A distinguished and scholarly artist, Van Veen is best known as a teacher of Rubens, who studied with him from 1596 to 1598 and then assisted him for another two years before leaving for Italy. Van Veen's career bears some similarity to that of his most famous pupil. Born into an aristocratic family, he studied in the Netherlands and Italy and spent most of his career in Antwerp, where he had a large studio. Like Rubens, he found great success as a court painter and worked for, among others, Rudolf II in Prague, William V in Bavaria, and Alessandro Farnese in Brussels.
In this large copper panel, Van Veen created a dense, horizontally oriented composition using brilliant primary colors. Although Rubens came to adopt a more painterly working method than his teacher, the amalgamation of physiognomies that are found in this work -- from the graceful Virgin to the heroic male shepherd to the androgynous angel -- appear in paintings by Rubens as well, such as his Adoration of the Shepherds now in the St. Pauluskerk, Antwerp. In Van Veen's own oeuvre, this work is closely related to another Nativity on copper in the Gemäldegalerie, Schleissheim, which belongs to a series of fifteen paintings depicting the Life of the Virgin. The Schleissheim painting, though smaller (23.5 x 32 cm.), contains a virtually identical shepherd kneeling at the right, and in both works the shepherd presents the Christ child with humble gifts of apples, eggs, birds, and a lamb. The bound lamb, likely alluding to Christ's future sacrifice, appears as well in works by other artists painting for Catholic patrons in the Netherlands. It is seen, for example, in Abraham Bloemaert's Adoration of the Shepherds of 1612 in the Louvre (inv. 1052). The present work is likely earlier, for the reverse of the panel bears the mark used by Antwerp coppersmith Pieter Stas before 1608 (see Worcester, op. cit., pp. 134-135).
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, The Collectors Cabinet: Flemish Paintings from New England Collections, 6 November 1983-29 January 1984, no. 35.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 8 April 1970, lot 40 (£55 to Kyrle Fletcher).
with Central Picture Galleries, New York.
Private Collection, United States.