Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A boy blowing on the embers of a piece of wood and holding a candle c.1690

Attributed to Godfried Schalcken c.1780

A boy blowing on the embers of a piece of wood and holding a candle, Attributed to Godfried Schalcken
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 ½ x 25 ¾ inches, 77.7 x 65.3 cm
This dramatic work shows a boy blowing onto an ember from a fire, as he attempts to light a candle. As he blows carefully onto the ember, the light illuminates his features with a soft orange glow, and spills out onto his clothing and the candleholder in his right hand. Although the boy is outside, as shown by the cloud-obscured moon, he stands in front of a wall, and is perhaps about to enter a dark house.

This hitherto unknown picture is thought to be one of two versions of the subject by Schalcken. What is generally considered to be the original example is that in the National Gallery of Scotland, which was originally commissioned by Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, and remained at Althorp until 1988. However, the author of the Schalcken catalogue raisonné, Thierry Beherman, did not consider the Althorp picture to be an original work, and suggested that it might be a copy of a lost original [Thierry Behermann, ‘Godfried Schalcken’, Paris 1988].

Perhaps here we should note two other plausible versions that were on the art market in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; one sold in London in 1790 (‘Schalcken - Boy blowing Firebrands’, Greenwood’s, 12th March 1790, lot 40), and another sold by the Duke of Richmond at Christies March 26th 1814 (‘Schalken [sic] A Boy Blowing a Lighted Brand’]. These may well relate to the present example, which is painted with all of Schalcken’s assured, highly-finished qualities, and in some cases, such as the drapery, appears to be more sophisticated than the Althorp version.

Schalcken’s night pictures, already famous in Europe, caught the public imagination when he arrived in England in 1692. In many ways, English artistic taste was already well attuned to such strongly lit works. England’s reliance on a stream of foreign, mainly Dutch-educated artists such as the Caravaggesque Honthorst and the Rembrandt-trained Kneller, had already created an artistic environment receptive to Schalcken’s approach. And of course, this was the age of Newton and Boyle, for whom light was often the basis of their scientific investigations, and whose works had aroused huge popular interest.

Even the usually dispassionate William III was taken in by the craze for Schalcken’s work. Schalcken’s portrait of the king [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] shows him dressed in armour and robes of state, and is lit by a single candle. In truth it looks a little incongruous, for the king peers out of the dark like a lost night-porter. But in the 1690s it was ground-breaking stuff, and it was arguably Schalcken who laid the foundations in England for the popularity of Joseph Wright of Derby’s night scenes a century later
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.