Philips Wouwerman

The Haarlem artist Philips Wouwerman was a celebrated and prolific artist, who specialised in landscapes that almost featured one or more horses in a key role. Many depict mounted or resting travellers, smithies, stables, army encampments, and blood-curdling battles and hunting parties. Although Wouwerman was a versatile artist who also painted narrative genre scenes and occasional seascapes and religious paintings, it is his polished landscapes with horses that have decisively influenced the public perception of his oeuvre to this day. He probably took his first steps as a painter in the studio of his father, Pouwels Wouwerman (1585?-1642), a history painter described by the artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) as ‘mediocre’.1 According to Cornelis de Bie (1627-1711/16), he then went on to a vastly superior teacher – none other than Frans Hals (cat. no. 21).2 Because of certain similarities of style and choice of subject, it has sometimes been suggested that Pieter Verbeeck (1610/15-1652/53) may have taught Wouwerman, but an equally plausible explanation of these similarities is the strong influence on both of these Haarlem masters of the Italianate work of Pieter van Laer (1599-after 1642). Wouwerman’s earliest work in particular (produced in the period 1639–1645) is unmistakably based on paintings, etchings, and drawings by Van Laer, who had returned to Haarlem in 1639 after almost fifteen years in Rome.3 He had been widely fêted in Italy for his scenes from local life, including landscapes with horsemen, resting travellers and robberies, attracting a host of followers both in Rome and later in the Netherlands. Wouwerman too, who never went to Italy himself, was fascinated by Van Laer’s innovative work. According to Houbraken, at some point he even came into the possession of a group of drawings by Van Laer, which he used as examples for his own work.4 That Wouwerman continued to draw copiously on material by other artists in this initial period is also clear from the somewhat wooden, unnatural figures in his earliest paintings.

Wouwerman’s individual mature style developed from around 1644, with his horses too emerging as convincing flesh-and-blood creatures. When his paintings dated 1646 are compared to the earlier work, we are struck by the artist’s lightning development within a relatively brief space of time. The work he produced roughly between 1646 and 1650 generally combines a low vantage point with a diagonal composition, strong light-dark contrasts, and a convincing rendering of depth. His palette is dominated by brown hues, with striking accents such as a white horse or a figure’s colourful garment. He also introduced, albeit sparingly, a silvery tone, which would later become one of the trademark features of his best works.5

All these characteristics are seen in the undated Peasants playing cards by a white horse in a rocky gully, a painting with an unmistakably southern atmosphere. The work depicts a small group of travellers who have dismounted in a gully to relax over a game of cards. A dog lies sleeping beside them. A fourth man with a red fur cap and shabby clothes stands beside a workhorse. A woman is making her way along the steep path behind them, holding the hand of a small child. The child is pointing to the top of the hill, where a man is walking towards them – another traveller, judging by the bundle he carries. The light clouds above the man’s head stand out beautifully against the dark, dense undergrowth on the rocks on either side of the composition. The rocky landscape bears no resemblance to the flat polder landscape of Holland, and the ruins at the top of the path also show clearly that Wouwerman intended this scene to radiate an Italianate ambience.6

The horse bears a wooden harness of the simplest type. It has neither saddle nor bit, from which we may infer that it was not ridden. Theoretically a cart or plough could be strapped to the harness, but there is no trace of any such attachment. The white horse is a klepper, a small, non-thoroughbred horse,7 a type seen in many of Wouwerman’s paintings. The most famous example is without a doubt ‘The white horse’ in the Rijksmuseum (fig. 1).8 In this painting the horse is centre stage. Like the one in the painting discussed here, it is shown diagonally from behind; both horses have one lock of their manes hanging towards the viewer, and in both cases Wouwerman has accentuated the animals’ coat on the flank and hip with strokes of pinkish-brown paint. This work, like the rocky gully, is undated, but bears the monogram PH.W in the lower left corner. Wouwerman is known to have expanded his monogram from 1646 onwards to PHL W, PHIL W, and sometimes PHILS W;9 the latter variant appears at lower left in the rocky landscape. The painting discussed here must therefore have been painted in or after 1646.10 Its southern atmosphere suggests a dating to 1646–1650 (not much later), since this was the period in which Wouwerman drew most inspiration from Italianate landscape painters.

We can assume that Wouwerman expanded his monogram to distinguish his work clearly from that of his brother Pieter Wouwerman (1623-1682), who painted similar scenes.11 Pieter and the youngest brother Jan Wouwerman (1629-1666) were most probably taught by Philips, the most talented of the three. Jan focused mainly on painting dune landscapes in which figures played a marginal role, but also drew inspiration from Philips’s work. This influence is marvellously illustrated by a copy made by Jan of the painting discussed here – with exactly the same dimensions – which he signed in full with his own name (fig. 2).12 This work, which is clearly inferior in quality to the original, has been in the Liechtenstein Collection since 1801. It is without a doubt owing to the great fame of Philips Wouwerman, which peaked in the eighteenth century, that even an inferior copy by his brother Jan could have ended up in such a prestigious collection.