Today is the birthday (1610) of David Teniers the Younger, Flemish painter, printmaker, draughtsman, miniaturist painter, staffage painter, copyist, and art curator known for his prolific output. He is not a household name nowadays, but he was the leading Flemish genre painter of his day, especially as Flemish art went into decline in the 1640s following the deaths of Rubens and van Dyck. He was an innovator in a wide range of genres such as history, genre, landscape, portrait, and still life. He was court painter and the curator of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, the art-loving Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands. He was also founder of the Antwerp Academy, where young artists were trained to draw and sculpt in the hope of reviving Flemish art after its decline. As such he was influential on the next generation of Northern genre painters as well as on French Rococo painters such as Antoine Watteau.
Teniers was born in Antwerp, son of David Teniers the Elder and Dymphna de Wilde. His father was a painter of altarpieces and small-scale cabinet paintings. Three of his brothers also became painters: Juliaan III (1616–1679), Theodoor (1619–1697) and Abraham (1629–1670). The work of his two oldest brothers is virtually unknown while the work of his youngest brother Abraham was very close to David’s own.
From 1626 David the younger studied under his father.The father and son pair created together a series of twelve panels recounting stories from Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Museo del Prado, Madrid). His father was frequently in financial straits and his debts landed him occasionally in jail. David the younger had to make copies of old masters in order to support the family. In 1632–33 he was registered as ‘wijnmeester’ (i.e. the son of a master) in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke.
A David Teniers is recorded in the Antwerp records as having been issued in 1635 a passport to visit Paris. The artist likely also traveled to England as on 29 December 1635 of the same year he signed in Dover a contract with the Antwerp art dealer Chrisostomos van Immerseel, then resident in England.
Rubens received in 1636 a commission from the Spanish king Philip IV of Spain to create a series of mythological paintings to decorate the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge of the king near Madrid. The mythological scenes depicted in the series were largely based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Rubens realized this important commission with the assistance of a large number of Antwerp painters including Teniers but his painting for this project, following is Rubens’ design, is now lost.
Teniers married Anna Brueghel, daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder, on 22 July 1637. Rubens, who had been the guardian of Anna Brueghel after her father’s death, was a witness at the wedding. Through his marriage Teniers was able to cement a close relationship with Rubens who had been a good friend and frequent collaborator with his wife’s father. This is borne out by the fact that at the baptism of the first of the couple’s seven children, David Teniers III, Rubens’ second wife, Hélène Fourment was the godmother. Around this time Teniers started to gain a reputation as an artist and he received a number of commissions. The Guild of St George (Oude Voetboog Guild), a local militia in Antwerp, commissioned a group portrait in 1643 (Hermitage Museum).
Teniers was a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1644-1645. When Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria became the Governor General of the Southern Netherlands in 1647, the Archduke soon became an important patron of Teniers. The success went to the artist’s head. He claimed that his grandfather Julian Taisnier, who had moved from Ath (now located in the Walloon province of Hainaut) to Antwerp in the 16th century had been from a family that had been entitled to bear a coat of arms. Teniers started to use this coat of arms consisting of a crouching bear on a field of gold encircled by three green acorns. His brother-in-law Jan Baptist Borrekens reported him and Teniers was prohibited from using the coat of arms.
Around 1650 Teniers moved to Brussels to formally enter into the service of the Archduke as a “pintor de cámara” (court painter). The Archduke asked him to be the keeper of the art gallery he had set up in his palace in Brussels. In that position he succeeded the Antwerp painter Jan van den Hoecke who had earlier worked in Vienna for the Archduke. One of Teniers’ key tasks in this position was to look after and enlarge the Archducal collection. Teniers put together a collection for the art gallery which included his own work and that of other artists, which he selected. He was involved in the purchase of a large number of Italian, and especially Venetian, masterpieces from the confiscated collections of Charles I of England and his Jacobite supporters. One of his most important successes was the acquisition of the major part (about 400 paintings) of the collection owned by James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who had been a close associate and favorite of the English king and was, like the king, executed in 1649. The Conde de Fuensaldaña, then acting as Leopold Wilhelm’s lieutenant in the Southern Netherlands, also sent Teniers the Younger to England in 1651 to purchase paintings. The collection of the Archduke grew to incorporate about 1,300 works, mainly of leading Italian artists such as Raphael, Giorgione, Veronese and Titian (15 works by this artist alone) as well as of famous Northern artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jan van Eyck. The collection became the foundation and nucleus of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The Archduke also promoted Teniers’ art by giving his paintings to other European rulers as presents. As a result many of these rulers also became patrons of Teniers. The bishop of Ghent Anthonius Triest, the Stadtholder Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange, Christina, Queen of Sweden, William II, Prince of Orange and Philip IV of Spain were among his patrons. Teniers bought a house close to the Brussels court and was promoted in 1655 to ‘camerdiender’ or ‘ayuda de cámara’ (chamberlain) by the Archduke. It was most unusual for a painter to serve as chamberlain at the Spanish court. In fact, there was only one other case, which dates from the same time: that of Velázquez, whose aim was also to be elevated to the nobility. Not long after the Archduke resigned from his position as Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands and returned to Vienna with his large art collection. A Flemish priest, who was also a gifted still life painter, Jan Anton van der Baren, moved with Leopold Wilhelm from Brussels to Vienna where he was the successor of Teniers as the director of the archducal gallery in Vienna. Teniers also stood in high favor with the new Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands, Don Juan of Austria, a natural son of Philip IV of Spain. The prince was his pupil, and the early biographer Cornelis de Bie recounts that the prince painted the likeness of the painter’s son.
Teniers’ wife died on 11 May 1656. On 21 October of the same year the artist remarried. His second wife was Isabella de Fren, the 32-year old daughter of Andries de Fren, secretary of the Council of Brabant. It has been suggested that Teniers’ main motive for marrying her was her rather elevated position in society. She also brought him a large dowry. The couple had four children. His second wife’s attitude to Teniers’ children from his first marriage would later divide the family in legal battles. Teniers petitioned the king of Spain to be admitted to the aristocracy but gave up when the condition imposed was that he should give up painting for money.
When Don Juan of Austria ended his term as Governor General of the Southern Netherlands in January 1659, Teniers appears to have withdrawn from active court duty. He purchased from the husband of Hélène Fourment, the widow of Rubens, a country estate called the ‘Drij Toren’ (‘Three towers’) located in Perk, in the environs of Brussels and Vilvoorde. Teniers did not cut his links with Antwerp while living and working in Brussels. Teniers maintained close contacts with artists as well as the influential art dealers in Antwerp. In particular; the firm of Matthijs Musson was instrumental in building Teniers’ international reputation.
At the behest of his Antwerp colleagues of the Guild of Saint Luke, Teniers became the driving force behind the foundation of the Academy in Antwerp, only the second of such type of institution in Europe after the one in Paris. He used his connections and sent his son to Madrid to assist in the negotiation to successfully obtain the required license from the Spanish King. There were great celebrations in Antwerp when, on 26 January 1663, Teniers came from Brussels with the royal charter creating the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the existence of which was due entirely to his persistence. When in 1674 the existence of the Academy was threatened he again used his influence at the Spanish court to save the institution.
As a court painter Teniers was not required to become member of a local guild. Nevertheless, he became a member of the Brussels Guild of Saint Luke in 1675. In his later years Teniers was also active as an art dealer and he organized art auctions. This brought him into conflict with his fellow artists who started proceedings to prohibit him from holding an auction in 1683. Teniers argued that he needed the proceeds of the auction because his children were suing him for their mother’s part of her estate. The matter was finally settled between the parties themselves. In his final years he lost his second wife and was involved in further lawsuits over her estate with the two surviving children of his second wife. On 25 April 1690 David Teniers died in Brussels.
I will give you my usual gallery of the artist, but this time divided up by genre to give a sense of his diversity.
Interiors from ordinary life
Landscapes involving some special activity
Alchemists and physicians
Monkeys imitating human activity
A suitable dish for today would be mosselen-friet, more commonly known as moules-frites in French, and very popular in France, but probably of Flemish origin (not least because the second still life in the gallery shows a pot of mussels). It is sometimes called Belgium’s national dish. It is likely that it was originally created by combining mussels, a popular and cheap foodstuff eaten around the Flemish coast, and fried potatoes which were commonly eaten around the country in winter when no fish or other food was available, or any time, for that matter. Belgians eat deep-fried potatoes with everything. This dish is really two dishes combined into one: mussels cooked in some way or other and served in one dish, and deep-fried potatoes served on another.
I like the mussels to be steamed with a very small amount of water, plus butter, chopped celery and chopped leeks (called mosselen natuur in Dutch, moules natures in French). Use only tightly closed mussels. Make sure that they are well scrubbed, and you have cut away all the beard material from the outside. Allow about 1 liter of mussels per person. Heat the butter, water, leeks, and celery over high heat in a large pot until the water is boiling. Add the mussels, cover the pot tightly, and let the mussels steam for 5 minutes or so. Check and see if they have opened. When all are opened (discard any that do not open within the time allowed), serve immediately in the pot you have cooked them in with the juices from cooking. Serve the fried potatoes separately.
Belgians generally deep fry their potatoes twice at high temperature so that they are cooked and moist on the inside and crisp on the outside. In Belgium, bintje potatoes are the most commonly available variety and are generally preferred for fries because of their high starch content. They are partly fried, left to cool, and then fried again. They are typically fried at around 190°C/374°F.
One common way to eat mosselen-friet is with your fingers. Start by picking one mussel out of its shell and eating it. Then use the shell as a pair of pincers to pick other mussels out of their shells, and also to pick up fries one by one and dip them in the mussel sauce before eating. Provide a large bowl for discarded shells, and also plenty of napkins.