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New Acquisition: Pieter Lastman - A Long-Cherished Wish

Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is known today primarily as Rembrandt’s most influential teacher. In his day, the Amsterdam artist was one of the most important painters of history works: paintings of stories from the Bible, Classical Antiquity or other written sources. The Mauritshuis did not have a history painting by Lastman, which was on its wish list for a long time. This wish has now been granted with St John the Baptist Preaching of 1627: the painting was purchased from an American owner by the Friends of the Mauritshuis, with the support of Mr H.B. van der Ven.

Pieter Lastman, De prediking van Johannes de Doper
Pieter Lastman, Amsterdam 1583-1633 Amsterdam, De prediking van Johannes de Doper, 1627, Paneel, 60 x 92 cm. Den Haag, Mauritshuis Verworven door de Vrienden van het Mauritshuis met steun een particulier, 2018


The first biography of Rembrandt was written in 1641 by the Leiden burgomaster Jan Orlers. In it he describes how the nineteen-year-old artist came to work with Pieter Lastman ‘op dat hy door den selven vorder ende beter mocht geleert ende onderwesen worden’ (so that he might be further and better trained and educated by him). In his native Leiden, Rembrandt was apprenticed to Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg, and under his watchful eye made brightly coloured scenes and townscapes. But Rembrandt’s ambitions lay elsewhere: he wanted to become a history painter.

History paintings were regarded as the highest a painter could achieve – after all you not only had to be able to paint well, you also had to be able to understand the story and convey the emotions of the principal figures. To acquire this skill, Rembrandt became Pieter Lastman’s pupil in Amsterdam in 1625-26. Lastman specialised in history paintings, and had a particular liking for Old Testament stories that were seldom if ever depicted. Although Rembrandt was only in Lastman’s studio for six months, the elder painter had a great influence on his pupil’s development. This is evident in Rembrandt’s earliest works, such as The Stoning of St Stephen of 1625 (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts) and The Baptism of the Eunuch of 1626 (Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent). The numerous figures, the powerful lighting and the colourful palette derive from Lastman. Later, too, Rembrandt often recalled his teacher’s wise lessons.

The Acquisition

St John the Baptist Preaching is signed and dated 1627. The crowded composition, the bright lighting and the vivid colours are typical of the type of history painting Lastman was producing in the period when Rembrandt was his pupil. The painting shows John the Baptist preaching in a landscape. In his sermons he announced the coming of Christ. He also called upon people to confess their sins and be baptised by him in the River Jordan. John’s preaching was a popular subject for artists from the sixteenth century onwards, because it provided the opportunity to depict a landscape and figures.

In his interpretation of the subject, Lastman focused on the interaction between the prophet, who stands preaching with his arms outspread, and his audience; the landscape is secondary. A motley crowd of people of all ages and all walks of life have gathered around John. Most appear to be looking up at him and listening attentively. One of the three little boys who have climbed on to a boulder upper left holds his finger to his lips, warning his friends to be quiet. Some figures turn away from John and look straight at us, involving us directly with the sermon.

By the Book

The figures are closely packed together and overlap, but Lastman built up the composition carefully. He did it entirely by the book – or, to be precise, according to Karel van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck of 1604. This publication explains how to put together a good composition. For example, Lastman used repoussoirs, foreground figures positioned on each side of the scene to suggest depth: on the left is a standing figure in a striking red cloak and on the right a rider on a white horse. Following the instructions to the letter, he gathered the crowd around a scopus (middle point), which here, of course, is John the Baptist. In the details and in the figures there is copia (multiplicity) and varietas (variety).

Lastman avoided monotony by placing the figures on different levels, just as a market trader sets out his stall as attractively as possible. He created even more depth in the scene with clever lighting. John the Baptist himself is brightly lit, but the figures around him are wholly or partially in the shade. The three-dimensional effect is enhanced by the fact that over the heads of the listeners we can see a number of dark figures on horseback in the distance; they are also coming to hear the sermon. Here Lastman clearly followed the advice in Van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck; this is not to say that he actually held the book in his hand while he was painting. It was a matter of tricks that were child’s play for an experienced history painter like Lastman.

The figures’ wide variety of poses suggest that Lastman wanted to show he was capable of picturing the human body in various positions. The semi-naked man seen from the back is a good example. Leaning on his right arm, he has his left leg outstretched; not exactly a comfortable position. Lastman also devoted considerable attention to the details of the costumes. The graphic way he executed the folds in the garments, for instance, is typical of his style.

Lastman invariably prepared his figures with drawings that he sometimes reused. For the seated woman with her striking purple and pink shawls, right of centre, he used a study that he had made previously for the figure of Rachel in another biblical painting in 1622. The horse on the right is manifestly too small, certainly by comparison to the large man in Eastern dress on its back. These distorted proportions are probably the result of combining different preliminary studies. 

A Lastman for the Mauritshuis

Dutch Golden Age history paintings are fairly well represented in the Mauritshuis, but works by Lastman and the painters in his circle – a group of artists who are known as the ‘pre-Rembrandtists’ – are underrepresented. A great work by Lastman has long been on the Mauritshuis’s wish list, because he had such a great influence on the young Rembrandt and marked the beginning of a specific Amsterdam tradition in the art of history painting.

Admittedly, Lastman’s Raising of Lazarus (1622) was purchased in 1875, but it has been on long-term loan to Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden for more than fifty years. The recent closure of that museum for major renovation has seen the painting return temporarily to the Mauritshuis, where it has been examined and treated in the workshop. It was evident that the quality and condition of the painting did not meet the Mauritshuis’s high standards. In 1987 the museum received David Handing over a Letter to Uriah of 1619 on long-term loan from the Cultural Agency of the Netherlands; this meant that the museum finally had a representative painting by Rembrandt’s best-known teacher. In 2006, however, this painting was returned to the rightful owners, the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker. This reopened a gap in the collection, which can now finally be filled with this magnificent acquisition.

St John the Baptist Preaching can be seen in Room 9.

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