Brussels on February 5, 1724, refers to the Markets (Fig. 12).
“In one of your letters to Mr. Jaupain you seem to doubt the figures in the markets to be of Rubens, but I can prove by the journals of the family of Vallegas, that the marquis took both Rubens and Snayders into his house in the reigne of phillip the third were they jointly painted these Markets and they never were out of that room until the death of the Comte St pierre 130 year after.”
Some months later Macky again wrote about the Markets, but this time for the public. Dated April 28, 1724, Macky’s second letter appears in his 1725 epistolary travel guide-- A Journey Through the Austrian Netherlands (Fig. 13). Primarily interested in art as merchandise, Macky rarely identifies specific works in this book. The fact, therefore that he mentions the Markets is noteworthy. Evidently he wished to flatter his patron and advertise Sir Robert’s ownership pf the pictures. Macky wrote:
“The Vallegas, Dukes de St Pierre had in their Family for 132 years, four fine Pictures of the markets of Brussels, done by Rubens and Snyders, which cost them at first hand, 4000 Florins, and were the Ornament of this city. The French King offer’d great sums of Money for them, but they are now gone to England, and in the possession of the Right H’onourable Robert Walpole.”
While some information Macky relates is patently false—for instance, that Rubens painted the figures and that the set cost the phenomenal sum of 40,000 florins—much is trustworthy and can be confirmed by other sources. From the letters we learn that Macky purchased the Markets in Brussels from the de Villegas family; that the paintings were completed by 1621, the year of Philip III’s death; and that the pictures remained in the room where they had been installed initially until Macky acquired them. While Macky’s comments would lead one to believe that Snyders’s patron was a member of the de Villegas family, geneaological investigation shows that Jacques van Ophem, and not a de Villegas, built the hôtel and commissioned the Markets (Fig. 14). The de Villegas did not gain possession of the mansion until the early eighteenth century, when it was inherited from the estate of van Ophem’s only heir, his daughter. Shortly after her death on May 9, 1707, an inventory of the hôtel’s contents was made (Fig. 15); an entry proves that the paintings were in this dwelling.
“Four paintings, about 8 or 9 feet high and 14 and 15 feet wide, more or less, painted by Rubens and Snyders. The first represents a man with all kinds of game and poultry, with a dog and a cat. The second represents two women with all kinds of fruit. The third represents two women and a boy with all kinds of vegetables and the fourth represents two men with many different kinds of fish.”
Jacques van Ophem, Snyders’s patron, is a typical noble de robe. Born into the haute bourgeoisie, he aspired, like so many of his contemporaries, elevation to the nobility, an ambition he realized when he was knighted by Philip IV in August 1625. A year later, almost to the day, he purchased the prestigious seigneury of Neder and Over Heembeek, which once belonged to the Aa, an ancient Brabantine noble family, formerly the chatelains of Brussels. Van Ophem’s entry into the noble class was facilitated by his fortune, which he amassed while serving in the government of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, and by the power he wielded at court through influential positions, the most notable being Receiver General of the Domain for the Quarter of Brussels, to which he was named by 1614, and Receiver of Court Works, which he was appointed to in 1618.
In the same year, 1618, Jacques van Ophem began construction on an imposing mansion (Fig. 16) in Brussels on a lot located in an area (Figs. 17, 18) that was being developed just at this time, consisting of orchards and gardens where cabbages and other kitchen vegetables were cultivated. The two-story, three gabled hôtel, with a high tower attached to the garden façade, was oriented along the rue Neuve, a major new thoroughfare, and was diagonally opposite the Finistere Church, known as the Chapelle des Jardins—aux—Choux (Fig. 19). (Perhaps the gargantuan stack of cabbages and other kitchen vegetables in the Vegetable Market alludes to this location [Fig. 20].) Although the mansion no longer exists—currently the site is occupied by the department store Innovation (Fig. 21)—the layout of the interior is deducible from the 1707 inventory.
According to the inventory, the Markets were installed in a second-floor room, that may have been as long as fifty feet fifty, possibly along one wall facing three windows (Figs. 22, 23). On entering the room, the Game Market was the first picture seen, followed by the Fruit Market and the Vegetable Market; the Fish Market was at the far end of the room. While the inventory does not specify the chamber’s functions, these can be inferred, nevertheless, from its size, décor, and location. Incidentally, a dining room, the type of chamber generally assumed to be the setting for the Market pictures, can be ruled out, since the inventory designates a first--floor room facing the garden as the eetcamer. Because of its imposing dimensions, the chamber would have been unsuitable for family gatherings, and its decoration indicates a non-domestic character too. The Markets clearly address a public audience rather than a private one. I suggest, therefore, that the room was a festal chamber on special occasions, while on a daily basis it served as the antechamber to van Ophem’s office, where petitioners, officials, and other visitors waited before being received. As they milled about, we may imagine that the monumental Markets engaged their attention and invited lively discussion about the various fishes, game, and produce shown, as well as the behavior of the stallkeepers and their clients and the actions of the household animals. But while the pictures doubtlessly entertained the assembly and even gave ethical and scientific instruction, visitors would have recognized that more serious motives lay at the heart of the commission. On the one hand, they would have understood that the pictures celebrated the benevolence and wisdom of the archdukes by showing the new prosperity their governance brought to the Spanish Netherlands, and, on the other hand, they would have realized that van Ophem was using the Markets to promote himself. First, the dimensions of the set indicated his considerable fortune and his social ambition; as a rule, only the great nobility had apartments spacious enough for large-scale paintings, and even then they might be unable to accommodate certain pieces. Archduke Albert, for instance, declined Rubens’s Wolf and Fox Hunt (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (Fig. 24) because the palace in Brussels was unable to accommodate the nearly twelve by eighteen-- foot canvas, or so it was alleged. Second, the pictures’ theme magnified van Ophem’s position in the archducal government by portraying a major source of domainal revenue collected by the Receiver General.
The Receiver General of the Domain for the Quarter of Brussels was the duke of Brabant’s tax collector for Brussels and its environs. The responsibilities of this office were complex and demanding and included presiding over the powerful twelve-judge court known as the Chambre du Tonlieu, policing royal thoroughfares and waterways, regulating windmills, collecting inheritance and property taxes, and finally, among the most lucrative of levies, collecting rents for the use of food stalls, which were the property of the duke of Brabant, and, therefore, of the Archdukes, who held the ducal title. Given this fact, van Ophem’s selection of a set of market scenes, even though such sets were no longer in vogue in the second decade of the seventeenth century, becomes intelligible. And now we understand why Macky identified the pictures as “the markets of Brussels” despite the fact that the city’s landmarks are not portrayed.
After Jacques van Ophem’s death, the association between the pictures and the office of Receiver General for Brussels continued; apparently the Markets confered a quasi—official status on the mansion, as shown by the fact that Peter Paul Rubens’s grandson, Jean-Nicolas Rubens, who also held the office of Receiver General, rented the hôtel from van Ophem’s daughter.
Jacques van Ophem made his fortune and rose to power during the Twelve Years Truce, which took effect in 1609. The ensuing peace markedly improved the economic conditions in the south Netherlands, which had been severely damaged by the long war between Spain and the Low Countries: population increased, taxes were lowered, and foreign trade resumed. Older industries revived, and new ones, which were aimed at an international market, were promoted by the archdukes and subsidized by the state, in keeping with the archdukes’s policy of “economic nationalism.” Agriculture rallied, too; indeed, it flourished in Brabant and Flanders, where local farming practices became the model for rational agronomy. As Geoffrey Parker has stated, a “new” ‘south Netherlands identity’ was born under the archdukes and above all during the Truce.” This identity was fostered by the archdukes, who sought to establish a viable state, actually a monarchy, independent of Spain. Although Albert failed to obtain the crown he desired, the archdukes’ success as rulers was evident throughout their lands, and is alluded to in Snyders’s Markets.
The Fish Market (Fig.25) for instance, shows the favorable effect of the Truce on the south Netherlands fishing industry. Localized in Antwerp, as indicted by the Bakers’ Tower, the stall is loaded with a prodigious quantity of fish, including numerous salt-water fish, an item that was readily available in the south only after the Truce was signed, when southerners gained access again to the ocean and the rich fisheries in Zeeland and Brabant. That Antwerp, rather than Brussels is portrayed suggests that van Ophem intended an inclusive program, coveing all Brabant and proably the other southern provinces as well. Moreover, since Antwerp was the main supplier of fish for the south Netherlands, and since it had the largest salt-water fish market, seventy-five stalls, as compared to ten in Brussels, and since these stalls were owned by the archdukes, as in Brussels, localizing the scene in Antwerp intensified the picture’s import.
The Game Market and the produce Markets also illustrate the social and economic benefits of the Truce. The Game Market (Fig. 26) indicates, first, the restoration of the peacetime sport of hunting. Second, it shows that peace has renewed the game preserves, which years of warfare had depleted. And third, it shows that the bourgeoisie, as well as the nobility, could obtain game legally by virtue of the archdukes’ 1613 hunting placard, which regulated the sale of game. Although game is associated with the nobility, in Brabant, non-nobles, including butchers, had hunting rights, too. The Brussels guild jealously guarded this prerogative and maintained a pack of hounds, two of which appear in the Market scene. As for the Fruit and Vegetable Markets (Figs. 27, 28), the connection with peace is obvious, since fruit and vegetables traditionally are associated with Abundance, the companion of Peace. Forming the center of the set, the produce Markets emphasize the primacy of land to the south Netherlands economy, and, indirectly, they celebrate the social order of the region, where the nobility and the church were the foremost owners of rural property, rather than the urban patrician and middle classes, as was the case in the Dutch republic.
Like the altarpieces Rubens painted in the service of the Counter-Reformation, Snyders’s Markets are propagandistic too; they exalt the reign of the archdukes by showing a realm whose rulers’ wisdom and benevolence foster a flourishing economy, and, at the same time, the intimate the part van Ophem played in establishing regional prosperity. Essentially, then, the Markets represent the time-honored theme of peace as the origin of plenty, a popular subject of baroque political allegory. Snyders’s genius transformed the general into the specific and gave it sensuous vitality in an unforgetable encyclopedia of nature’s plentude. No wonder Robert Walpole accorded the Markets a privileged position in his collection. He, too, evidently understood the political messages embedded in these remarkable paintings.