Three hundred years ago today, the Dutch painter Adriaen van der Werff (1659–1722) died in Rotterdam. In my first article, I traced his rise to success in a selection of his paintings up to 1714, by which time he was rich, successful, and rated more highly than Rembrandt. However, his main patron Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, died in 1716, and his successor couldn’t afford van der Werff’s art.
The same year that he lost that patronage, van der Werff painted The Judgement of Paris (1716), long considered to be among the finest of his works.
Paris sits in judgement over the beauty contest, with the helmeted Mercury behind him. Drawing his attention is Venus, who has her son Cupid in tow behind her, and holds out her right hand to receive the prize. Behind and to the left of Venus is Juno, wearing a circle of gold, but without her distinctive peacocks. At the right is Minerva, wearing her characteristic helmet. The golden apple given as the prize by Eris is in the right hand of Paris, although there’s another fruit resting in the left foreground beside his crook.
Van der Werff sold this painting two years later to Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, when he was Regent of France.
In 1717, he painted God Holds Adam and Eve Responsible, in which the two are held to account for disobeying God’s command forbidding them from eating apples.
The following year saw a return to his earlier pastoral theme, with A Nymph Dancing to a Shepherd’s Flute-Playing (1718). At the left is a cupid, and behind is the watchful eye of a Term.
I also have several undated paintings by van der Werff.
Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a more intimate view of the Holy Family as they rest during their journey, with the infant Jesus fast asleep.
Adam and Eve shows Eve bringing Adam the fateful apple to eat in the Garden of Eden.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman shows the two figures in conversation, as this normally shunned woman from Samaria draws water from the well.
The Entombment of Christ is another standard of religious painting tackled by van der Werff. Once again, his attention to detail in fabrics is obvious.
He also painted the mythological motif of Cupid Kissing Venus.
I suspect that van der Werff painted this florid tribute to his patron early during their relationship, in Liberal Arts Pay Homage to Johann Wilhelm, Palatine of the Rhine, and his Wife.
Adriaen van der Werff died in Rotterdam, the city that he’d worked in for much of his career, on 12 November 1722, three hundred years ago today. For the next century or so, critical opinion held his paintings in higher esteem than those of Rembrandt. Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, owned a total of thirty-four of van der Werff’s paintings, which he kept in the room next to his collection of Rembrandts. However, in the nineteenth century van der Werff’s paintings fell out of favour, and galleries across Europe moved them into storage. His reputation hasn’t recovered since.
I do have one last painting by him, a piece of art history, as it’s thought to be the oldest surviving oil painting in which the synthetic pigment Prussian blue was used. No one knows who first made Prussian blue, nor exactly when it was first synthesized. It seems to have appeared initially around 1704, and its origins have been attributed variously to Diesbach in Berlin, or Mak in Leipzig. For once its name is appropriate, as it was a product of the Prussian Empire. Its potential as a colourant was recognised by 1710 when it went on sale in Berlin, and by about 1724 it was being manufactured in several countries across Europe.
During Adriaen van der Werff’s final years, he started to paint this panel of Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, in which the blue of the curtain at the upper left contains Prussian blue. The artist died before he could complete it, so his pupil Henrik van Limborch finished it between 1727-28.