A Puzzling Picture in the Rijksmuseum Cardinal Borromeo distributing Charity in a Landscape with Ruins, attributed to Henry Ferguson, or Hendrick Vergazon, dated, 1700 1720, oil on canvas, 130 cm x 193 cm, Some paintings are real conundrums, like this one that turned up in a Facebook discussion between me and some other art lovers last week.
A colleague in Amsterdam, Maaike Dirkx, unearthed this intriguing, not to say baffling picture from the depths of the Rijksmuseum. I'll let Maaike describe it: "This painting poses all sorts of intriguing questions. It shows the saint Carlo Borromeo standing in an idealised classicist landscape next to an enormous marble sarcophagus showing in relief an adoration of the shepherds. According to the Rijksmuseum this scene was based on a painting that was attributed to Raphael since c.1635. I haven't been able to find it suggestions are appreciated! Borromeo points to the relief while addressing two men, one of them a dean. A crippled man sits next to him in front of the sarcophagus. On the left, in the foreground, we see the Holy Family with the Christ Child riding on donkeys, accompanied by a young man. In the centre a blind boy and a blind girl cross a stream. To the right, in the middle background, a richly dressed young mean gives alms to a group of beggars." Flight into Egypt group. Maaike brought me in because I've spent a lot of time looking at 17th century French art. Looking at this, I could immediately detect a whole spectrum of different influences not just French. The landscape suggests knowledge of Nicolas Poussin, as does the Holy Family (a Flight into Egypt group) also reminiscent of the master. I could also detect that this painter knew a certain genre of painting that placed ruins like sarcophagi, tombs, and objects of antique interest in a landscapes, much favoured by patrons in Poussin's circle. Known for this tendency were minor masters who imitated Poussin, like Pierre Lemaire and Pierre Patel by placing Holy Families next to antiquities, in order to show the overthrow of paganism by Christ. Something of that appears to be going on in this picture, though it's clumsily done. Why place a river god (the Tiber?) with a cross and orb over a relief of the Adoration? It's not exactly an elegant way of showing this supplanting of paganism by Christianity, unless it means something else. Back to the visual sources. Other elements like the bivouac group on the right occur in 17th century French art. Was this an 18th century French artist re working the artistic traditions of his countrymen? How wrong can you be? Maaike again: Of the painter, Henry Ferguson, or Vergazon, little is known, except that he was born in The Hague in 1655 or 1665 and died in Toulouse in1730. A painter named H. Ferguson is recorded in the guild at The Hague for 1712 1719. Ferguson worked in London before 1712 where Walpole speaks of a Hendrick Vergazon, who assisted in Kneller's workshop and who painted some landscapes himself. So, Vergazon or Ferguson, or whatever you want to call him, is mentioned in Walpole and was in the employ of the famous English portrait painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller. I'm afraid that I know nothing about English portraiture (hello Bendor), but there's tons of Kneller on the Public Catalogue Foundation website. Adoration of the Shepherds, supposedly based after a Raphael composition known since 1635. As if all this isn't confusing enough, we have the little matter of why the artist chose to place a massive sculptural relief of the Adoration slap bang in the middle of it all! According to the Rijksmuseum, this particular scene is based on a painting that "has been attributed to Raphael since 1635." I'm still giving that matter some thought, thinking about 17th century French versions of this scene. My working theory at the moment is that this Adoration isn't by Raphael at all that's a new one, start a debate about a Raphael attribution based on a picture in a picture! I think this is more of a "mix and match" Raphael hell, the whole picture is mix and match and the studied elegance of the Adoration group suggests the influence of Italian mannerism, like Parmigianino or Perino del Vaga, or the School of Fontainebleau. Relying on my visual memory, I can't recall an exact Raphael scene like this, but I'll have to do further checks. Cardinal Borromeo and the distribution of charity. To call this picture "eclectic" is the understatement of the year. What painter would place an elegantly looking figure who would look OK in a Kneller portrait, come to think of it next to a group of women who look like they've strayed from a Poussin or a Le Brun composition? What mind set could produce a picture that is structurally, thematically, on all levels, uncoordinated? In summary, this is what we know about Henry Ferguson. He was born in the Hague in 1655, or 1665. He was probably a member of the Guild at the The Hague between 1712 1719. It's here that he free oakley sunglasses must have learnt more about 17th century French landscape and religious painting; there are substantial links between Poussin and Co and the landscape painters in the Netherlands in the early 18th century but I'll leave that for another post. In his Anecdotes of Painting, Horace Walpole speaks of a Hendrick Vergazon who works in the atelier of Sir Godfrey Kneller. Walpole's"A Dutch painter of runs and landscapes, with which he sometimes was called to adorn the back grounds of Kneller's pictures, though his colouring was reckoned too dark. He painted a few small portraits, and died in France." Interestingly, a genre picture attributed to Ferguson was sold at Sotheby's in 2010. The traditional attribution was to William Gowe Ferguson, his father. Martin Eidelberg has now returned it to the son, Henry. Eidelberg has a very nice site on Watteau, his main area of expertise; he has written an article on Ferguson, which I've yet to track down. Perhaps for that Poussin and Dutch landscapists post? I been in touch with the Rijksmuseum who tell me that the scene on the sarcophagus was inspired by an "Adoration of the Shepherds" that was attributed in the first half of the 17th c. to Raphael but now to Girolamo da Treviso. Vasari writes that Girolamo traveled to England to work as a military engineer for Henry VIII and that he also worked as a painter there. Girolamo was working as an engineer for Henry when killed by a cannon shot during the siege of Boulogne sur Mer in 1544. This is interesting in connection with our Ferguson painting as it puts him both in England and France. The print is engraved by Cornelis Bloemaert, son of the famous painter Abraham. who moved to Paris and settled in Rome before 1633 where he was pretty famous. In other words: I not so sure that the painting was the absolute source; perhaps the print was, which would have been far more widely accessible. But that speculation. Far from being "unearthed from the depths of the Rijksmuseum", the painting was acquired only in 2009; and although I have got well on the way to explaining most of its oddities, including the Flight into Egypt, the almsgiving, the presence of St Charles Borromeo, and the probable identity of the cleric to whom he is speaking, I still have quite a few loose ends to tie up. As these are probably to be found only in archives in Bologna and Milan, for which I have no time and which would anyway be like looking for needles in a haystack, I shall shortly write up what I have managed to discover. It involves a fair amount of sculduggery. If anyone wants to help in spotting visual sources, I would be most grateful. The boy reaching up to receive alms from the cavaliere at the right, for example, is ultimately derived from Raphael Fire in the Borgo; but Ferguson seems to have adapted the motif either from Domenichino St Cecelia giving arms, or, more likely, from An. 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