Signed and dated 1618, Cornelis de Beer’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene is probably the first painting of his Spanish career. While there are many references to this forgotten artist in the Spanish archives after his move to Madrid that same year, virtually nothing is known of his training and his beginnings in his native Utrecht, apart from his date of birth, discovered in 2010, and the names of his putative masters, Abraham Bloemaert and Joachim Wtewael. While this Saint Sebastian attests to a familiarity with Caravaggism, the number of known works prior to his Madrid period is so small that we cannot assume that at some point he went to Rome, where, like Gerard Seghers, he may have made contact with the Iberian community and decided to seek his fortune in Spain.
In contrast with Seghers, the business strategy de Beer adopted in Madrid carries no implications of aristocratic patronage. While Don Bartolomé de Anaya Villanueva, a royal secretary, rented him a house, he had no known support at Court and his various activities suggest, rather, an independent career: he was also a painting expert and a publisher of prints. Documented from 1627 to 1642, his work as an expert saw him appraising the collections of eminent figures for post-mortem inventories – a sign of both professional and social recognition. His services were called upon by the families of court physician Don Antonio Ponce de Santa Cruz (1638), Flavio Ati, ambassador of the duke of Parma (1639) and Don Juan Carlos Schönburg, ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire (1640). At the same time he was selling prints, for the most part devotional, acquired through his connections with Spanish and Flemish engravers like Juan de Noort, Pedro Rodríguez and Pedro Perret, and with his daughter Maria Eugenia de Beer, a pupil of Perret.
The time spent in Murcia, around 1640–1645, seems to have been more favourable to the practice of his art. If The Triumph of the Sacrament he painted for the church of the Capuchin monastery in Murcia in 1648, later praised by Ceán Bermúdez for its “fresh, joyful colours and fine imitation of nature” is now lost, the church of San Patricio de Lorca is still home to a cycle comprising The Sacrifice of Isaac, The Death of Abel, God Blessing Noah and His Children, The Temptation of Job and David and the Three Days of Plague in Israel; however, the lack of good quality reproductions makes any evaluation of these works impossible.
The names of de Beer’s two supposed masters find echoes in Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene: the cramped posture of the body, Irene’s extravagant headdress and the coloured highlights on the tree trunk are residual traces of Wtewael’s Mannerism, while the naturalistic rendering of the body betrays the Caravaggist lesson learnt from Bloemaert. It is equally tempting to see an analogy with a later work (1635) of the same title by the Lombard painter Francesco Cairo (1607–1665), now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours. The angle of the head and the outline of the body, identical in both cases, make us wonder if Cairo had not, in his youth, come upon the de Beer painting and been influenced in the composing of his own, Tenebrist-inflected version; this similarity would argue in favour of a stay in Italy by the Utrecht painter, a hypothesis justifiable in the light of our ignorance of the itinerary of his Saint Sebastian. On the other hand this theory presupposes the execution of the work immediately prior to the painter’s move to Madrid. A second copy of the composition, unsigned and undated but most likely autograph, is to be found in the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.