Karel van Mander on his Deathbed


Pen and brown ink, traces of black chalk, heads heightened with white, harp washed in bluish grey, on white prepared paper
Inv. No. 800

14.2 × 17.7 cm

zur  Biographie

After Hendrick Goltzius, the Antwerp painter Jacques de Gheyn – who also produced drawings and copper engravings – was probably the most important Dutch graphic artist of the generation before Rembrandt. His fame is based in part on a number of designs for engravings, but above all on his studies of nature, which are characterized by extreme precision. On the verso of this particular drawing, the copper engraver Cornelis Ploos van Amstel (to whose renowned collection the sheet belonged in the eighteenth century) noted that de Gheyn had here depicted the painter and art writer Karel van Mander (1548–1606) on his deathbed. Karel van Mander has been called the »Vasari of the North«: in his Schilderboek, published in 1604, he assembled the earliest collection of biographies of Dutch artists; to this day it is a work of fundamental importance for the historiography of art.


De Gheyn has captured two views of the dead man’s gaunt features, clearly indicating the circumstances by including a pillow and a shroud tied at the neck. The pen achieves a modelling effect using parallel lines of varying force, rather in the manner of an engraving, while also exhibiting great sensitivity in the way it creates the impression of skin. A delicate structure of small dots on the eyelids and lips makes the study on the left look more corpse-like than the one on the right. The artist was evidently aiming to render his subject as exactly and faithfully as possible, as is evident in the striking irregularity of the ear, which he is careful to render very precisely in both studies.


The traditional assumption that this is a portrait of Karel van Mander immediately after his death is not absolutely beyond doubt, but it is reinforced by the harp which de Gheyn subsequently added to both studies of the head. The instrument, whose solid reality as an object is further enhanced by a delicate grey wash, lies on the dead man’s chest, just as a cross might be laid there. The harp would have been intended as a reference to van Mander’s achievements as a writer and poet, and may also allude to the collection of hymns he published in 1599 under the title »De gulden harpe«.

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