Alexander Keirinckx (1600-1652)
Forest Landscape with Bathers
Signed and dated lower left A. KEIRINX f 162., oil on panel
53 x 74 cm
At first glance, this painting appears to capture a mundane scene: a group of women escaping the warmth of a summer’s day by a lake in the forest. While a few of the women still enjoy the water, another inspects her legs on the shore and a second dries her hair with a towel.
Upon closer inspection, the grazing sheep and shepherds’ sticks identifies this as a group of shepherdesses. This makes the scene far less ordinary. For, in the 17th century when Keirinckx produced this painting, shepherdesses would certainly not have looked gracious, nor would they have had the time, let alone, the courage to swim in open, potentially contaminated and hazardous water.
Thus, the scene depicted here is purely idyllic, which the 17th century collector would have immediately recognised as the ‘AETAS AUREA’, or the Golden Age, as described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (see illustration). Parallels may be drawn between this golden era and the Biblical paradise: prehistoric times with mankind living in innocence, free from wars and sickness. Only in the subsequent silver, bronze and iron age would humanity be faced with such hardship, analogous to the consequence of the Fall of Man as described in the Bible.
Alexander Keirinckx, a landscape painter born in Antwerp, made AETAS AUREA his speciality, invariably enlisting the help of a colleague for painting the figures, in this case his fellow citizen, Adriaen van Stalbemt. In 1626, after moving to Utrecht, he would often collaborate with Cornelis van Poelenburgh on compositions, still with a classical nature theme, albeit more monochrome in tone.
The numerous printed and illustrated translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses appearing in Antwerp from 1560 onwards, as well as the various prints after Italian masters (for example, the one by Agostino Carracci after Pauwels Franck, dated 1585/1590, as shown in the illustration) would have provided Keirinckx with inspiration for his favourite subject.
And as far as the Greek and Roman fondness for swimming and bathing was concerned, this would only become mainstream by the end of the 19th century. Until then only the privileged would enjoy these pleasures. François I had a luxurious bathhouse built for himself and his guests, equipped with Roman-style warmer and colder baths. The famous Roman baths of Bath are depicted in a well-known print dated 1672 (see illustration).
Despite this publication, it would be another 250 years before swimming and beach holidays became commonplace. Meanwhile, Keirinckx’s classical bathers persisted as a popular theme for paintings throughout the 19th century, with those by Gustave Courbet, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne as absolute masterpieces.
In the meantime, the painting, which stems from a French inheritance and was completely unknown, has found a new home since the art fair, TEFAF 2017. Alexander Keirinckx’s oeuvre and his significant contribution to 17th century landscape painting will shortly be published by Dr. Ursula Harting.