In this engaging and atmospheric picture, a young man is shown wearing a painter’s beret and holding a drawing in his left hand that displays the contours of the plaster or marble statue of a kneeling nude woman in front of him. He points to this statue with his right hand while looking up at the young woman standing next to him, to whom he apparently explains the drawing and the statue. A copper oil lamp illuminates the scene, which is closed off on the right by a green curtain. Discernible in the right foreground is the plaster cast of the head of an antique female figure, probably the so-called Juno Cesi.1 Godefridus Schalcken might have been familiar with the actual antique statue of the kneeling Venus (or Aphrodite), or he might have owned a plaster cast of it. He could also have known of this fragment through an engraving by Jan de Bisschop (1628–1671), which De Bisschop based on a drawing by the Roman artist Franceso Salviati (1510–63). Bisschop published this drawing in his Signorum veterum icones of 1671 (fig 1).2
Because of its subject—the viewing of art—the painting has previously been interpreted mainly in the context of art theory. Young painters, who had to study antique sculptures before progressing to drawing from a live model,3 were advised to draw such sculptures by artificial light; this approach caused the contours of the sculptures to emerge more clearly and allowed the artist to practice rendering objects in relief. This academic practice has fused perfectly here with Schalcken’s artistic strength: rendering nocturnal scenes illuminated by artificial light. The glowing flame of the oil lamp both models the smooth surface of the sculpture and gently illuminates the young painters, drawing them together through the subdued reddish tonalities of their faces. Indeed, the atmospheric effects created by the flow of light and color across this image—from the flame’s white heat to the sculpture’s muted ivory-colored surface and the softly-lit figures—are beautifully rendered and quite evocative.
The presence of lamplight may also allude to studious diligence and dedication—a figurative illumination, or enlightenment, resulting from the true artist’s rigorous training. Schnackenburg, a strong proponent of this view, considers the entire painting to be exemplary of a new stylistic and thematic direction in Schalcken’s art, in which he examines Bisschop’s ideas and ponders classicist thought.4 Crucial to this interpretation is the identification of the young man in the painting as Schalcken himself.5 Schnackenburg also attaches great importance to the presence of the statue of Venus, which in her eyes refers to the rivalry between painting and sculpture.6
The presence of the statue of Venus is clearly significant, but it has less to do with the many art-theoretical notions attached to the figure than to her role as the goddess of love for the ancient Greeks and Romans alike. Here the subject chiefly involves the love presumed to exist between the young man and the young woman, for which the magnificently spotlighted statue of Venus serves as a catalyst. The amorous context depicted here fits in perfectly with the main themes found in Schalcken’s oeuvre, which is filled with references to the kindling of love between two people. The multiple layers of meaning that can be found in this composition make it clear that Schalcken gave great thought to his subjects, an observation previously made by Hecht.7
Beherman dated this small work to between 1680 and 1685, owing to his identification of the protagonists as the painter and his young wife, Françoisia van Diemen, who married in 1679. The dating of Schalcken’s genre and history paintings is often problematic because we know only a handful of dated genre scenes and half a dozen dated history paintings, which mainly stem from his later years (see GS-112).8 Nevertheless, Beherman’s dating of Young Man and Woman Studying a Statue of Venus, by Lamplight neglects the fact that the work—in Schalcken’s most frequently used format of approximately 44 by 34.9 cm—is painted on canvas. At that stage in his career he would have been more likely to execute paintings of this size on panel, or occasionally on copper (see, for example, GS-102). Moreover, the dry, thin manner of painting and the use of pastel hues, evident here in the figures’ pink lips, also differ from the works painted around 1680.
Stylistically, Young Man and Woman Studying a Statue of Venus, by Lamplight is closely related to Schalcken’s Allegory of the Treaty of Nijmegen (fig 2).9 Beherman dated this latter painting, of a size rather large for Schalcken, to around 1676–77, largely because the French painter Henri Gascard (1635–1701) produced a thematically similar work depicting The Signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen between France and Spain on 17 September 1678, which is preserved in the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen.10 It is more likely, however, that Schalcken’s Allegory of the Treaty of Nijmegen, with its thin application of paint and somewhat divergent, tempered use of color, originated around 1688–92, toward the end of the artist’s activities in Dordrecht. This stylistic dating can be underpinned in yet another way. For this unusual composition, Schalcken appears to have made use of a French engraving published in Paris by François de Poilly (1623–93) in 1684 (fig 3).11 Young Man and Woman Studying a Statue of Venus, by Lamplight should, therefore, be dated to the same period, from around 1688 to 1692. This later dating immediately calls into question the identification of the young artist and his pupil as Schalcken and his wife. Moreover, a small, recently discovered portrait of Françoisia reveals that in these years, having given birth to eight children, she no longer looked as she did in the first year of her marriage (fig 4).12
The influence of Schalcken’s teacher Gerrit Dou (1613–75) is still present to a remarkable degree in this late painting. Dou painted a large number of works portraying an artist, mostly himself, sometimes working in his studio but always wearing a painter’s cap.13 Occasionally the artist is shown drawing a statue by the light of an oil lamp, as in An Artist Drawing in Brussels (fig 5), which is the work most closely related in subject to Young Man and Woman Studying a Statue of Venus, by Lamplight.14