This intimate portrait by the Dutch master Jan van Bijlert depicts Caspar, one of the three Biblical Magi from the Christian tradition. Individual portraits of the three Kings such as this are rare in the history of art, and this example is further distinguished by the intense naturalism that pervades van Bijlert’s oeuvre. Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio, van Bijlert’s Caspar fills the pictorial plane in a stunning half-length portrait that possesses an immediacy and humanity rarely seen in religious works of the period. This veracity lends his subject a powerful dignity as he holds aloft his gift of frankincense, presumably in the presentation to the child Jesus.
A similar composition by van Bijlert is currently in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Saumur, France, where it is accompanied by depictions of the other two magi: Melchior and Balthasar. In each of these works, van Bijlert’s gift as a draftsman is clearly on display, particularly in his masterful placement of highlights and shadows. The present work, painted with brilliance and vivid realism, reveals his fresh, direct approach, and offers an intriguing mix of contemporary fashion with traditional Christian symbolism.
Adorned with stunning jewels and lustrous pearls, Caspar wears a turban centered by a cameo of a man in prayer, likely in reference to the overall narrative of the scene – the adoration of the Magi. In his hands, he holds a silver beaker of frankincense that is reminiscent of the work of the famed silversmith Adam van Vianen, who was active in Utrecht during the same period. Crafted in irregular, organic forms that presaged the Art Nouveau style, goblets and beakers by van Vianen were highly sought after by leading Dutch families. Van Bijlert’s inclusion of the form here not only indicates the wealth of his subject, King Caspar but also reveals the artist’s mindfulness of the tastes of his wealthy clientele. His nod to contemporary fashions and prevailing tastes ensured his continuous popularity throughout his lifetime.
Born at the end of the 16th century, Jan van Bijlert is regarded among the most celebrated of the Utrecht Caravaggisti. After his early artistic training in the Dutch tradition under Abraham Bloemaert, van Bijlert traveled to Italy, where he encountered the works of Caravaggio for the first time. The trip would forever alter his artistic style, and he soon after became renowned for his half-length, naturalistic and vibrantly hued compositions. Today, his works can be found in public collections around the world, including the National Gallery (London), Walters Art Museum (Baltimore), Statens Museum for Kunst (Copenhagen), and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid).
This painting has been authenticated by Dr. Paul Huys Janssen, and a similar composition by van Bijlert in both subject and size is illustrated in Jan van Bijlert, 1597/98-1671: Catalogue Raisonné, 1998, by P. Huys Janssen, pp. 95-96, no. 6, pl. 141.
Panel: 16 5/8" high x 12" wide
Frame: 25 1/2" high x 21" wide