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A Scholar at His Desk

Jacob Adriaensz Backer (Harlingen 1608/9 – Amsterdam 1651)
ca. 1632
oil on panel
66.4 x 50.8 cm
inventory number

DeWitt, Lloyd. “A Scholar at His Desk” (2022). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed June 13, 2024).

An elderly, bearded scholar in a fur-lined cloak sits at a desk with an open book, surrounded by the tools of his pursuits: an impressive inkwell, a well-worn quill pen shorn of barbs, a quill box, a “pounce” caster, a stick of red sealing wax (with its soot-blackened ring), and a leather portfolio containing a sheaf of writings. The quill rests in the inkwell and the adjacent quill box’s lid remains ajar, indicating that this scholar has just finished composing the text before him. With his hands clasped, he sits in a moment of quiet repose, deeply lost in thought. A warm, broad light washes over him, emphasizing his flushed cheeks and knotted brow. The scholar’s attire is a wonderful contrast of textures, from the thin linen shirt to the heavy gray cloak with a rich fur collar and shimmering velvet sleeves.

Jacob Adriaensz Backer (1608/9–51) painted A Scholar at His Desk around 1632 in Leeuwarden, when he was working in the studio of Lambert Jacobsz (1598–1636), with whom he had trained since moving from Amsterdam to the Frisian capital in the latter half of the 1620s. Jacobsz, like Backer, was a Mennonite, and the two men had previously known each other in Amsterdam when their families were close neighbors on the Nieuwendijk. In Leeuwarden, the older master, likely with the assistance of Backer, frequently depicted large-figure history pieces, such as Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts in The Leiden Collection, as well as paintings of apostles and evangelists, including the imposing Apostle Paul in the Fries Museum and a series of evangelists from the early 1630s in Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. Jacobsz’s Saint Luke () from this series may have served as a compositional model for Backer’s scholar, who is also shown turned to the left.

Saint Matthew () from Jacobsz’s series must have also served as inspiration for Backer since, like his master, Backer included Hebraic letters in his painting. They appear on the sheet of paper lying on the table in the foreground; their inclusion indicates that this scholar was familiar with biblical texts. Unlike in Jacobsz’s painting, however, where the Hebrew text is decipherable, Backer’s lines consist primarily of flat, gray bands, and the three Hebraic letters visible at the bottom of the page are not accurately written. While they resemble נ ש ה (or chet, shin, nun), the word cheshen they spell is not a known word. An additional character that resembles the Hebraic ה (chet) appears in the upper corner of one of the pages in the standing leatherbound pamphlet on the desk, though it, too, seems more of a suggestion than an actual letter.

Lambert Jacobsz was an influential Mennonite preacher as well as artist and art dealer.  While Mennonite preachers were typically not trained in Hebrew, Jacobsz most likely had access to one of the rare, published Hebrew translations of Matthew’s gospel—perhaps that of Sebastian Münster (2nd edition, 1557). The unusual inclusion of Hebrew text in both paintings, made at nearly the same time, lends further support to the idea that Backer executed this work in Leeuwarden, while he was under the direct influence of his master.

Backer’s painting in The Leiden Collection illustrates the artistic and spiritual bonds between him and Lambert Jacobsz, but it also shows the first glimmers of the warm, flowing style and gentler spirit that characterize Backer’s works after he moved to Amsterdam around 1633. The undulating, fluid quality of his Amsterdam-period style is fully evident in his Hippocrates Visits Democritus in Abdera (), a subject taken from Classical antiquity that would have been more suitable for the cosmopolitan Amsterdam market than for collectors in Leeuwarden. In this painting, Backer recast the man who modeled for A Scholar at His Desk as Democritus, who sits at the base of a tree writing in a large tome of his discoveries about the natural world. The model Backer used for Heraclitus (along with his rich garment) only appears in his Amsterdam-period works, pointing to a date for this painting after February 1633, when Backer returned to the metropolis.

While Backer continued to produce large-scale religious history paintings throughout the rest of his career, A Scholar at His Desk constitutes the last known example of a single-figured religious work in his oeuvre. Backer sadly never reached the wise old age of the man portrayed in this painting, as he died in 1651 at the age of 43. He nevertheless enjoyed a fulsome—albeit abbreviated—career of nearly two decades in Amsterdam, during which time his style further evolved into a more polished manner.

- Lloyd DeWitt, 2022
  • (Sale, Christie’s, London, 21 July 1972, no. 145, as by Jacob Jordaens [to Duits Gallery Ltd. for 1,900 guineas].)
  • [Duits Gallery Ltd., London.]
  • (Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 8 December 1976, no. 115 [for £2,000].)
  • [Kunsthandel Gebroeder Douwes, Amsterdam, by 1977.]
  • Private collection, the Netherlands, by 1998 (sale, Christie’s, Amsterdam, 16 November 2006, no. 60 [to Jack Kilgore & Co., Inc., for €50,400]).
  • [Jack Kilgore & Co., Inc., New York.]
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2007.
  • Leeuwarden, Fries Museum, “Van Jan Steen tot Jan Sluijters: De smaak van Douwes,” 21 November 1998–21 February 1999, no. 2 [lent by a private collection].
  • Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler. Vol. 1, J. A. Backer–A. van Dijck. Landau, 1983, 135, 196, 224, no. 21.
  • Manuth, Volker. “Hippokrates besucht Demokrit in Abdera.” In Bilder vom alten Menschen in der niederländischen und deutschen Kunst 1550–1750. Edited by Jutta Desel and Thomas Döring. Exh. cat. Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum. Braunschweig, 1993, 158, under no. 36.
  • Manuth, Volker, et al. Wisdom, Knowledge and Magic: The Image of the Scholar in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Exh. cat. Kingston, Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Kingston, 1996, 58, under no. 20.
  • Stoter, Marlies. Van Jan Steen tot Jan Sluijters: De smaak van Douwes. Exh. cat. Leeuwarden, Fries Museum. Leeuwarden, 1998, no. 2.
  • Winiewicz-Wolska, Joanna. Malarstwo Holenderskie w Zbiorach zamku królewskiego na wawelu. Krakow, 2001, 15, 262.
  • Van den Brink, Peter. “Peinzende geleerde aan zijn werktafel.” In Jacob Backer (1608/9– 1651). Edited by Peter van den Brink and Jaap van der Veen. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Museum Het Rembrandthuis; Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. Zwolle, 2008, 207­–8, no. A7.

The painting is on a panel support, most likely oak, and is made from three vertical planks with two narrower planks flanking a wider central one. The verso has original bevels to accommodate a frame on all four sides, and there are fine horizontal grooves on the right plank, which may be original sawmill marks.

The beige ground is radio-opaque, and it fills the grooves in the wood grain. It appears in the X-radiograph to be applied with a wide brush using sweeping horizontal strokes. No underdrawing is visible in the infrared (IR) photograph, but the artist made use of vigorous brushwork, still visible on the surface in some areas, to lay in initial contours for the final image. In the IR photo, some of these contours, such as the back of the figure’s head, the rightmost side of his beard just below his ear, and his sleeve just below his beard have been slightly adjusted in the final paint layers. The artist may also have changed the height of the book that stands upright on the table in the background, increasing its height by about one-third. Both the ground and the paint layers are thinly applied with no impasto, and in raking light the panel’s wood grain is evident on the surface. In some areas, particularly the top third of the background, the final paint application is thin enough that the ground shows through.

The painting is in very good condition. There are splits at the bottom edge of the panel’s central plank and in the right panel’s join, as seen from the verso. Both were repaired in the past and integrated with retouching that has now discolored. A few retouches in the thinly painted background, too, have discolored. The varnish, which is slightly glossy, skipped over the surface when it was applied, leaving a few localized matte areas.

– Gerrit Albertson, 2022

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