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A Record €3 Million for a rare and impressive Frans Verbeeck “The Mocking of Human Follies” at Dorotheum

October 19, 2014
Lot 33. Frans Verbeeck (Mechelen c. 1510–1570)  The Mocking of Human Follies, oil on canvas, 135 x 188 cm, framed  Estimate: €900,000 – 1,200,000 Click on image to enlarge

Lot 33. Frans Verbeeck (Mechelen c. 1510–1570) The Mocking of Human Follies,
oil on canvas: 135 x 188 cm, framed
Estimate: €900,000 – 1,200,000 This lot sold for €3 million. 
Click on image to enlarge

POST SALE UPDATE: According to Artlyst, the Verbeeck painting not only sold for a record €3 million, it is one of the expensive paintings ever sold at auction in Austria.

ORIGINAL POST: An exceptional and iconographically rich painting by the 16th Netherlandish artist Frans Verbeeck, is a featured work at Dorotheum’s October 21, 2014 auction.   Verbeeck’s work parallels in originality and eccentricity that of Hieronymous Bosch (who preceded him), and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (a contemporary), though not influenced by Bosch’s compositions as were his idiosyncratic contemporaries Pieter Huys and Jan Mandyn. Some biographical material from Christie’s December 4, 2013 Old Master sale catalogue:

Karel van Mander records that Verbeeck was ‘skilled in painting watercolour pieces in the manner of Bosch … From his hand we have some amusing peasant weddings and similar pleasantries’ (K. van Mander, Het schilder-boeck, Haarlem, 1604) … [Additionally, only] one signed painting by Frans Verbeeck I is known, Fool’s Market (Belgium, private collection), and numerous works are given to him and his workshop, which appears to have flourished in Mechelen throughout the 16th century and into the first decades of the 17th century. Other members of the Verbeeck family include Jan Verbeeck I (1520-1569), Jan Verbeeck II (1545-after 1619), and Frans Verbeeck II (active in the 17th century). The 2003 exhibition, De zotte schilders. Moraalridders van het penseel rond Bosch, Bruegel en Brouwer (Mechelen, Centrum voor Oude Kunst), made some strides in identifying individual hands associated with the workshop …

From the Dorotheum sale catalogue:

This crowded scene, which seems incomprehensible at first sight, needs to be looked at in more detail. In an open landscape covered with green meadows, small figurines are being traded beneath a tall tree. Some of them, wearing caps and bells, are recognisable as fools. On the right-hand side of the composition is an inn, while the coast and ships appear on the left. The whole scenery is interspersed with merchants and buyers, all of whom are busy dealing with the tiny fools: fools en miniature (fantastic diminutions reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are being offered for sale and purchased as if they were articles of trade. The absurdity of these transactions can only be interpreted as an allegory that appears to illustrate that human folly will always be circulating and is therefore inextinguishable. The painting is thus an allegorical satire of man’s follies. The subject of the mocking of human follies and its unique and scenically elaborate visual translation deviates from the hitherto known themes of the Verbeeck group, mainly treating, as far as the works in question have survived, peasant weddings, the Temptation of Saint Anthony, and, in one example, an allegory of gluttony. The present composition, different from the Verbeecks’ commonly small-sized paintings on cloth, also stands out for its large scale and the employment of oil paint instead of tempera, which was otherwise used almost without exception. The painting’s iconography is highly complex and can be outlined here only roughly. A detailed analysis appears in the exhibition catalogue De Zotte Schilders (Mechelen, 2003) mentioned above.

Verbeeck Detail 1 - click on image to enlarge.

Verbeeck Detail 1 – click on image to enlarge.

Here are some of the principal scenes shown in the present composition: In the foreground, several merchants are depicted sitting at a table and cradling some of the tiny fools, while a travelling vendor and his wife offer small fools for sale from a sack and baskets. The vendor is depicted harnessed like a horse, and on his forehead sits one of the little fools with a hammer – an allusion to the well-known ‘stone operation’. This surgical removal of a stone through the forehead was a subject that originated in the art of Hieronymus Bosch and was widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries in the form of numerous representations and variations. The motif’s message is quite simple: it is impossible to cure stupidity through surgery.

Verbeeck Detail 2 - click on image to enlarge.

Verbeeck Detail 2 – click on image to enlarge.

In the left background appears another vendor, who sits under a tree, as well as a covered set of scales that is obviously used for weighing the fools, who are delivered by waggons and even by boat. In the right middle ground appears a man at a table selling fools, while another vendor offering fools is based next to the inn.

Inspirations and instructions for the numerous allusive and enigmatic details contained in the present composition can be found in the satirical rhymes of the Guild of Rhetoricians, the so-called ‘rederijkers’ (comparable to today’s carnival speakers), which made fun of vices and follies. The inscribed panels integrated in the present picture – unfortunately they are illegible – might quote short passages from such texts performed by the ‘rederijkers’.The clergy and Catholicism are also ridiculed here: the amorous couple at the right margin consists of a friar and a nun that seem to have escaped from their monastery and convent and now indulge in the folly of love. Left to the principal scene, a couple of pilgrims kneeling down in adoration in front of a couple of aged fools is just as peculiar. The female fool nurses a baby fool, feeding him some kind of mash.

Verbeeck Detail 2 - click on image to enlarge.

Verbeeck Detail 3 – click on image to enlarge.

Numerous further allusions to satirical texts, which cannot be listed here exhaustively for lack of space, can be found in the catalogue quoted above. Just one more example is the cage in the right background suspended above a group of dancers: it contains a fool hatching a large egg from which emerges a small fool. The motif refers to the proverb ‘men mag geen zot eieren laten uitbroeden’, which means that one should not allow fools to hatch eggs as they will only produce more fools.

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