Abraham Janssens I, Abraham Janssen I or Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen (ca. 1567 – 1632) was a Flemish painter, who is known principally for his large religious and mythological works, which show the influence of Caravaggio. He was the leading history painter in Flanders prior to the return of Rubens from Italy.
He was likely born in Antwerp in 1567 although some sources place his date of birth later around 1675. He studied under Jan Snellinck and was registered as a pupil in the local Guild of Saint Luke in 1585. He travelled to Italy where he resided mainly in Rome between 1597 and 1602. After returning to his home country he became a master in the Antwerp Guild in 1602. On 1 May 1602 he married Sara Goetkint (died in Antwerp on 7 April 1644) with whom he had 8 children, five of whom were still alive at the time of her death: Maria Anna (the later wife of Jan Brueghel the Younger), Sara, Catharina, Lucretia and Abraham II.
In 1607 he became the dean of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke. This is also the time when he received his first major commissions, which initiated the most important period of his career. Until the return of Rubens to Antwerp in 1608, Janssens was considered perhaps the best historical painter of his time. After Rubens became the dominant force in the Antwerp market for large altarpieces, Janssens had to find commissions for large monumental works from provincial patrons.
Janssens painted both religious, mythological and allegorical scenes, and occasionally a portrait. Janssens affixed the signature "Janssens van Nuyssen" to several of his pictures. It is believed that 'van Nuyssen' was the family name of his mother and that Janssens added it to his signature to distinguish himself from his namesakes as the family name Janssens was very common in the 17th century.
His earliest works are still steeped in late 16th-century Mannerism and are characterized by an artificial design and a palette composed of dispersing colours. From 1606 onwards, his style started to show the influence of Caravaggio. It is believed that this was a response to new tendencies in the Antwerp school of painting around this time. He painted in this style for about five to six years.
His composition Scaldis and Antverpia (also referred to as Allegory of the Scheldt) of 1609 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp) is a key work of Janssens’ Caravaggesque period. It was commissioned by the Antwerp city magistrate to decorate the chimney in the city hall’s Assembly Room where the Twelve Years' Truce between Spain and the Dutch Republic was signed on 9 April 1609. Rubens also received a commission for the same occasion. It was hoped that the Truce would bring new prosperity and trade to Antwerp, for which the city had traditionally relied on the river Scheldt. The subject of the work is therefore Scaldis (the river Scheldt) and Antverpia (the city of Antwerp). The figure of Scaldis is inspired by the statute of the Tiber on the Capitoline Hill while the composition itself resembles Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. This work shows how Janssens’ style had developed towards a classic academic beauty, harmonious in form and with an unbroken palette. The influence of Caravaggio is seen in the use of strong contrasts of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) to create expressive power, while the influence of the School of Bologna can be found in his search for noble classicism. The preference of Janssens for sculptural form impairs the drama of the work as the figures are represented in frozen poses and expression. This work was made when Janssens' artistic powers reached their peak.
Other works dating to this overtly Carravesque period are the Allegory of the burdens of time (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 1609), Peace and plenty (Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1614), which was also commissioned for the Antwerp city hall’s Assembly Room, and The dead Christ in the tomb with two angels (Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1610). The latter painting was likely commissioned as an altarpiece. This Caravaggesque composition predates comparable Dutch works such as Dirck van Baburen’s Roman charity by a decade.
Janssens' later work is regarded as less convincing. After 1612, like that of all his other colleagues in Antwerp, his painting style came under the strong influence of the free style of Rubens’ pictorial technique. Janssens’ paintings of half-length figures were still regarded as innovative and influential while his devotional pictures were also successful. A good example of the latter is The crucifixion (Musée des beaux-arts de Valenciennes, c. 1620) in which the figures look like painted like sculptures and take on an iconic timelessness.
- Walter A. Liedtke, Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984, p. 108-110
- Abraham Janssens at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (Dutch)
- Roger A. d'Hulst, Abraham Janssens - Scaldis en Antwerpia at Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen (Dutch)
- Bert Timmermans, Patronen van patronage in het zeventiende-eeuwse Antwerpen: een elite als actor binnen een kunstwereld, Amsterdam University Press, 2008 - Antwerp (Belgium), p. 195 (Dutch)
- Joost De Geest, 500 chefs-d'oeuvre de l'art belge, Lannoo Uitgeverij, 2006, p227 (French)
- Nora de Poorter, Abraham Janssens - De Mens bezwijkend onder de Lasten van de Tijd wordt bijgestaan door Hoop en Geduld at Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen (Dutch)
- Abraham Janssens, Peace and Plenty Binding the Arrows of War (Alternative title: Allegory of Concord) at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery
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