All That Glistens

Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem
Haarlem 1562 – 1638
Sinners before the Flood
oil on copper
10 x 14 ¼ inches
25.5 x 36.5 cm

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638) was the last leading mannerist of the northern Netherlands. In his youth he studied in Rouen and Antwerp before returning to his native city Haarlem, where he married the daughter of the mayor in 1603. Along with Karel van Mander and Hendrick Goltzius, he started an informal drawing school which became known as the Haarlem academy. Like most artists he was required to paint portraits, but his best works are religious and mythological. Particularly spectacular is his large Fall of the Titans of 1588-90 in the National Gallery of Denmark (inv. KMS1), where the highly exuberant gestures, forms and expressions are an exemplary display of late mannerist virtuosity, analogous to the work of some of Michelangelo’s Italian followers like Pellegrino Tibaldi.

Fig. 1 Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, Fall of the Titans, 1588-90 © National Gallery of Denmark, KMS1

The Sinners before the Flood of 1625 is from later in the artist’s career when his style became more classical, perhaps under the influence of the later paintings of Goltzius. The studied variety of the poses reflects the practice of life drawing in an academy like the one he co-founded in Haarlem. Indeed, the pose of the nude woman on the left is adapted from a canonical academic source: Raphael’s fresco of the wedding banquet of Cupid and Psyche in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. The subject is inspired by Genesis chapter 6 when God had become convinced of the wickedness of the world, and determined to cancel it except for Noah and those in the ark destined to survive the Flood. The soft flesh of the men and women borders on the decadent in the way it conveys their sensual and self indulgent idleness towards an audience for whom sloth as well as lust were cardinal sins. The fruits in the foreground are an obvious reference to the fall of man. The painting comes off since the artist has not tried to do too much. Such a calm yet sensual statement of an uncomplicated moral message would have made it easy to live with and it may have been destined for a bedchamber or some other intimate space. One is even reminded of the sea nymphs of the late 19th century German romantic painter Arnold Böcklin in the sinners’ unreflecting and naive abandon! ❖

signed and dated ‘CH. 1625’, lower left

 

Private collection, New York

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