Flemish Painting Found at a French Property Soars at Auction

An unknown canvas attributed to Caravaggesque Flemish painter Theodoor Rombouts, which was discovered in a property in Auvergne, sold in Clermont-Ferrand for triple its high estimate.

Flemish Painting Found at a French Property Soars at Auction

Mars, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury, a painting in a spectacular format attributed to the Flemish baroque artist Theodoor Rombouts, took its first steps at the auction on 4 July in Clermont-Ferrand. Hitherto unknown, this characteristic work of Caravaggio style was found in an Auvergne property and is, according to expert in ancient painting, Julie Ducher, "An exciting discovery in the field". 

Its entry into the auction room was estimated between €80,000 and €100,000 (or £72,000-90,000, set by the expert consulting firm Éric Turquin), however the work found a buyer at €305,000 (£275,000). After a timid start, the auction room came alive, said the daily La Montagne, and the work ended up being sold for triple its estimate by a bidder on the phone. Why such an interest? "It's a rare artist on the market," the consulting firm explained. "This painting, hitherto unknown, is very elegant and quite up to date." 

Attributed to Theodoor Rombouts,’ Mars, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury’, painting, put on sale by Masters Bernard Vassy and Philippe Jalenques, picture © Vassy-Jalenques
Attributed to Theodoor Rombouts,’ Mars, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury’, painting, put on sale by Masters Bernard Vassy and Philippe Jalenques, picture © Vassy-Jalenques

The monumental canvas (1.56 by 2.47 meters) represents the God of War, Mars, hugging his lover Venus, who is then married to the god of the late Vulcan. The two divinities appear alongside Bacchus, God of Wine, Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, and a mischievous Cupid who watches the scene. Mars and Venus have been portrayed by many artists in various paintings (sometimes pretexts for the realisation of erotic representations) and Cupid, considered as the fruit of their adulterous union, often appears.

With Rompouts’ work however, the classic mythological subject is hijacked by the insertion of minor details, such as a pearl necklace, a game of tric-trac, or playing cards, elements more common to Flemish gambling than to divine summit of Olympus. "Wearing a crown of vine leaves and other vines in his hand, Bacchus looks at the spectator and takes us to witness this adulterous relationship. For Mercury, a popular model has taken the pose, disguised for the occasion by the attribute of this God, a helmet carrying pigeon wings. He challenges the couple and invites them to play dice. Its composition presents an unusual mix, almost extravagant," said the consulting firm.

Theordoor Rompouts is known for his Caravaggesque work. He began his career in Antwerp between 1608 and 1616, under the tutelage of Abraham Janssen, himself emulated by the undisputed master of light. He joined Italy to complete his training, and remained marked by the work of Caravaggio, with whom he shares the taste of contrast and chiaroscuro. On his return to Antwerp, nine years later, he enrolled at the Guild of Saint-Luc and made many works for sponsors.

The painting ‘Mars, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury’, attributed to Théodoor Rombouts, presented for sale at Vassy-Jalenques, picture © Pierre Couble
The painting ‘Mars, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury’, attributed to Théodoor Rombouts, presented for sale at Vassy-Jalenques, picture © Pierre Couble

"He is best known for his banqueting scenes, taverns and musicians, but he also owes many successes in the field of history painting," said the consulting firm, "this painting, which we date rather from the beginning of his career, is in a pivotal period, during which he mixes Flemish and Dutch influences. It belongs to the field of clear Caravaggism. The light is very clear. It unites the four protagonists and reveals the realistic details."

The artist had a great success during his lifetime, which also earned him the privilege of being portrayed by Antoine van Dyck in 1632. Rompouts died prematurely in 1637, at the age of 40, and left behind is a rich work, imbued with an undeniable Flemish Caravaggesque style. 

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