When first sold at auction in 1833, this painting was identified as an allegory of the education of the young Prince Frederick Henry of Nassau. It was not uncommon to attach the name of an historic figure to such enigmatic scenes, but the young rider does not represent any specific person. He is in the company of Mercury and, more significantly, Mars, symbol of martial prowess and who acts as riding master. They oversee him demonstrating a levade, an exercise in which the horse is made to raise its forelegs and chest, and hold the position. A gathering of figures at the palace entrance, likely the young man’s family, look on. The god Cupid clings to the skirts of the woman, alluding to domestic happiness. At left, a slave stands in attendance with hunting hounds and a parrot, further reinforcing the aristocratic setting.
This allegory is one of four surviving paintings made as models for a series of eight tapestries, now called The Large Horses.1 Jordaens designed these, likely in the mid-1640s, for the merchants Leyniers and Reydams of Brussels. Providing such designs was an important part of Jordaens’ workshop production. The Large Horses celebrates the horse and man’s mastery of it, from its mythological creation to the modern day riding school – appropriate subject matter for aristocratic and noble patrons.
The inspiration, and perhaps the impetus for the set, came from Crispin de Passe’s illustrations to Antoine de Pluvinel’s manual Le maneige royal, published in 1623. Pluvinel had been riding master to Louis XIII, and the images show the king and his contemporaries learning the art of dressage. However, Jordaens was less concerned with the technical aspects of horsemanship. Instead, he celebrated the subject’s inherent pageantry and added mythological elements including the figures of Mars, Mercury and Venus, among others. The tapestries are not part of a narrative cycle; rather they are linked by the recurrent figures of the horse and rider and the ancient gods. The role played by the gods in the individual scenes is unclear, perhaps because they offer nothing more than apposite trappings, glamorizing the cult of horsemanship.2 If there is any larger meaning to be drawn from the set, it is the idea of balance and dominance achieved by the rider’s control of himself, and of the horse.
While not all of the painted models for the eight tapestries survive – if indeed, they were fully worked up in oil – and only one full set of tapestries exists (now in Vienna), we can reconstruct Jordaens’ process to some degree.3 From the painting, the design would have been first transferred to a composite piece of paper of comparable size to the planned tapestry – a cartoon. The simplest means of doing this was by “squaring up,” a process by which a grid of squares would be superimposed over the painting, with correspondingly enlarged squares drawn on the cartoon. The squares provided a reference grid, allowing forms to be accurately mapped from painting to paper. There is no evidence of the means of squaring left on the Ottawa canvas. On two panels made by Rubens as models for tapestries (Life of Achilles, Courtauld Institute), a series of equidistant notches were cut into all four sides to allow for a lattice of strings to be accurately strung and held in place. Such a solution would have been obvious, and – with modifications appropriate to the support – could have been used here. The drawn cartoon would then be coloured; Jordaens favoured water- and body-colour. Changes or corrections could be made at this stage.4 In the case of the Ottawa painting, the rider is a young man, perhaps in his teens, while the tapestry shows a different, older man. As the head is taken from another work by Jordaens, also on the subject of horsemanship, we can assume a close connection with the artist in this particular case – even if the change partly upsets the narrative: the figures in the background can no longer be the rider’s parents.5
The cartoon would have then been given to the tapestry merchants who had commissioned it. Tapestries are woven on a loom strung with threads running in only one direction, under which the cartoon is placed. The weaver follows the design, using coloured threads to form the image. The threads are knotted on to what will become the back of the tapestry, so that the cartoon image is ultimately reversed. Due to loom sizes, the tapestries are woven in sections, and a cartoon may be cut, rolled or folded accordingly. As this could damage a valuable component of the tapestry merchant’s stock, a substitute cartoon, made from the first, is sometimes used. The painted model and the sole surviving tapestry correspond closely, but not exactly; there appear to be slight changes in the relative scale and positioning of figures and groups – which might well be accidental. A comparison of another painted model from the series to its tapestry, however, shows distinct changes in the scale of the horse and rider that can attributed to either Jordaens’ rethinking of scale for the primary cartoon, or through an intermediate cartoon used in the process.6 In this work, the same tapestry crops the image and eliminates a building. The tapestry after the Ottawa painting similarly removes the slave, parrot and dogs (illus. 1).
The business of tapestry making clearly involved collaboration between the designers and makers, with an added complication that weaving might wait for a buyer or could be made on speculation. In the case of the Large Horses, the documentary evidence suggests the designs were commissioned from Jordaens on speculation, but that the weavings – certainly the Vienna set – were not commenced until there was a buyer.7
Unavoidably, there is need to adapt the original design to the tapestry medium, and the result is interpretative: colour, the coarseness of the weave, and which details to capture or ignore from the cartoon, as well as if and how to crop, edit or simplify. Merchants would also make significant revisions to cartoons. In the case of the Large Horses, they commissioned Jordaens to design new compositions on the subject of horsemanship, but also adapted – likely with his help – an earlier set of cartoons that copied the illustrations from Pluvinel’s Maneige royal, known as the Small Horses. When weaving a set, the tapestry makers selected from both sets of cartoons; they also created hybrids, drawing on motifs from both sets.8
Jordaens was fully aware of the commercial imperative that drove tapestry production and must have known his designs could be altered. Interestingly, in the Ottawa painting, the composition is designed in such a way that if it were to be cropped, the choice must have seemed inevitable: cutting off the figure of slave, it still remains balanced, and the central mass moves from the horse to the head of the rider, a focus reinforced by the diagonals of the architecture. Other pictures in the series show similar strategies. Arguably, they reveal Jordaens’ sophisticated understanding of the tapestry medium – creating designs that permit changes to be made, and possibly even directing these changes through compositional devices. Whatever the case, the extant weavings reveal how the tapestry makers interpreted and adapted Jordaens’ rhythmic, decorative designs, in which the elimination of one part did not disrupt the whole.
Thus far, we have considered the Ottawa painting as a model for tapestry production, and, indeed, it could have been made as a presentation piece to the commissioners. Not all the tapestries in the series have a surviving painted model, and of course, Jordaens did not need to produce such models – cartoons could have been based on detailed drawings, avoiding the time-consuming process of painting in oil. The Ottawa painting was clearly intended to have an independent life once it had served its function as a model. Other paintings made for the same series are of different dimensions, and one is a workshop piece9: the only conclusion we can draw firmly from this is that the paintings were never intended to be sold afterwards as a set. The Levade is ultimately an independent painting.
Although painted sensitively, The Levade is also controlled and precise. There are few adjustments or pentiments, and it must have been planned carefully. Jordaens would have depended upon detailed preparatory studies, as was his usual practice. As such, the underdrawing is correspondingly neat, and was followed closely in the painting. Only in the grouping of the slave and the dogs does the underdrawing show greater freedom: the line looser, the contours shifting as it was drawn freehand. (This is visible to the naked eye in the thinly painted dog at left.) It is interesting to note that this section, which Jordaens cannot have planned so fully in the preparatory stage, was later eliminated in its surviving tapestry. This group may have been argued to be a decorative embellishment, extraneous to the central theme, placed there to balance Mars and Mercury and to frame the young rider. As he worked toward balancing the composition, Jordaens deviated only once from the underdrawing: the young rider’s hat was enlarged, giving this focal point greater visual weight. This kind of change could easily follow from developing ideas worked out on smaller drawings.
Proof that Jordaens intended the painting as an independent work is offered by the use of the pigment ultramarine as an admixture in the sky and Mercury’s robe, and in the original painting of Mars’ armour – a unnecessary expense for a model. More than this, he returned to the painting after completing the cartoon, inserting a golden statue of Neptune over a fully-painted column in the portico, as seen in the tapestry. Mars’ armour, previously a stronger blue, was tempered by a duller green scumble, likely due to his proximity to the strong, warm lead tin yellow of the newly inserted statue. Jordaens also embellished the painting visually: Neptune, who appears in another scene in the series, was the creator of the horse, and this additional mythological reference makes the painting more complex and intellectually satisfying.
When the painting was purchased at auction in 1965, it came with a 19th-century glue paste lining and stretcher. Stephen Rees Jones, who examined the work before the auction, noted that the painting had been restored and appeared to be in favourable condition. A note in the curatorial file suggests that it was cleaned for the 1956 Bruges exhibition. No work has been done on it since.
The painting’s framing history is of interest: at the time of purchase, it had a simple, early 19th-century English frame with press-moulded decoration, appropriate for the date it was bought by Lord Northwick, but in fact cut down from a larger dimension. The Gallery reframed it in a 19th-century imitation of a 17th-century frame when it was purchased in 1965. Repenting this in 1984, it was reframed in a heavily modified mid 1660s Dutch Lutma-type.
Christian Johannes Nieuwenhuys (1799–1883); his sale, Christie’s, London, 10 May and following 1833, (this lot 10 May), lot no. 31, Jordaens, “An Allegorical Subject,” described as showing Prince Frederick Henry of Nassau on horseback; bought £10.10 by Dunford for John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick (1769–1859); by descent to Edward George Spencer-Churchill (1876–1964); his sale, Christie’s, London 28 May 1965, lot no. 45, Jordaens, “An Allegory of the Education of a Young Prince”; bought 65,000 guineas by the Gallery through Agnew, London.
1 Nelson 1998 is the essential reference. Hefford 2003 offers a significant different re-interpretation of this material, and argues that the paintings date to the early 1630s.
2 Held 1949 argued for astrological symbolism: the gods/planets Mars and Mercury are associated with different horse temperaments. Nelson 1998, p. 41, drawing on contemporary material on horsemanship, sees the references as more general, “courtly,” and easily intelligible; for instance, Mars represents courage.
3 Nelson 1998, pp. 40–41 analyzes the Vienna set, and notes that three of them – smaller tapestries showing the horse and rider accompanied by Mars in landscape backgrounds – are effectively taken, with some modifications, from the so-called Small Horses, a set of tapestries based closely on the illustrations to Pluvinel’s Maneige royal. Jordaens would not have had to make painted models for these – indeed, if he was deeply involved with their creation. Also see Nelson 1985–86 for a discussion of Jordeans’ approaches to design for tapestry.
4 Nelson 1985–86 p. 221 for an example of Jordaens making alterations at the cartoon stage, in this case re-introducing a motif present in the first preparatory drawing.
5 A Cavalier on a Horse Executing the Levade, Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. See Nelson 1998, pp. 131–132 on the relationship.
6 A Levade Performed Under the Auspices of Mars and in the Presence of Mercury, Venus and a Riding Master (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten).
7 It is unclear who commissioned the Vienna set, which was bought in 1666 through a Vienna-based dealer for the occasion of the marriage of the Emperor Leopold I. Given the cost of the gold and silver thread used in this set, the weavers are unlikely to have made it on speculation.
8See Nelson 1989, p. 42, who notes that each set of tapestries on horsemanship differs due to this practice. Hefford 2003, while agreeing as to the role of the tapestry merchants in driving this process, argues for a very different interpretation of the surviving material.
9 The work titled A Levade Performed under the Auspices of Mars and in the Presence of Mercury, Venus and a Riding Master, see note 6.