Oil on monoxyl oak panel
31.5x26 cm (62.5x57 cm framed)
Partially erased signature in the lower right corner (at the foot of the bas-relief)
Old inventory numbers and wax seal of the Austrian imperial administration (customs?) on the back
Italian blackened wood frame from the end of the 17th century
This painting of a murky sensuality by Johann Franz Meskens represents the terrible moment when Lucretia is about to kill herself. It bears witness to the persistence of the Baroque taste in the first third of the 18th century in Antwerp and in the German princely courts. The tragedy of this situation is wonderfully rendered by the chiaroscuro of the room, from which the pearly and partially naked body of our heroine stands out.
1. Johann Franz Meskens, a Flemish painter under the influence of Herman van der Mijn
Johann Franz Meskens, sometimes also called Frans Meskens, is a Flemish painter about whom we have very little biographical information. He is mentioned as a master belonging to the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp between September 1725 and September 1728. In 1731 he entered the service of Cardinal Damian Hugo Philipp Count of Schönborn as a court painter and agent for his artistic purchases in Antwerp.
Damian Hugo Philipp of Schönborn (1676 - 1743) was appointed Cardinal in 1713 and Prince-Bishop of Speyer, one of the smallest principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1719. He resided in Bruchsal (a small town in the present-day district of Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg), where he had a large baroque castle built from 1722 onwards by Balthazar Neumann (1687 - 1753).
The recent appearance of another painting by Meskens at a public auction has enabled us to confirm this attribution. This panel, of similar dimensions (31 x 30 cm), represents a sleeping nymph surprised by a faun. It is signed and dated (lower left) 1721.
A collection record by Cornelis Hofstede de Groote, dated 1926, mentions another panel by Meskens, signed and dated 1720, with very similar dimensions to our panel (31x25 cm). It depicts Cleopatra killing herself. It is quite possible that these two panels originally formed a pair; the existence of this Cleopatra is certainly a good indication for the dating of our painting.
The influence of Adrian van der Werff (1659 - 1722) and the Feinmaler of the Leiden school - in particular Willem van Mieris (1662 - 1747) - is very clear in these two paintings by Meskens, and more specifically in the meticulous description of fabrics and drapery.
However, it is also interesting to compare these two panels with some mythological works of Herman van der Mijn (Amsterdam 1684 - London 1741).
Trained by the flower painter Ernst Stuven (1657 - 1712), Van der Mijn became a master at the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp in 1712, some ten years before Meskens. In 1713 he moved to Düsseldorf as a court painter to the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II, where he remained until 1716. After starting out as a flower painter, he took up history painting during his stay in Düsseldorf.
The painting representing Venus and Ceres, which has been recently sold at an auction, is very similar to our panel: it depicts a female figure, in an oblique position, generously denuded, in a richly decorated interior framed by draperies.
2. Description of the work
Lucretia is a legendary figure in Roman history whose life has been written about by several authors, in particular by Livy. Renowned for her beauty and even more for her virtue, she is the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. She was raped by her husband's first cousin, Sextus Tarquin, who was the youngest son of the King of Rome, Tarquin the Magnificent. After her abuser’s departure, she summoned her father and her husband asking for revenge and committed suicide in front of them, preferring death to dishonour. The story of Lucretia is considered an exemplum (the story of a person whose deeds are worthy of imitation) and since the late Middle Ages Lucretia has often been represented among the Nine Worthies alongside other women of exemplary courage, such as Veturia (the mother of Coriolan) or Virginia. During the Baroque period she is often depicted in pairs with Cleopatra, whose fate she shares.
Lucretia is shown here sitting on her bed, framed by heavy embroidered velvet curtains. In the background of the alcove appears a richly decorated headboard. The whole picture exudes a murky sensuality. With her eyes turned towards the sky, her chest offered to our gaze, Lucretia holds a dagger in her right hand with which she is about to strike herself while her left hand is left open as a sign of an offering. The crumpled carpet at her feet is like a silent witness to the violence that has just been done to her.
The chromatic range of this painting is of great subtlety. Lucretia is richly dressed in a silky white dress and carries a yellow stole whose clarity contrasts with the warm colours that surround her: the red of the carpet, the plum of the curtains and the orange of the alcove’s walls.
To accompany this work, we have chosen an Italian frame from the end of the 17th century in blackened wood which brings out all the chromatic richness.
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