Philips Wouwerman: a New Acquisition
At day’s end, weary travellers stop at a makeshift tavern, chance bringing together a colourful group of men and women. People quench their thirst, greet one another, rest, smoke and sleep. The viewer can savour the rich details of their dress, gestures and character. The scene is set in the artist’s idea of distant Spain, the simple grass hut at left, where people have bedded down for the night, adding local flavour. Dutch painters and patrons had favoured images of everyday life since the 16th century, when artists were producing works that ranged from ethnographic to ribald or crudely comic. By the mid-17th century, the tone became gentler – as in this scene by Philips Wouwerman – observed with a mixture of distance and humour.
Philips Wouwerman (1619–68) was celebrated for scenes of hunting parties, battles, encampments and travellers on the road – all subjects involving horses. These animals were essential to the economy, travel and warfare, and the artist painted them with sensitivity, making them key characters in his scenes. A white horse – such as the one depicted here – is a signature element for the artist. Wouwerman was also a talented landscape painter. In this painting, he deftly sets the mood by placing his travellers under a great arc of darkening clouds, although changes in the blue pigment smalt have altered the effect of the evening sky (see related article by Tasia Bulger).
The painting's verso has accumulated labels, inscriptions and wax seals that document changes in the work's ownership, telling the story of the international art market over the centuries. Its earliest history is unknown, but around 1700 it may have been in the collection of the Duchess of Portsmouth, mistress of King Charles II of Britain, who returned to her native France after the king's death. By 1750, the painting was certainly in Paris, when the young artist Jacques Aliamet made a print after it – part of the wave of French interest in Wouwerman. Painters and collectors valued his deft touch and visual intelligence, seeing his work as an alternate to “official” art and the grand subjects of mythology and religion. Judging from the sheer number of prints made after Wouwerman’s works, he was more popular in France than Rubens or Rembrandt.
In the 18th century, France set the model for European taste, and by around 1800 the painting had found its way to Moscow and the noted collection of Prince Mikhail Petrovich Galitzin. In the 19th century it passed through the art markets of Paris and London – the latter now the centre for much of the art trade – where it was bought by the Bostock family of Surrey, England. Hewitt Bostock immigrated to British Columbia in 1893 and brought the painting with him. He was a businessman, newspaper owner, MP, Speaker of the Senate and diplomat. It descended through his family until it was generously donated to the nation last year. It is the first work by Wouwerman in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
See also the related article by Tasia Bulger. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.