Skip to main content

Death of Lucretia

Frans van Mieris (Leiden 1635 – 1681 Leiden)
date
1679
medium
oil on panel with arched top
dimensions
38.2 x 26.7 cm
signed information

signed and dated in dark paint, front surface of stone ledge, lower left quadrant: “Fran Mieris 1679 / Lig. Basta.”

inventory number
FM-103
Currently on view: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Buvelot, Quentin. “Death of Lucretia.” In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York.

https://www.theleidencollection.com/archive/ (accessed June 24, 2018).

This page is available on the site’s Archive. PDF of every version of this page is available on the Archive, and the Archive is managed by a permanent URL. Archival copies will never be deleted. New versions are added only when a substantive change to the narrative occurs.

Print

Painted in 1679, just two years before the artist’s untimely death at the age of forty-six, Death of Lucretia is one of the finest paintings from the latter part of Frans van Mieris’s extraordinary career. In this painting Van Mieris avoided the hard and enamel-like surface that characterizes so many of his late works; instead, by combining imperceptible brushstrokes and subtle details, he brought to life a drama from ancient Rome first recounted by Titus Livius (Livy) in his monumental publication The History of Rome. The circumstances surrounding Van Mieris’s depiction of this subject are not known, but the care with which he executed this painting (described below) indicates that he put inordinate effort into realizing his remarkable interpretation of the discovery of Lucretia’s death.

Van Mieris could have consulted various Dutch translations of Livy while painting this work. Livy describes the story of Lucretia’s death as having taken place in Rome in approximately 500 B.C., at the end of the Imperial Era. He describes how Lucretia’s husband, the high-ranking soldier Tarquinius Collatinus, and several of his fellow soldiers place wagers on which of them has the most beautiful wife. When Tarquinius Collatinus wins the bet, Lucretia invites the men to dinner to thank them for the honor. One of them, Sextus Tarquinius, is overwhelmed by Lucretia’s beauty. In the middle of the night, he overpowers Lucretia in her sleep and rapes her. The next morning, Lucretia’s husband and her father rush to her from their army camps, each accompanied by a friend. After telling them what happened, she stabs herself in the heart with a knife hidden inside her dress, hoping that her self-sacrifice will allow her to escape disgrace. In her dying words she expresses the wish that no unchaste girl will ever think of her as an exemplar of human behavior. Those present at her suicide were dumbstruck. One of them, Lucius Junius Brutus, pulled the bloody knife out of her body and swore to kill Sextus Tarquinius, his family, and all his descendants. This vendetta led to a revolt that resulted in the founding of the Roman republic.

Paintings of the suicide of Lucretia by Northern Netherlandish artists are rather rare. A painting that Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) made in 1664 shows Lucretia on the point of plunging the knife into herself. Like Rembrandt, Van Mieris deviated in fundamental respects from Livy’s account. Both artists omit the four men who rushed to Lucretia’s side, but Van Mieris also invented a scenario not described by Livy: an old maidservant who discovers the heroine just after her suicide. Lucretia, whose partly exposed breast alludes to the rape, as does the bed behind her, has slid off the chair, and all the color has drained from her face. No blood flows from her body, but the knife with which she killed herself lies at her feet. Her dog barks at her, thus reflecting, as it were, the old maidservant’s dismay.

The dramatic power of the scene of Lucretia’s suicide—the almost ineluctable fate of the protagonist—is succinctly expressed in a play by the Dutch poet Jan Neuye (b. 1637), De gewroke Lucretia, of Romen in Vryheit (Lucretia Avenged, or Rome in Liberty).  Its title page carries the announcement that the play was performed in 1669 at the Amsterdam Municipal Theater. Neuye’s play must have been a source of inspiration for Van Mieris. In it, Lucretia laments: “My good name is quite lost. And honor have I none . . . The court, the Council, and the People will surely suspect / My virtue . . . I’ll seek a safer place.” Her father responds, “Whither would you fly?” and Lucretia replies, “Where vengeance, fate, and love will lead me. / Come Father, support me before my untimely fall.” It must be noted, however, that in Neuye’s play Lucretia lies in her father’s arms, which is not the case in this picture. Van Mieris adapted the story as he saw fit, so that this history painting resembles at first glance his many genre pieces, a number of which highlight the contrast between young and old.

In Van Mieris’s painting the old woman’s fierce reaction has a theatrical character. She is rendered with great feeling for drama, her face contorted in anguish as she wrings her hands, distraught at her helplessness before the situation. The histrionic despair of the hand-wringing, nearly toothless crone would not be out of place on a large stage. Lucretia’s strikingly rendered curved arms are a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to express elegance and refinement. The interior, too—in which high-ceilinged corridors lead to more distant rooms, and architectural elements and life-size statues in wall niches suggest a palatial, “antique” setting—could easily be thought of as stage scenery. The interior in the foreground would have seemed modern to Van Mieris’s contemporaries, as it features furniture and tapestries they would have found familiar.

Van Mieris paid a great deal of attention to the composition, as evidenced by a striking modification he made to the painting’s format presumably during the painting process. As is evident an X-radiograph of the painting (), he enlarged his painting by joining a smaller panel to the lower edge of the original panel (which is rounded at the top). Initially, Van Mieris’s composition would have ended just below Lucretia’s knees, much as in a painting of 1669 in which the body of a sleeping courtesan is rather abruptly cut by the bottom edge of the picture (). Although unusual in its scope, such changes in composition and dimensions do exist in other of his paintings.

Van Mieris must have felt that the first conception of Death of Lucretia seemed too compact, and wanted to add pictorial elements to give the painting a greater visual power and pictorial context. Because he used a different ground on the added panel, some of the paint layers are slightly darker than those on the original panel. This difference in tonality is discernible mainly in the satin of Lucretia’s clothing. The intervention underscores the extent to which Van Mieris was constantly seeking, even in his later works, to produce the perfect composition. One may well ask, moreover, whether the young woman in the painting had originally been cast in the role of Lucretia; a change in the subject might explain the lack of blood and the presence of the old maidservant.

The compositional character of Van Mieris’s painting is closely related to that of his genre scenes. The figural arrangement, for example, is comparable to that of his Doctor’s Visit of 1667 (). In that scene, an older maidservant attends to her mistress, who has fallen from her chair in a faint. Another parallel exists with one of Van Mieris’s drawings, Unwelcome News, ca. 1660, which portrays a woman who has fainted in a pose similar to that of Lucretia. The maidservant who has rushed to her her side wrings her hands and expresses a feeling of powerlessness, exactly like the old woman in the present painting.

The painter’s correspondence indicates that he preferred to paint subjects that he could observe with his own eyes, which may help explain why he painted this historical subject in such a genre-like fashion. A number of the elements in the painting seem to have been based on studies from life. For example, the old woman also appears in other late paintings by Van Mieris, such as Woman with a Lapdog, Accompanied by a Maidservant of 1680 in the Leiden Collection (FM-105) and A Woman Weeping of around 1678 in a private collection in England. It is not impossible that the model for this figure was actually a man; her face displays similarities to male tronies painted by Van Mieris, an example being a recently rediscovered painting of 1673. The lute with a conspicuously broken string (perhaps an allusion to a life abruptly cut short) seems to have been one of the painter’s own belongings. The same instrument recurs in other works, such as The Letter Writer, a painting completed a year later, in 1680 (see FM-105, fig. 1). The dog, too, appears in an even earlier painting, made in 1678.  Evidently, Van Mieris based this animal on a now unknown preparatory drawing.

The Death of Lucretia has an impressive provenance. One of its previous owners was Willem Lormier (1682–1758) of The Hague, a well-known collector and dealer, whose seal with coat of arms is still on the back of the panel. This painting and a number of other important works were acquired from Lormier’s collection by his nephew Adriaan Leonard van Heteren (1722–1800), a director of the Dutch West India Company, who amassed a large art collection. In 1809 Van Heteren’s entire holdings ended up in the Koninklijk Museum (Royal Museum) in Amsterdam, the forerunner of the Rijksmuseum. Less than twenty years later, however, it was sold again. In 1828 the director of the Koninklijk Museum, Cornelis Apostool (1762–1844), organized a public auction in Amsterdam of so-called doubles: paintings that could be disposed of, because the museum had comparable works by the same artists. The sale catalogue described the painting as depicting “a Lady dressed in satin, swooning and sinking to the ground as though dead, with her left hand over a chair, a knife lying before her.” By this time, evidently, the subject of the painting was no longer known.

The forty-six paintings sold at this auction fetched much more than expected, so much more that Apostool felt obliged to defend his policy by declaring that the paintings that had been sold were “not worthy” of being kept in the museum. A salient detail is that the proceeds of the sale were used that same year to defray the cost of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which was installed, remarkably enough, not in the Rijksmuseum but in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. In 1828 or shortly thereafter, Death of Lucretia came into the possession of Johan Steengracht van Oostkapelle (1782–1846), the first director of the Mauritshuis, who had a large collection of his own. It remained with his descendants for decades, until it was again sold at public auction in 1913, this time in Paris. The number “44” on the back of the panel still recalls this high-profile sale. The painting then passed through various European collections, after which it was purchased in 2002 for The Leiden Collection, the first of the many Van Mieris paintings in this large and diverse collection of the artist’s works.

- Quentin Buvelot
2017
  • Count of Fraula, Brussels (his sale, Brussels, 21 July 1738, no. 245 [700 francs]).
  • Gerard Bicker van Zwieten, The Hague, by 1738 (his sale, The Hague, 12 April 1741, no. 50 [960 to Jacques de Roore for Willem Lormier]).
  • Willem Lormier (1682–1758), The Hague, by 1741 (his sale, The Hague, 4 July 1763, no. 166 [625 guilders to Adriaan Leonard van Heteren]).
  • Adriaan Leonard van Heteren (1722–1800), The Hague, by 1763; by descent to Adriaan Leonard van Heteren Gevers (1794–1866), Rotterdam, by 1800.
  • The Royal Museum, Amsterdam, by 1809 (sale, Royal Museum, Amsterdam, 4 August 1828, no. 88 [490 guilders to C. S. Roos]).
  • C. S. Roos, Amsterdam.
  • Steengracht Collection, The Hague, acquired by Johan Steengracht van Oostkapelle (1782–1846); by descent to Hendrik Steengracht van Oosterland (1808–75), The Hague; by descent to Hendrik Adolphus Steengracht van Duivenvoorde (1836–1912), The Hague (his sale, Paris, Galerie G. Petit, 9 June 1913, 60, no. 44 [3,100 francs to Bousquet]).
  • Unknown collection (sale, Paris, Ader, Picard and Tajan, 8 December 1977, no. 25 [to Mr. Keyer]).
  • Mr. Keyer.
  • (Sale, Sotheby’s Parke Bernet, London, 16 April 1980, no. 57).
  • [Gallery Pieter de Boer, Amsterdam, by April, 1983].
  • Private collection, Sweden.
  • Saul Steinberg, New York, until 2000 [Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York, by April, 2000; Johnny van Haeften Ltd., London, by November, 2000; Otto Naumann Ltd., New York, by March, 2002].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2003.
  • London, Johnny van Haeften Ltd., “Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings,” 2002, no. 19
  • Greenwich, CT, Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, “Pleasures of Collecting: Part I, Renaissance to Impressionist Masterpieces,” 21 September 2002–5 January 2003, [no number, lent by private collection].
  • The Hague, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, “Frans van Mieris 1635–1681: Painted Perfection,” 1 October 2005–22 January 2006 [lent by the present owner].
  • Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, “Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris,” 26 February–21 May 2006 [lent by the present owner].
  • Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, “Emotions: Pain and Pleasure in Dutch Painting of the Golden Age,” 11 October 2–15 February 2015 [lent by the present owner].
  • Beijing, National Museum of China, “Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 17 June–3 September 2017 [lent by the present owner].
  • Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund, “Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 23 September 2017–25 February 2018 [lent by the present owner].
  • Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, “The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 28 March 2018–22 July 2018 [lent by the present owner].
  • Catalogus van Schilderyen van den heer Agent Willem Lorimer in ‘s Gravehage. The Hague, 1752, 17, no. 194.
  • Hoet, Gerard. Catalogus of Naamlyst van Schilderyen, met derzelver pryzen, zedert een langen reeks van jaaren zoo. 3 vols. The Hague, 1752, 2:431.
  • Descamps, Jean Baptiste. La vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandois: avec des portraits gravés en taille-douce, une indication de leurs principaux ouvrages & des réflexions sur leurs différentes manières. 4 vols. Paris, 1753–64, 21.
  • Terwestern, Pieter. Catalogus of naamlyst met derzelven prijzen. 3 vols. The Hague, 1770, 3:324, no. 166.
  • Apostool, Cornelis. Catalogus der Schilderijen, oudheden enz. op het Koninklijk Museum te Amsterdam. Amsterdam, 1809, no. 201.
  • Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829–42, 1:65, no. 10.
  • Moes, Ernst Wilhelm, and Eduard van Biema. De National Konst-Gallery en het Koninklijk Museum. Amsterdam, 1909, 148, no. 63, 162, no. 201, 193.
  • Lafenestre, Georges, and Eugène Richtenberger. La peinture en Europe: La Hollande. Paris, 1910, 158.
  • Von Wurzbach, Alfred. Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon:Auf Grund Archivalischer Forschungen Bearbeitet. 3 vols. Vienna and Liepzig, 1906–11, 2:165.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith. Edited and translated by Edward G. Hawke. 8 vols. London, 1907–28, 10: 7, no. 29. Originally published as Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten höllandischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907–28.
  • Pigler, Andor. Barockthemen: eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. 2 vols. Budapest, 1974, 2:406.
  • Naumann, Otto. Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder. 2 vols. Doornspijk, 1981, 1:83, 86, 93–94; 2:120–22, no. 116, fig. 116, 116a, 116a–d.
  • Smith, David. “[Review of Otto Naumann, Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder, 2 vols. (Doornspijk, 1981)].” Art Bulletin 65, no. 4 (December 1983): 698.
  • Hecht, Peter, ed. De Hollandse fijnschilders van Gerard Dou tot Adriaen van der Werff. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Rijkmuseum. Amsterdam, 1989, 116 n. 5, 138 n. 2, 234, no. 1, 237, fig. 51a.
  • Ydema, Onno. Carpets and Their Dating in Netherlandish Painting, 1540–1700. Leiden, 1991, 102, 103, 185, no. 795.
  • Liedtke, Walter, ed. Masterworks from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Exh. cat. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1992, 108.
  • Bergvelt, Elinoor. Pantheon der Gouden Eeuw: Van National Konst-Gallerij tot Rijksmuseum van Schilderijen (1798–1896). Zwolle, 1998, 399, no. 1809–63.
  • Korthals Altes, Everhard. “The Eighteenth-Century Gentleman Dealer Willem Lormier and the International Dispersal of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paintings.” Simiolus 28, no. 4 (2000–1): 264 n. 48.
  • Hale, Meredith. “Death of Lucretia.” In Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings. Sales cat., Johnny van Haeften, Ltd. London, 2002, no. 19.
  • Sutton, Peter C., ed. Pleasures of Collecting. Exh. cat. Greenwich, Conn., Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences. Greenwich, 2002, 7, 30, fig. 31, 84.
  • Sutton, Peter C., Lisa Vergara, and Ann Jensen Adams. Love Letters: Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland; Greenwich, Conn., Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences. New Haven, 2003, 142.
  • Buvelot, Quentin, Otto Naumann, and Eddy de Jongh. Frans van Mieris 1635–1681. Edited by Quentin Buvelot, 34, 37, 42, 56, 139, 207–9, no. 47, 223, 230, no. 47.  Exh. cat. The Hague, Mauritshuis; Washington, National Gallery of Art. Zwolle, 2005.
  • Buvelot, Quentin and Otto Naumann.  “Format Changes by Frans van Mieris the Elder.” Burlington Magazine 150 (February 2008): 102, 104, fig. 40.
  • Wuestman, Gerdien. “C. H. van Meurs and his fijnschilder prints: a mysterious printmaker with a forgotten oeuvre.” Simiolus 37, no. 2 (2013–14): 132-33.
  • Schwartz, Gary. “The Death of Lucretia”. In Emotions: Pain and Pleasure in Dutch Painting of the Golden Age. Edited by Gary Schwartz, 118, no. 31. Exh. cat. Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum. Rotterdam, 2014.
  • Buvelot, Quentin. “‘Expanding Panels’: Format Changes in Paintings on Panel by Schalcken and Other Dutch Fijnschilders.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jarbuch 77 (2016): 159-76.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Rembrandt and His Time: China and the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age.” In Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 10; 14 fig. 7. Translated by Li Ying. Exh. cat. Beijing, National Museum of China. Beijing, 2017. A slightly revised version of this essay appears in Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Exh. cat. Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund. Shanghai, 2017, 33, fig. 7.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara and Alexa McCarthy. “Death of Lucretia.” In Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 96–97; 181, no. 38. Translated by Li Ying. Exh. cat. Beijing, National Museum of China. Beijing, 2017.
  • Long Museum, West Bund. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Exh. cat. Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund. Shanghai, 2017, 112–13.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “The Leiden Collection and the Dutch Golden Age.” In The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection. Edited by Polina Lyubimova, 17, 25; 29, 33. Translated by Daria Babich and Daria Kuzina. Exh. cat. Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum. Moscow, 2018.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara and Alexa McCarthy. “Death of Lucretia.” In The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection. Edited by Polina Lyubimova, 144–45; 239, no. 39. Translated by Daria Babich and Daria Kuzina. Exh. cat. Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum. Moscow, 2018.

The support is a rectangular-shaped composite panel with an arched upper edge composed of two vertically grained oak planks. Four metal pins secure the horizontal panel join, which extends across Lucretia’s bent knees. The lower plank was added to allow the artist to extend the lower edge of the composition.

The composite panel has been thinned and marouflaged to an oak panel with bevels on all four sides and machine toolmarks along the reverse. The three oak planks have not been analyzed using dendrochronology; however, the marouflage panel and lower panel are remarkably similar and may originate from the same plank and may have been added at the same time. On the reverse is a red wax collection seal and three old paper labels but no import stamps, stencils or panel maker’s mark.

The white ground along the upper plank is radio-opaque while the white ground along the lower plank is non radio-opaque, which indicates they are different grounds. A dark underpaint applied along the lower plank gives the lower portion of the composition a darker appearance than the upper portion, which accentuates the horizontal panel join. The image was constructed in successive thin layers with low brushmarking and transparent glazing. The contours of the forms are slightly raised.

No underdrawing is readily apparent in infrared images captured at 780–1530 nanometers. The images reveal a white opaque form that initially hung below the drapery drawn back along the bedframe above the left portion of the backrest of the chair. This form extended through the seatback and Lucretia’s proper left upper arm. In raking light, a subtle S-shaped line of raised paint above the backrest of Lucretia’s chair indicates an additional compositional change.

The painting is signed and dated in dark paint along the front surface of the ledge along the lower left quadrant of the upper plank.

The painting has not undergone conservation treatment since its acquisition and remains in a good state of preservation.

Engraved

  1. C. H. van Muers, after Frans van Mieris, The Death of Lucretia, etching, dimensions unknown, impression in Bibliotheca Regia, Vienna, inscribed: Helas: que dois-je Faire en cet état Funeste / Mon honneur m’est ravi, quell asile me reste / que de Couvrir ma honte par un moindre malheur / Car en perçant ce Sein je Finis ma douleur.
  2. J. Tamboer, after Frans van Mieris, The Death of Lucretia, drawn copy (sale, J. Vollenhoven et al., Amsterdam, 11 February 1822, Kbk. I, no. 30).

Versions and Copies

  1. The Death of Lucretia, oil on panel, 38 x 17 cm; Otto Naumann, Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder, 2 vols. (Doornspijk, 1981), 2:121, no. 116a, fig. C116a (sale, London, Sotheby’s, 16 April 1980, no. 57, as by Frans van Mieris).
  2. The Death of Lucretia, oil on panel, 38.1 x 40.6 cm; Otto Naumann, Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder, 2 vols. (Doornspijk, 1981), 2:121, no. 116b; (sale, Christie’s, 28 April 1933, no. 114); possibly identical to FM-103.
  3. The Death of Lucretia, support unknown, 30.5 x 25.4 cm; Otto Naumann, Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder, 2 vols. (Doornspijk, 1981), 2:121, no. 116c; (sale, London, Edwards, 25 November 1802, no. 22).
  4. The Death of Lucretia, Otto Naumann, Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder, 2 vols. (Doornspijk, 1981), 2:121, no. 116d; Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith, 8 vols. (London, 1907–27), translated from Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten höllandischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts, 10 vols. (Esslingen and Paris, 1907–28), 10: no. 28a; Tronchin collection; Count Vitturi, Venice; Vitturi collection purchased by Thomas Moore Slade in 1775 or 1776; later sold to Mr. Salen.
Scroll back to top