Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 20
Art Collectors and Painters V: Jean le Bleu,
François Venant and Rembrandt’s
“Feast of Belshazzar”

Jean le Bleu, born in the town of Wesel about 1580,724 began buying at Orphan Chamber auctions in 1611, four years after his marriage to Hester Verspreet. He bought moderately priced paintings in 1611, 1612 and 1614. After a hiatus of 23 years, he resumed buying–but only prints–in 1637 (see the Appendix below). For unknown reasons, the inventory of his movable goods was taken on 28 April 1635.725 It contained only 16 works of art, with no indication of their value or even of the rooms in which they had been found. One of the paintings was entitled “Een stuck daer inne mene, mene, tekel” (a painting wherein [the Hebrew words] “counted, weighed, and divided”). This was the inscription inscribed on the palace wall that King Belshazzar read, to his fear and astonishment. The painting may have been Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” or “Belshazzar Sees the Writing on the Wall” in London’s National Gallery (Ill. no. 8), which is generally thought to have been painted about 1635, or a copy thereof. This likelihood will be discussed below following a brief biography of Jean le Bleu, the owner of the painting.

Jean le Bleu was of solidly middle class status, although he cannot by any measure be counted among Amsterdam’s richest citizens. He paid a tax on his properties of 125 f in 1631, in addition to 35 f for his inheritance from his father-in-law, the merchant Hans Verspreet.726 When both taxes are combined, the sum corresponds to a wealth estimated at 32,000 f, which puts him in the top 15 percent of the distribution of taxpayers who paid a minimum tax of 5 f.727

How did this moderately wealthy man come to buy a painting that, if it was the original version of Rembrandt’s painting, must have been quite costly?728 Whether the painting was an original or copy, if it originated with Rembrandt or his workshop, Le Bleu’s connection with Rembrandt is likely to have run through his cousin, the “pre-Rembrandist” painter François Venant (II), with whom he seems to have been intimately connected. Le Bleu’s mother, Lenora Venant, was the sister of François Venant I, the father of the painter. François Venant II was cited as the guardian of Jean le Bleu’s brother Jacobus, student in medicine, when Jean assisted Jacobus on the occasion of his marriage with Joffr. Ermgaard Muys van Holy in Leiden in 1616.729 Venant was eleven years older than Jean le Bleu. It is very likely that he also became Jean’s guardian after his father’s death. In 1628, François Venant I ceded

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