Oud Holland

Review of: 'Abraham van Dijck' (2020)

April 2024


Review of: David de Witt, Abraham van Dijck c. 1635-1680: Life and work of a late Rembrandt pupil, Zwolle [WBooks] 2020

Abraham van Dijck (c.1635-1680) is an artist who is still relatively unknown, even among specialists in seventeenth-century Dutch art. David de Witt’s richly illustrated and thoroughly researched monograph will go a long way towards making a wider audience aware of his work and, perhaps, encourage new discoveries. Interest in the Dordrecht pupil of Rembrandt has accelerated in recent years, partly sparked by Walter Liedtke’s attribution to Van Dijck of the Old Woman cutting her nails (cat. P25; fig. 1), long celebrated as a mature work by Rembrandt and even favourably compared to Michelangelo’s Sibyls on the Sistine Ceiling.1 Werner Sumowski was the first to define the scope of Van Dijck’s painted and drawn oeuvre, and subsequent exhibitions have also enhanced our knowledge of his position within the Rembrandt ‘school’.2 With meticulous scholarship, De Witt fully analyses 62 paintings as authentic works by Van Dijck and 51 drawings. Many of these works are small in scale and some of the new attributions that De Witt proposes are debatable. Van Dijck’s output declined significantly after around 1665 and there are no known works for the final decade of his life.

Despite De Witt’s valiant attempts to flesh out the meagre events of his life and to propose a chronology for his work, most of which is undated, Van Dijck remains rather elusive. Indeed, eighteenth-century sources confused the Dordrecht painter with a spurious painter of the same name from Alkmaar, or Philip van Dijck (1680-1753), or, even, the great Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641).3 Since his oeuvre lacks coherence at times, the suggestion that there was more than one painter with the name ‘Abraham van Dijck’ is easy to understand. He switches between Rembrandtesque biblical scenes, single figure representations of elderly men and women, spartan depictions of domesticity and piety inspired by Quiringh van Brekelenkam (1622/29-1669/79), elegant gatherings of couples that owe much to Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674), and the occasional Antwerp-like market scene or hunting still life. De Witt justifies these shifts in emphasis by connecting them with Rembrandt’s interest in studies drawn from life, Rembrandt’s collecting of rowdy peasant scenes by Adriaen Brouwer (c.1604-c.1638), and the artist’s continued relationship with his former pupil Van den Eeckhout.

The book has five chapters. The first presents an overview of Van Dijck’s life and work. Much of the artist’s career remains undocumented and any reconstruction of it must rely on conjecture and evidence supplied by his paintings and drawings. There are no documents, for example, that place Van Dijck in either Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) or Rembrandt’s workshops, although based on the work, a period of tutelage with both painters seems highly likely.

Left: cover of Life and Work of Late Rembrandt Pupil Abraham van Dijck c. 1635-1680

Middle: fig. 1 Style of Rembrandt, Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, ca. 1655-1660, oil on canvas, 126,1 x 101,9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv.no. 14.40.609, bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913

Middle right: fig. 2 Abraham van Dijck, The Widow of Zarephath and Her Son, ca. 1655, oil on canvas, 115,6 x 95,9 cm. Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario, acc. no. 60-001, gift of Isabel and Alfred Bader

Right: fig. 3 Abraham van Dijck, An Old Man Asleep, 1656, oil on canvas, 50,8 x 47 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 791 (on long-term loan to the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam)

Chapter two looks at the pivotal years between roughly 1648 and 1654, when Van Dijck was probably first introduced to Rembrandteque models by his presumed teacher Van Hoogstraten, before moving to Amsterdam in 1651, where he likely learned directly from the Leiden-born master. Entirely on stylistic grounds, De Witt contends that a copy in Antwerp (cat. P4) of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia in Kassel was mainly painted by Van Dijck and at his teacher’s behest. In Rembrandt’s workshop, Van Dijck produced more assured images with a better understanding of how to use colour and light to create three-dimensionality and harmony. Like Rembrandt in his mid to later work, in paintings such as Judah and Benjamin (cat. P9), Van Dijck distilled the narrative into one or two figures who scarcely interact with each other, but who are clearly in the grips of inner turmoil.

Chapter three investigates Van Dijck’s work of the second half of the 1650s, when he returned to Dordrecht. This was a period when he closely engaged with the work of Nicolaes Maes, his neighbour on the Steegoversloot, who would have trained alongside him in Rembrandt’s workshop and who was actively involved at this time in producing highly original scenes of domestic life. Previous accounts have always seen Maes as the catalyst for a group of Dordrecht artists who painted similar genre images; Van Dijck is usually ranked among such satellite figures as Cornelis Bisschop (1630-1674), Reynier Covyn (c.1636-1682), and Justus de Gelder (1650-after 1707). De Witt bravely takes a contrary view and argues that Van Dijck, at least initially, impacted Maes’s early portrait style and that he ploughed an independent furrow that was closer to Rembrandt. Indeed, he goes on to suggest that Maes’s well-known Old woman saying grace (‘prayer without end’) in the Rijksmuseum is indebted to Van Dijck’s Widow of Zarephath and her Son (cat. P22; fig. 2). While there are undoubted analogies between the two undated works, it is difficult to fathom that Van Dijck could have been the instigator here. Even if we accept some degree of exchange between the two artists, De Witt acknowledges that ultimately Maes, the superior artist, ‘set the tone’ for his townsman. Van Dijck’s interest in dozing elderly men (fig. 3) and women undoubtedly comes from Maes. One might question the categorisation of such representations as primarily ‘moralising’ – presumably as exemplars of idleness and neglect – and instead see them as sharing with Rembrandt’s tronies an interest in picturesque and characterful old age. According to De Witt, Van Dijck had a brief flirtation with the work of Van Brekelenkam toward the end of the decade, which is manifested in one of his accomplished works, the Grace before the meal (cat. P32). The Leiden artist’s depictions of modest, but dignified figures were also §a source of influence for Maes and it would be instructive to know more about this transmission of ideas.

Chapter Four confirms the strong impression that Van Dijck was more a follower of fashions than a trendsetter. De Witt proposes a second Amsterdam period for him that lasted broadly between 1660 and 1667. The terminus ante quem is established by a male portrait signed and dated 1660 (cat. P47), which he tenuously identifies as a posthumous image of the Amsterdam lawyer, Jacob van Zell (1602-1654). In these years, Van Dijck’s work oscillates between depictions of elite card players inspired by Van den Eeckhout and Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667), urine-examining doctors that seem to be dependent on Caspar Netscher (1639-1684), and a large market scene in the tradition of Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574) and more recent models like Maes and Frans Snijders (1579-1657). At the same time, he continued with his regular diet of small-scale biblical scenes and representations of men and women of advanced years. Even the author is forced to conclude that ‘Van Dijck slid into decline, signaled by self-repetitions, and heavily driven by new fashions’ (p. 47).

The final chapter is a reappraisal of Van Dijck’s drawn oeuvre. There are only a handful of secure drawings but using Sumowski’s corpus of drawing by Van Dijck as his core, De Witt manages to attribute around 50 sketches to him.These range from compositional studies made in Rembrandt’s studio to single figures to a few landscapes. A depiction of a half-nude old man in the British Museum (cat. D32) is regarded as his ‘finest drawing’. In the text, De Witt curiously compares the seated pose with Rembrandt’s famous etching of a nude female from 1658 (New Hollstein no. 307) and, in the catalogue entry, with his 1654 painting of Bathsheba in the Louvre. 

What picture of Abraham van Dijck emerges from the pages of this book? His abiding interest in picturesque old age shines through. More than half of his accepted paintings consist of single-figure depictions of elderly men and women (including unknown prophetesses and hermits) or genre works that also feature people of advanced years. The other inescapable conclusion is the uneven and repetitive quality of much of his work. While there are some profound works, such as the Old Testament work from Kingston, Ontario, where it is possible to concur with De Witt’s high assessment of his ‘general meditative tone’ and his ability to convey the narrative tensions of his figures, there are many paintings, particularly from his later career, which are decidedly pedestrian. The best and innovative aspect of the book is the focus on Van Dijck’s artistic relationship with Rembrandt, which the author handles in a sensitive and nuanced way. It is a shame that we still lack up-to-date and accessible catalogues raisonné of this standard on more substantial graduates of Rembrandt’s academy, such as Van den Eeckhout and Govert Flinck (1615-1660).

John Loughman

Associate Professor
School of Art History and Cultural Policy
University College Dublin


1. W. Liedtke, ‘Some paintings not by Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, in G. Cavalli-Björkman, (ed.), Rembrandt and his pupils. Papers given at a symposium in Nationaalmuseum, 2-3 October 1992, Stockholm 1993, pp. 131-134, 140 n. 42, p. 141 n. 45.

2. W. Sumowski, Drawings of the Rembrandt school, New York 1980 (vol. 3), pp. 1247-1309; W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandtschüler, Landau 1983 (vol. 1), pp. 666-674; 1990 (vol. 5), pp. 3091-3093; and 1994 (vol. 6), pp. 3705, 3849-3855. Among recent exhibitions that have featured work by Van Dijck is D. de Witt (et al.), Rembrandt’s late pupils. Studying under a genius, Amsterdam 2015.

3. J. Loughman, ‘Abraham van Dijck (1635-1680), a Dordrecht painter in the shadow of Rembrandt’, in A. Golahny (et al.), In his milieu: Essays on Netherlandish art in memory of John Michael Montias, Amsterdam 2006, pp.265-278.

4 De Witt also made use of Sumowski’s unpublished notes and new drawing attributions preserved in the Rembrandthuis archives.

J. Loughman, ‘Review of: Abraham van Dijck c. 1635-1680: Life and work of a late Rembrandt pupil’, Oud Holland Reviews, April 2024.