74. Wallerant Vaillant

Lille 1623 – 1677 Amsterdam

Memento Mori, c. 1660-1675

Wallerant Vaillant was apprenticed under the Antwerp painter Erasmus Quellinus II (1607-1678) in 1639, prior to beginning his career as a portraitist in the Netherlands. His frequent travels brought him into contact with the European elite, whom he portrayed from life, often in black chalk or pastel.1 For a long time the importance of graphic arts – mainly engraving – in his production eclipsed his painted work,2 until the thesis by Nadine Rogeaux came to reappraise the artistic personality of the painter from Lille in its multiple aspects.

Vaillant was introduced to mezzotint by Prince Rupert, Count Palatine, whom he met in 1654.3 At the time this revolutionary technique was in its early stages,4 but it would soon achieve wide recognition thanks to the artist. An expert in sfumato and chiaroscuro effects – which he obtained in his portraits by blending black and white chalk with a stump – Vaillant found a means for interpreting and diffusing his graphic talents in this process. He consequently began to use drawing as a preparatory stage for his mezzotint prints.5

This technique of tonal engraving offered him a great variety of half-tones, as well as intense, vibrant blacks that endowed objects with an astonishing concreteness. Here, Vaillant’s virtuosity is particularly expressed in the subtle play between convex surfaces – roundness of the skull, volumes of the candlestick – and concave ones – the eye sockets, the niche. The possibilities of modulating the light that mezzotint provides allowed the engraver to create a nocturnal atmosphere, calling to mind the art of Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), the Utrecht Caravaggisti or Rembrandt (1606-1669).6

The first example of a vanity in the form of a still life has traditionally been attributed to Jacques de Gheyn the Younger (1565-1629).7 However, it is probably in the art of Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (c. 1493-1553/57) that we should look for the origin of the motif of the arched recess containing a skull.8 Unlike De Gheyn’s painting, with its assumed edifying and moral tonality – embodied by the figures of Democritus and Heraclitus –, Vaillant’s composition holds our attention by its utter bareness, inspiring meditation. The skull, in three-quarters, rests on a closed book, the edge of which appears to advance beyond the pictorial field. This visual play, frequent in Dutch Golden Age still lifes – notably set tables – emphasises the illusionist9 character of the representation. An authentic technical exploit, a thin curl of smoke rises from the candle that has just been snuffed, standing out against the dark ground of the recess.

While the still life, broadly speaking, remained a rather uncustomary subject in Northern Netherlands engraving during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, vanities were nonetheless a relatively well-represented sub-group. In Wallerant Vaillant’s engraved production, however, this subject is a unique example.10 Indeed, his corpus consists almost exclusively of portraits, religious and mythological scenes, genre scenes, and reproductive prints. MNG

1Nadine Rogeaux, ‘Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677) : portraitiste à la pierre noire et au pastel’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 143 (2001), pp. 251-265.

2Nadine Rogeaux, ‘Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677), portraitiste hollandais’, Revue du Nord 84 (2002), no. 344, p. 25.

3Ibid., note 2.

4Joachim von Sandrart cites Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1676/80) as the inventor of this technique, and Prince Rupert as his follower; see Simon Turner, ‘Sandrart’s Life of Wallerant Vaillant and the Early History of Mezzotint Printmaking’, in Susanne Meurer (ed.), Die Künstler der ‘‘Teutschen Academie’’ von Joachim von Sandrart, Turnhout 2015, p. 300 and note 22. The first known mezzotint print by Von Siegen is the portrait of Amelie Elisabeth von Hessen, dated to 1642.

5Rogeaux 2001, op. cit. (note 1), p. 263.

6Nadine Rogeaux, ‘Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677). Premier spécialiste de la gravure en manière noire’, Nouvelles de l’Estampe 177 (2001), p. 25.

7New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. no. 1974.1 (oil on panel; 82.6 × 54 cm); see I.Q. van Regteren Altena, Jacques De Gheyn: Three Generations, 3 vols., The Hague 1983, vol. 1, pp. 84–85, 177, vol. 2, pp. 15, 38, 130, 142, no. 11, vol. 3, pl. 3; Onno ter Kuile, Seventeenth-century North Netherlandish Still Lifes, The Hague 1985, pp. 32–33, 35, fig. 11; and https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search.

8St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, inv. no. ГЭ-5197 (oil on canvas; 37 × 30 cm); see S. Ackley, Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt, exh. cat., Boston (Museum of Fine Arts Boston) 1981, p. 274.

9Wallerant Vaillant’s experiments in illusionist rendering are also expressed in painting, in his numerous trompe l’oeil, in particular the Trompe l’oeil with Letters and Writing Tools, 1658, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, inv. no. Gal.-Nr. 1232 (oil on paper, laid down on canvas; 51.5 × 40.5 cm); see Miriam Milman, Le trompe-l’œil : les illusions de la réalité, Geneva 1992, p. 74; and https://skd-online-collection.skd.museum/Search.

10Vaillant did a replica of this motif facing the same direction in smaller dimensions (176 × 130 mm); F. W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, ca. 1450-1700, 72 vols., Amsterdam and elsewhere 1949-2010, vol. 31, p. 162, no. 158.