The Golden Age of Man
Frans II Francken was born in Antwerp in 1581. His father, Frans Francken the Elder, was one of the founding fathers of the Francken dynasty of artists, which produced about a dozen painters, including a female artist, Isabella Francken. Frans II, or “the Younger”, was arguably the most talented among them, and definitely the most famous. He undertook several trips to Italy, where he probably first met Rubens. He joined the guild of St. Luke in 1605; in 1614, he became the dean of the guild. He was a member of the Antwerp rhetoric chamber De Violieren, for which he painted – in collaboration with Hendrick van Balen, Jan I Brueghel and Sebastiaen Vrancx – a very fine coat of arms, which is still kept in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Art today.
Francken was a versatile and prolific painter, producing not only – often small-scale – mythological, biblical, historical and allegorical paintings, mostly painted on copper or panel, but also large-scale altar pieces. He was among the first in painting genre pieces with monkeys and was one of the innovators of the genre of the so-called Kunstkamer paintings, depicting artistic and natural treasures in a collector’s gallery. He is also known to have produced small panel paintings as decorations for cabinets, a piece of furniture for which the Antwerp workshops were well-known. Francken often collaborated with other artists, painting the staffage in their landscapes (e.g. with Abraham Govaerts), church interiors (e.g. Pieter Neeffs) or flower still lifes (e.g. Andries Daniels). It could also be the case in the present painting: it has been suggested that the landscape was done by an artist from the circle of Jan I Brueghel.
The present painting, according to Dr. Ursula Härting, who wrote the catalogue raisonné on Francken, must be considered a very early painting by him, executed around 1600, when he was only 18 or 19 years old. Supporting an early executing date for the painting is the fact that the support is a very thick and heavy “hammered” copper plate – in later decades, the copper plates became much thinner. It depicts the Golden Age of Man, a theme from Greek mythology first mentioned in the work of the Greek writer Hesiod. The Golden Age, for the Greeks, represented a long lost era of peace and prosperity, when man did not have to work and lived in harmony with all other creatures. Since the renaissance era artists had rediscovered the story; it was a theme Francken would paint several times. Perhaps this can be seen in the light of the horrible religious wars that ravaged the Low Countries at the time?
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