Never mind the top lots in this week’s Old Master sales in London -- at Christie’s, Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ commanding Portrait of a Commander Armed for Battle, which sold for £9,001,250 ($13,663,898), and Georg Pencz’ imposing Portrait of Sigismund Baldinger, which went for £5,641,250 ($8,563,418), and at Sotheby’s, J.M.W. Turner’s Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino, which was knocked down for £29,721,250 ($45,158,050), over a high estimate of £15 million, a new record, to the Getty Museum, no less.
To this observer, the most notable picture of the week is the Allegory of Man’s Choice between Virtue and Vice by the 17th-century Flemish painter Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642) at Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd., in London. Offered at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house on Apr. 28, 2010, where it was estimated at €400,000-€500,000 ($538,749-$673,436), Van Haeften paid a record price of €7,022,300 ($9,458,152), underbid by the New York dealers French & Co.
Remarkably, Van Haeften never saw the picture in person before he bought it, since his pre-sale flight to Vienna was cancelled by Icelandic volcano smoke. He bid solely on the evidence of high-resolution internet images. Old Master collectors and curators are fairly jaded by reports of high prices -- people expect multiplies of millions for a Rubens or Turner -- but when Van Haeften’s purchase was reported, the reaction was pretty universal: "You’re kidding, right? For a Frans Francken the Younger?!"
It’s easy to see why. In the annals of 17th-century Flemish painting, dominated by the muscular baroque monumentality of Rubens and the pearly, courtly elegance of Anthony van Dyck, Frans Francken seems like pretty small potatoes. His pictures typically reside in the storerooms of the many European museums that possess his works, and he rarely makes it into the big surveys. He was excluded, for instance, from "The Age of Rubens," Peter Sutton’s monumental 1993 survey exhibition of 17th-century Antwerp painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Francken is, however, briefly discussed in the catalogue).
Franken was a specialist in small, cabinet pictures on panel or copper, his style adhering to a rather mild, conservative, even retardataire mannerism. His palette is always bright and colorful, figures softly modeled and pale with rather blank faces dotted with shoe-button eyes. Though this pleasing formula made no mark to speak of in art history, it did make Frans Franken exceedingly popular and respected. The most distinguished member of a family dynasty of painters (much like the Brueghels), he headed a productive and prolific workshop, which under the auspices of his sons, remained active till the end of the century.
A key to the long success of Francken & Co. was their versatility. Religious pictures? Sexy mythological pictures? Take your pick. You want a still-life? Sure. You want little panels to put into an ebonized cabinet? No problem. You need someone to put some figures in that landscape you’re working on? Be right over. (You need a portrait done? Call van Dyck. If he’s too busy, go see de Vos.)
It is believed that Francken was originator of the "gallery" picture, depicting imaginary interiors hung with ancient and famous paintings and works of art. This genre became something of an Antwerp specialty picked up by other artists, reaching an apogee later in the 17th century in the works of Willem van Haecht and David Teniers the Younger.
Over 600 paintings by Frans Franken and his studio survive and his works have long been plentiful and relatively inexpensive. In the 1960s and 1970s, his works could have been bought for a few hundred pounds or a few thousand dollars each. The previous record price of $2,210,000, paid at Christie’s New York this past January for a set of four Allegorical Depictions of the Four Elements (Air, Fire, Water and Earth), owed more to the fact that the ever-popular Jan Brueghel the Younger supplied 90 percent of each picture -- the flowers, birds, still-life elements and landscape backgrounds -- while Franken just painted the central female nude and putti.
For Franken solo, the record was £826,500 ($1,331,900) for A Picture Gallery with a Man with a Globe (est. £100,000-£150,000) at Christie’s London in 1999, followed by an unusually pretty Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite on copper sold at Laurin, Guilloux and Buffetard in Paris in June 1999 for FF 3 million ($474,901). The more workaday Francken can be had for between $100,000 and $300,000, and sometimes for much less: a small Picture Gallery was sold at Koller in Zurich in March 2010 for CHF 36,000 ($33,614).
But as Van Haeften’s Allegory demonstrates, sometimes a second-tier painter can surpass himself, creating a masterpiece in a way nobody would have previously thought possible.
Nothing is known of its earliest history, first cited only in the 1817 inventory of Count Sierstorpff, Westphalia, as a gift from the City of Antwerp to his great-uncle, Pieter Joseph von Francken-Sieserdorf, Bishop of Antwerp (d. 1727). It was obviously a very important commission for which Francken probably received a written program of instructions from one of Antwerp’s notable humanists.
While undoubtedly loaded with erudite literary references and allusions, the picture’s message is pretty straightforward: "What’s my choice? Naughty or Nice?" The upper two thirds of the picture center around the seated figure of "man" accosted and confronted by an assemblage of figures sacred and secular. On the left a procession of kings, noblemen and the goddess Juno offer him the gifts of nobility and honors, while Hercules and Athena wish to direct his attention to the choir of angels and the Hebrew "Yahweh" in the sky above. To the right, Venus and Cupid attempt to distract him to the fun stuff -- dining with Bacchus and Ceres and joining a nude woman (Helen of Troy?) in bed.
The bottom third of the picture represents the merry parade to hell, and, of course, it’s the most delightful part of the picture. On the left, trumpeters blare the arrival of a crowned monkey on a throne-palanquin, hoisted by fools and followed by putti juggling skulls. On the right shimmying bare-breasted dancing girls with bells on their ankles and floral wreaths in their hands herald the arrival of King Cupid, followed by flower-putti.
Greeting them at the center is a horny Satan, grinning with glee, seated spread-legged on a writhing scaly dragon (good times!). Francken must have especially relished painting him, lavishing him with an exceptional verve and detailing seen nowhere else in the picture -- and indeed, nowhere else in Franckens oeuvre.
The asking price now? A cool $14 million. Crazy? Maybe. But in a bubbling Flemish Old Master market where prices of $7 million to $10 million (and up) are routine for any number of the multiple versions of peasant subjects by Francken’s fellow townsman Pieter Brueghel the Younger, it makes a certain kind of sense. "What’s My Choice? A picture identical to a dozen or so compositions by a popular third-rate painter -- or the incomparably greatest masterpiece by a neglected second-tier master?"
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.