This rather large canvas shows a young man with long wavy hair, depicted half-length, holding in his left hand a piece of burning wood, which he has apparently taken from the fire in a brazier to his right. Blowing on the red-hot wood, he sends sparks swirling into the air. He probably needs a flame to light the candle in the simple brass sconce with a wide candle-ring and a handle with an eyelet, which he grips with his right hand. The young woman behind him gazes at the viewer; her hair is put up in a style called à la Fontange.1 As evident from the exceptionally large pearl drop adorning her left ear and the pearl necklace she wears, this woman is dressed à la mode and belongs to the upper class. The bunch of onions hanging on the wall and the shelf above the young man’s head indicate, however, that the scene is set in a less than elegant room, which is obviously a kitchen or pantry.
This composition is most closely related to Boy Blowing on a Firebrand to Light a Candle (fig 1), a work that Godefridus Schalcken painted for one of his most important patrons, Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1641–1702), some time between the spring of 1692 and the autumn of 1696, the period in which he worked in England.2 At Althorp, Lord Spencer’s country estate in Northamptonshire, the painting was seen in the early eighteenth century by the engraver George Vertue (1684–1756), who praised it highly by quoting the epigram that John Elsum had published on this work in 1700: “A Night-piece of a Boy blowing a Firebrand; suppos’d by Schalcken. Striving to Blow the Brand into a Flame, he brightens his own face, and the Author’s Fame.”3 The painting, which has been in Edinburgh since 1989, must have been held in high regard, considering the fairly large number of old copies of it that are known.4 The artist, too, must have been satisfied with that work, as he used it as the model for the present painting, most likely originating in the same period.
The most striking difference between the two paintings is that in the Leiden Collection’s painting the elegantly dressed woman is seen in an ordinary setting. Somewhat less conspicuous is the difference in artistic quality between the two canvases. The consistently higher quality of the canvas in Edinburgh suggests that it was painted entirely by Schalcken. In the painting discussed here, the effects of artificial lighting—the piece of burning wood, the flying sparks, and the glowing hearth—are also rendered with great virtuosity, allowing us to see in these elements the master’s touch. The figures, however, seem less skillfully rendered: the young man’s hands and his coat, as well as the female figure behind him, are painted stiffly and with little tonal differentiation, which strongly suggests that Schalcken’s studio assistants had a hand in their execution.5
From the beginning of his career, Schalcken had pupils working in his studio. His sister Maria (ca. 1645–before 1700) must have been one of the first to join his studio when he returned to Dordrecht.6 Beginning in about 1675, he frequently took his pupils along to the notary to witness various documents he had drafted.7 Unfortunately, no such documents exist from Schalcken’s time in England, but we may safely assume that he ran his London studio in much the same way. Only the painter Gramagli, active as a portraitist in England, can be named as a possible pupil of Schalcken in London. Gramagli is recorded only once in this context, in an account written by Allart de la Court (1688–1755) of a tour he made of England in 1710. While in Exeter he described the following meeting: “On 11 June we visited a Dutch painter named Gramagli, who had been a pupil of Schalken [sic]; [he] was a portrait painter, but of the worst sort.”8 Be that as it may, if indeed Gramagli was Schalcken’s pupil in London, he was probably not the only assistant in his teacher’s studio.
The canvas in Edinburgh and the Leiden Collection painting come from a long tradition of works in which a young man blows on a smoldering piece of wood, a subject that demanded an exceptionally high degree of technical skill to realize the necessary lighting effects. One of the first painters to portray this subject was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (1541–1614), who painted a number of works in Rome around 1570–75, including Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (fig 2), of which several contemporary copies exist.9 In the same period, the subject was also painted in Venice, mostly as part of large history or genre pieces.
The blowing-on-embers motif soon became particularly popular among the many followers of Caravaggio in northern and southern Europe. In the Netherlands the “Caravaggisti” were concentrated in Utrecht, which is why such masters as Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629), and Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651), to name only a few, painted subjects of this kind. In Leiden, where Schalcken had been trained by Gerrit Dou (1613–75), Jan Lievens (1607–74) was the one who introduced this subject. In a panel painting that dates from around 1624–25, Lievens portrayed a young man blowing on a torch in a series of the Four Elements.10
The popularity of this subject was certainly boosted by the discovery of its art-theoretical legitimation in the form of an ekphrasis, a pictorial description of an artwork from antiquity. Pliny, for example, gives in his Naturalis historia the names of two Greek artists, each of whom had produced a legendary work in which a boy blows on a fire that has almost gone out, and in which the reflection of the fire on the boy’s face was deemed the result of exceptional artistic skill.11
It is unlikely, however, that ekphrasis was of paramount importance to Schalcken. The utmost faithfulness to life in the depiction of artificial illumination was surely his top priority. Nevertheless, in the work of Schalcken a flame—whether that of a torch, candle, or lamp—often served as a metaphorical representation of the spark of passion that could be ignited between two people (see GS-103). Even so, it is unclear whether this type of spark was intended in Young Man Blowing a Torch to Light a Candle, considering that the bejeweled woman in the background is too far removed from the youth to suggest an amorous context. In any case, it was the artist’s aim to amaze the viewer with his brilliant rendering of various kinds of fire and glow, and their reflections on objects in the immediate surroundings.