Quiringh van Brekelenkam Housewife, the Maid, and the Fish
Painted by the Dutch artist Quiringh van Brekelenkam (1623-1669?). A Housewife and Maid with a Fish was displayed modestly, off to one side, on the stand of Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts at the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) last March. Perhaps that positioning was appropriate. It’s an unassuming domestic scene that shows a finely dressed merchant-class housewife assessing a fish presented by her maid, presumably for the evening meal.
Brekelenkam painted many such scenes. Even though this one is gentle, appealing, and amusing, it may never have been displayed particularly prominently by any of its owners — not even by Alfred Cohen, the Amsterdam merchant who bought it in 1931. The events that followed his purchase, however, have earned A Housewife and Maid with a Fish a place of distinction in art history.
This painting hung in the Cohen home for 10 years before it caught the eye of Dr. Hans Posse, director of Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum. Posse confiscated the Housewife and sent it for safekeeping in Austria’s Altaussee salt mine. There the painting remained until 1945, when it was recovered by none other than the “Monuments Men” celebrated by Hollywood earlier this year. Another nine years passed before it was returned to the Cohen family, and it remained in their possession until Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts offered it for $65,000 at TEFAF this year.
ART THAT SAVED LIVES
Alfred Cohen (1885-1950) was the director and co-owner of Maison de Bonneterie, Amsterdam’s finest department store. He had inherited the post from his uncle Joseph Cohen, who founded by the Louvre in 1983.) Though rekelenkam’s Housewife does not rank in the same hallowed league as masterworks by Vermeer, van Eyck, and ichelangelo, it was hidden there, too. In all, more than 6,500 paintings, plus other artworks and treasures, were secreted at Altaussee in relative safety — at least, until the Nazis tried to blow it up in 1945.
Yes, eight crates of explosives were stored there on the understanding that if the Allies prevailed, the mine’s contents would be destroyed. Fortunately, this did not happen. Instead, the explosives were removed by an insubordinate Nazi officer and the mine’s tunnels crippled to prevent access to the artworks. That’s what greeted the members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section — the Monuments Men — when they arrived at Altaussee in May 1945.
After the recovery of the Housewife came its road to restitution, which happened relatively quickly (all things considered). Certainly there were bureaucratic obstacles to surmount, but the Cohens were able to reclaim the painting in 1954. Considering that only 12 percent of artworks stolen by the Nazis from Dutch owners had been returned by the 1990s, the Cohens’ recovery of 15 of their 16 paintings seems almost miraculous.
IN PROPER CONTEXT
Setting aside its extraordinary provenance, A Housewife and Maid with a Fish is a fine example of its type. A significant figure in the school of painters working in the Dutch city of Leiden, Quiringh (or Quirijn) van
Brekelenkam is what Steigrad calls an “entry point” for collectors who appreciate the Old Masters but aren’t necessarily in a position to acquire a painting by, say, Jan Steen or Pieter de Hooch. “He’s a ‘minor master,’” Steigrad explains, “a name brand for people in the know.”
If you need confirmation of this, consider that the “1871 Purchase” of artworks, which effectively launched New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, included a domestic scene by Brekelenkam called The Spinner. And at the
Mauritshuis in The Hague (see page 102), a picture by Brekelenkam can be found hanging just one room away from Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring — not quite at the pinnacle of Dutch artistry, but close.
Like other Golden Age genre painters such as Gabriel Metsu and Gerrit Dou (whom he knew). The prolific Brekelenkam was popular in his day largely because he gave the people what they wanted. “He was not working on commission, but for the open market, so he was competing with other artists”. Notes Peggy Stone, vice president of Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts. “He needed subjects that sold. Thus Brekelenkam is best known for interiors of workshops and businesses, including multiple versions of a tailor’s shop, one of which is in London’s National Gallery and another in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
The Mauritshuis’s painting is called The Bloodletting, and depicts an old woman bleeding a younger one. It’s actually not as macabre as it sounds, yet one might well wonder what sort of collector would choose such a subject for display at home. The same might be said for Doctor Visiting a Sick Woman, a version of which sold at
Christie’s Amsterdam in 2007.
Of course, it’s much easier to grasp the appeal of the Housewife. Wearing a furtrimmed jacket over a gold-colored dress, she’s the model of a modern wife of the 1660s. “Scenes like this reinforced a sense of morality,” Stone explains. “It was a merchant-class society. They were not looking to be aristocrats; they were working hard and living the ‘right’ life. She’s in the public room of her home and she’s doing her duty. The message being: If
your household functions well, all of society does, too.”
A Housewife and Maid with Fish is a small painting with big stories to tell. As it awaits its next owner, a new chapter is about to be written.