Den Schalck(en) im Nacken

I’m hopelessly in love with a dead guy from the 17th/18th century. How very Diana Gabaldon.

Fittingly, it was one of her books that introduced me to said guy (as described here): Godfried Schalcken, painter, 1643-1706. Considering how poor his English Wikipedia article is in contrast to the German one (interestingly not the Dutch one), I had at first planned to expand it. But Wikipedia is terrifying, at least for new contributors, and so I chickened out. So, as not to waste all the work that went into the translation of the German article, I’m putting it up here. For footnotes and references see the German Wikipedia page.

The website of the Leiden Collection has excellent articles on Schalcken and his paintings, e. g.:

Godfried (Godefridus, Gottfried) Schalcken (*1643 in Made near Breda; †16. November 1706 in Den Haag) was one of the leading Dutch painters of the late 17th century. In the tradition of the Leiden fijnschilders, he created very illusionistic, minutely painted portraits, genre paintings, biblical and mythological histories, sporadically still lives and landscapes with staffage. His trade mark was the representation of special light effects, foremost candlelight.


Schalcken grew up in a Protestant minister’s family on both his mother’s and his father’s side in Dordrecht where his father was the rector of the Latin school. There he received his first training from Rembrandt student Samuel van Hoogstraten. When Hoogstraten left for England in 1662, Schalcken moved to Leiden. In the studio of Gerrit Dou he began to specialise in the art of the fijnschilders. At the time, these small-format, brilliantly coloured paintings fetched top prices. Probably around 1665 Schalcken returned to Dordrecht and began his career as an independent artist. Besides genre paintings Schalcken dedicated himself from the start to the profitable art of portrait painting. After Nicolaes Mae moved to Amsterdam in 1673, Schalcken advanced to leading Dordrecht portrait painter. An excellent early example of his masterly art is the pair of portraits (collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein) painted in the year of Schalcken’s wedding to Françoisia van Diemen (1661-1744) from Breda, 1679. Schalcken portraits himself in the manner of Anthonis van Dyck’s paintings in the habitus of the cultivated and dignified gentleman who self-assuredly turns to face the viewer. He presents his wife, whose glance turns away in noble reserve, in her full beauty and virtue. A late pendant is the pair of portraits from the artist’s year of death 1706 (private collection). Of the couple’s documented ten children only London-born Françoisia (1692-1757) lived to adulthood.
In the 1680s Schalcken taught several artists in Dordrecht, the most popular among them Arnold Boonen (1669-1729) and Carel de Moor (1655-1738). He also taught his sister Maria Schalcken (1645/48-1699) of whom only a few but very exquisite paintings are known, among them her self-portrait at the easel that was attributed to her brother for a long time (Naples, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection).
To be able to get prominent portrait commissions, Schalcken joint the painters‘ guilt of Den Haag in 1691. In 1692, he moved to London. He lived in the circle of the court of William III. In England, Schalcken established himself as the master of candlelight that he would pass into art history as. Several self-portraits, among them the painting commissioned by Cosimo III de Medici for his famous self-portrait gallery in Florence, show Schalcken with a candle. The often-copied portrait of William III, too, done after a work by his English contemporary Godfrey Kneller, shows the monarch with a candlestick in his hand (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). In cooperation with mezzotint specialist John Smith several graphics after Schalcken’s works were created that added to his fame, among them his earliest self-portrait with candle of 1694 whose original is in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland, today. In 1696, the artist returned to the Netherlands and settled in Den Haag.
Already in the 1680s he had turned to biblical and mythological history paintings. With these, Schalcken became known not only at the court of Florence but to other royal art lovers as well. Before 1700, for example, he delivered a Holy Family to King Christian V at Copenhagen. The most important patron of his later career was Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm with whose gift of honour, a medal on a gold chain, Schalcken depicted himself in his late self-portrait of 1706. However, his ties to the court were less close than those of other Düsseldorf court painters like Jan Frans van Douven or Adriaen van der Werff. Together with those two artists, Schalcken created an altar dedicated to the life of Mary that Johann Wilhelm commissioned as a gift for his wife Anna Maria in 1703. Each of the three artists created a panel of the triptych (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) while the notable light effects in all three paintings were very likely inspired by Schalcken. A stay in Düsseldorf in 1703, during which the artists is said to have lodged in the Haus zum Goldenen Helm in Flingerstrasse, is assumed but cannot be confirmed.
Schalcken’s first biographer Arnold Houbraken (1721) summarised his successful career aptly with the words:

„He was one of the happiest Dutch painters since his works from the beginning to the end of his life were paid liberally, so that he harvested the fruits of his industry during his lifetime which only a few manage.”
Arnold Houbraken: Groot Schilderboek 1718/21, Vol. 3, p. 176


Despite a relatively long career, spanning circa 40 years, because of his minute, labour-intensive style of painting Schalcken created a relatively limited oeuvre of which about 250 remaining paintings are known today. They show a great variety, pointing to the ambition of an all-round artist as well as to a customer-friendly business acumen in the dialogue with his clients‘ wishes. Not only did Schalcken dedicate himself to widely different themes/topics. He was proficient in miniature painting as well as in life-size portraits, he painted on copper, wood and canvas. While the delicate colour application that made the brushstrokes nearly invisible was his personal speciality, Schalcken taught himself a looser, broader style during his stay in England that was useful for larger formats and possibly was due to the rising demand for his works. Besides paintings, some drawings in red chalk, chalk, ink in rare cases have survived, as well as etchings. His drawings mainly consist of portraits, so-called ricordi, that document a finished painting minutely and were probably meant to be kept in the studio as illustrative material for future customers.
Schalcken seems to have signed his works as a rule but only very seldom dated them, which makes a precise chronology of his work difficult. Dated works are known from 1667 to his year of death 1706. The earliest known and dated painting, Girl with a Bird in a Window Recess (missing, Beherman 1988, Nr. 143) shows, like an earlier interior portraying a lady at a dressing table (private collection) of which a sketch exists at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, very clearly the influence of Gerrit Dou in motif and technique. But Schalcken’s topical references can also be found in the work of Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Jacob Ochtervelt, Frans van Mieries sen., Pieter van Slingelandt or Caspar Netscher. Schalcken referred to various sources and cleverly updated the Old Masters so popular on the art market of his time. He himself owned a substantial collection of prints of the Italian renaissance and baroque, Utrecht Caravaggisti as well as contemporary French and Dutch prints from which he drew inspiration.
The brilliant humour in his paintings lent points of their own to popular themes like the Lady in Front of a Mirror or Toilet by Candle, Girl Reading Letter, the Rommelpot Player, Pancake Eater, brothel scenes, medical examinations, playing with a pig’s bladder etc. In original ways he took up art theoretical debates like the paragone or inspiration by love. Most sensually convincing are his illusionistic style, giving the painted objects and textures an almost haptic quality, and the smooth, gleaming surfaces combined with seductive females in intimate moments. Schalcken often allocates the role of voyeur to the viewer and utilises the mysterious atmosphere of nightly settings illuminated by flickering candlelight. These aspects, for example, illustrates Lady in Front of a Mirror (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud) who is shown during her nightly toilette, more specifically while looking for fleas. With this, the artist subtly points to the topic of amorous itching and desire, the lover’s envy of the flea living at the bosom of his beloved used in poems of the time, as well as popular ideas of the flea as Cupid or references to deflowering. At the same time, Schalcken transfers traditional rustic genre characters to an aristocratic world.
Aside from that he invented quite original motifs: The amorous game of forfeit (London, Royal Collection), a Holy Family during prayers (Copenhagen, Statens Museum) or a girl eating sugar (Naples, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection). He also chose contemporary literary sources like the writings of Jacob Cats or the theatre (Preciosa Recognised, Dublin, National Gallery) as well as seldom depicted parables from the New Testament (Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver, New York, The Leiden Collection).
While he did portrait paintings during the whole of his career, his topical interest increasingly changed in the 1680s away from genre paintings towards historical paintings that, along with candlelight portrayals, dominate his later work.

Art historical importance and heritage

Already highly esteemed during his lifetime, Schalcken belonged to the indispensable „stars“ of 18th century collections, especially in France and Germany. His insinuating, gallant-amorous themes matched the taste of the age. Numerous successors and imitators are proof of his popularity. Among those of the best quality are Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) and Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1651-1717). Countless copies of specific works, like the so-called Dresden Pygmalion, show the widespread admiration of his art.
In spite of early criticism of Schalcken’s supposed exclusive command of candlelight special effects and the frequently quoted, disparaging anecdotes by Jacob Campo Weyerman (1677-1747) or later Horace Walpole, implying Schalcken showed disrespectful and uncouth manners towards his clients, well into the 19th century his fame surpassed that of many of his today more famous colleagues. His light atmospheres were almost proverbial, and Goethe still recognised a „Schalcken“ in a corner of his Dresden boarding house room only illuminated by a lantern. The mysterious candlelight scenes tellingly inspired Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to his gothic novel Schalcken the Painter (1839/1851). The artist served as a reference for modern lighting design, as well.
With the change in taste that preferred the Dutch art of a Frans Hals, Rembrandt or Vermeer, considered bourgeois-democratic, to the courtly, feudalistic art of the late 16th century among which Schalcken was counted, the artist faded into obscurity.

After a first catalogue raisonné by the English art dealer John Smith in 1833 (supplement 1842), Hofstede de Groot compiled an extended catalogue in 1912. However, he counted Schalcken among the decline of Dutch painting and considered him the epigone of his teachers. In 1988, the posthumous Catalogue raisonné of Thierry Beherman’s research was published, followed by studies by Peter Hecht, Guido M. C. Jansen, Mirjam Neumeister, Sophie Schnackenburg and others. Publications and exhibitions of the Leiden fijnschilders and late 17th century art included works by Schalcken.

An exhibition in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne and in the Dordrechts Museum in Dordrecht in 2015/16 is dedicated for the first time to a monographic presentation of the artist’s work.


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