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;1 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.2 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.3
Van Mieris could have consulted various Dutch translations of Livy while painting this work.4 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.5
Paintings of the suicide of Lucretia by Northern Netherlandish artists are rather rare.6 A painting that Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) made in 1664 shows Lucretia on the point of plunging the knife into herself.7 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.8 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.9 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.”10 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.11
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 (fig 1), he enlarged his painting by joining a smaller panel to the lower edge of the original panel (which is rounded at the top).12 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 (fig 2).13 Although unusual in its scope, such changes in composition and dimensions do exist in other of his paintings.14
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.15 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.16 The figural arrangement, for example, is comparable to that of his Doctor’s Visit of 1667 (fig 3).17 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.18
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.19 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.20 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 1673.21 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).22 The dog, too, appears in an even earlier painting, made in 1678.23 Evidently, Van Mieris based this animal on a now unknown preparatory drawing.24
The Death of Lucretia has an impressive provenance.25 One of its previous owners was Willem Lormier (1682–1758) of The Hague,26 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.27 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.28 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.”29 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.30 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.31 The number “44” on the back of the panel still recalls this high-profile sale.32 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.