Quirin Van Brekelenkam

di Paul Jeromack

I’ve always had an affection for Quiringh van Brekelenkam, (c. 1620-1668) one of the Leiden “little masters” of genre painting. As the son of a tailor, the artist was well-versed in the production and marketing of the cloth trade, Leiden’s most important export, and his most beguiling and innovative paintings depict its workers and merchants hard at work: tailors and fabric-sellers bantering with customers, spinners at the wheel, lacemakers and cobblers repairing worn soles. A presumed pupil of Gerard Dou, he was a well-liked character amongst his colleagues. One unknown eighteenth century commentator noted “The painters of his time, who called him simply Quiringh, often sought his company, as he was very witty and funny, having as well the gift of being able to imitate everyone’s speech and mannerisms.” But despite his talents, and much like his friend and colleague Jan Steen, Brekelenkam produced work of maddeningly uneven quality.
The commentator noted that the “little man” Brekelenkam lived in near-poverty for much of his life with “many children (nine, to be exact) and domestic cares and very little means. To feed his family he resorted to produce many bad paintings , which he simply dashed off to earn some money.” The writer astutely noted that Leiden had a near-glut of fine painters competing for clients: “What is unfortunate about various painters from the school of Dou is that in their time there were so many highly talented artists comparable to their master [Dou], Frans van Mieris and others, that the others (like Brekelenkam) were disregarded.”

Yet when Brekelenkam made a special effort, he revealed himself to be a painter of great sensitivity depicting his workaday subjects with a warmth and humanity often missing from the productions of his more polished and successful contemporaries. Sotheby’s will be offering one of his finest such paintings on January 27, a large well-preserved panel of “The Lacemakers School” (est. $100-150,000) monogrammed and dated 1654.

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