This small work portrays a young man with blue eyes and long, wavy, black hair sitting at dusk on a hillock before an imaginary wooded landscape. His costly silk Japanese dressing gown is lined with dark red satin, the same fabric as the cravat, which is tied around the sitter’s neck with a lace cloth. Beneath the quilted dressing gown he wears a gold-colored waistcoat over a white linen shirt featuring cuffs richly trimmed with lace. Numerous beautifully executed animals surround the man, who plays with a small dog of a breed often seen in the works of Jan Steen (1625/26–79) and Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–81): a kooikerhondje, which resembles a spaniel. In the branches above its head we see a goshawk, several finches, and a hoopoe (Upupa epops), a bird no longer found in the Netherlands, while on the ground, a salamander and a toad climb the sandy mound. A distant view of a castle in the midst of high mountains is depicted at the right.
This small copper painting was first documented at a sale in Brussels in 1769 (see Provenance), when it was in the company of its pendant, which portrays a woman playing the guitar in the company of two other figures. The people depicted in the pendant are undoubtedly this young man’s wife and two of their children or other members of their family. It was not until the 1821 sale that the companion pieces were separated; the painting of the woman has not been seen since.
In 1946 the RKD (Netherlands Institute for Art History) in The Hague acquired a black-and-white photograph of Portrait of a Man, then in England in the possession of Edmund Treherne (1896–1958). A note accompanying the photograph says that the work is signed and dated “Peeter L… / 1684.” This appears to be the only time the artist signed with his full given name, and though he has been referred to as Pieter Leermans, this would indicate that Peeter is the appropriate spelling. Over time, the signature gradually faded and now has disappeared altogether. At the 1983 auction the work was still “signed and indistinctly dated,” whereas at the 1992 sale it was no longer described as signed (see Provenance). The date of 1684 is perfectly suited, in terms of style, to Portrait of a Man, in light of a number of closely related portraits by Leermans that are known to be from the period 1681–84 and which leave no doubt as to the dating of the present painting.1
Nothing is known about the life of Peeter Leermans, apart from the fact that he acquired a certain reputation early on, for his name appears in a select list—compiled by the Parisian connoisseur Dezallier d’Argenville (1680–1765)—of Dutch artists who were well known in France and whose work was paid for in gold.2 Despite being listed in the company of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Philips Wouwerman (1619–68), Gerrit Dou (1613–75), Godefridus Schalcken (1643–1706), Jan van Huysum (1682–1749), and other painters who still enjoy international reputations, Leermans is practically unknown today. Even so, he was already recorded during his lifetime by André Félibien (1619–95) who, remarkably enough, mentions him in 1688 in the second volume of his Entretiens among the followers of Dou: “Skalque, Nesker, Lermans & Moër” (Schalcken, Netscher, Leermans, and De Moor).3 Shortly after this, Leermans again had the honor of being mentioned in writing by the Paris art expert and publisher Florent le Comte (died 1712), who in 1700 described Leermans and Schalcken as fellow pupils in Dou’s studio.4 There is no subsequent record of Leermans, a fact remarked upon in a Paris sale catalogue of 1814.5 Not one document or archival record has ever surfaced that sheds any light on this painter’s life,6 so it is a mystery how 1655 and 1706 crept into the art historical literature as the years of his birth and death.7
We can, nonetheless, draw some conclusions about the artist from his paintings, as he left a fairly consistent oeuvre of some thirty works, many of which are dated. Around ten paintings on panel and copper bear dates that range from 1670 to 1685. The period of his earliest artistic activity therefore indicates that Leermans was not born in 1655 but some time in the period 1640–45, which would in fact make him, as Le Comte suggested, a contemporary of Schalcken. Leermans’s earliest known work, dated 1670, is a genre piece depicting a girl cleaning fish, a composition that is closely related to those produced in the same years by Dou’s many pupils and followers.8 Among the undated works are several scenes with a praying hermit (fig 1) or a penitent Mary Magdalene which, given the obvious influence of Dou, may also be dated to that period, namely the early 1670s.9 It is possible, but by no means certain, that Leermans was active in Leiden at that time.
In 1677 he painted, in a manner that is also characteristic of his later work, one of his best genre pieces: an interior with a trumpeter making advances on a maidservant who is scouring a kettle, all of which is observed by a laughing old woman in the background (fig 2). The two young and beautiful protagonists are painted in the supple, elegant style of Frans van Mieris the Elder in his best years, with a beau fini that is considerably less sharp and finished than what is seen in the previously mentioned scenes inspired by Dou. The palette, too, is more harmonious and less harshly colorful than in his earlier work.10 Over the course of his career, Leermans’s genre scenes become more rare, and he returned progressively to portraits. Musical Party on a Terrace (fig 3) is one of his best genre pieces, and it is no coincidence that it bears the falsified signature of Frans van Mieris, which was not yet present when Gustav Waagen described the painting in 1854.11
It may well prove possible to identify the members of the musical party on the basis of the family arms that decorate the garden vase. In all likelihood it will then become clear that the sitters were not natives of Leiden (or any other city in Holland) but of the Southern Netherlands, as it is assumed that Leermans moved to Brussels around 1680.12 It was there, in 1682, that he painted the portraits of Eugène Alexander von Thurn und Taxis (1652–1714) and, presumably, his mother, Anne Françoise van Horne (ca. 1630–93) (fig 4).13 This prominent descendant of the imperial postmaster’s family lived in a splendid mansion in Brussels with beautiful gardens overlooking the Zavelkerk, in which the family had two ornate funeral chapels built on either side of the choir in the second half of the seventeenth century. Only after the death in Brussels of his wife, Anna Adelheid zu Fürstenberg (1659–1701), did Eugène Alexander, the first prince in his family, transfer the headquarters of his business to Frankfurt am Main, where a new Thurn und Taxis mansion was built.
Several more arguments support the theory that Leermans immigrated around 1680 to the Southern Netherlands, probably to Brussels. Not a single painting by his hand was sold at public auction in Holland before 1800,14 whereas in this same period his work appeared in the Southern Netherlands at no fewer than fourteen sales, in addition to seven auctions in London and five in Paris.15 The first documented painting by Leermans was offered at a sale in Brussels in 1739, and shortly afterward another of his works appeared at a 1741 auction in Antwerp.16 A similar situation is suggested by the works on offer in the period 1800–50, when Leermans’s paintings appeared more frequently at public auctions taking place in the Southern Netherlands. It is also telling that the Hermit (see (fig 1)) in Dresden, which was acquired by Augustus the Strong (1670–1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was offered to him in 1708, along with two other works by Leermans, by the Antwerp art dealer François Lemmers.17
The iconography and execution of some of Leermans’s paintings also argue for his move to the Southern Netherlands. The Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) in Brussels have a large Christ on the Cross painted on copper.18 Hofstede de Groot already expressed his surprise at the style of this fully signed work, which in his opinion bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Dou-like works in Dresden and Rennes (see (fig 1) and (fig 2)). He even went so far as to call it a copy after Rubens.19 When the same art historian saw Saint Joseph and the Christ Child in Budapest, he noted: “Completely Catholic in conception and Flemish in its palette.”20 It may be expected of someone who immigrated to Brussels around 1680 that he would conform, as regards style and iconography, to the prevailing tastes of the Southern Netherlands and make paintings in a Rubensian palette of subjects suited to the Counter Reformation.
In light of the above, we can finally hazard a guess as to the identity of the young sitter in Portrait of a Man; in all likelihood he is from the Southern Netherlands, possibly from a Brussels family. The earliest known provenance of this work is another clue, for the painting was first documented, together with its pendant, at a sale held in that city in 1769. Thus it is to be hoped that further archival research in Brussels will eventually yield some biographical information on Peeter Leermans. His oeuvre, too, certainly deserves closer investigation.21