This wonderful painting was recently sold
by Sotheby's for $4,850,000, even though the artist is something of a theoretical construct. It is titled A Young Woman Holding a Distaff before a Candle
, but that is an invention of the auctioneers.
The painting is not dated or signed, and it has been assigned over its history to several different artists. These days it is attributed to Adam de Coster (1585-1643), a Flemish painter who never signed any of his works and whose name would have caused head scratching among the most dedicated connoisseurs of sixty years ago. Since that time his hand has been recognized in a handful of paintings that all feature firelit human figures against a dark background.
The modern story of Adam de Coster starts with this engraving by Lucas Vorsterman, Tric-trac Players by Night
(1619-1628), which clearly identifies its source as a painting by Adam de Coster. So Adam de Coster was a real artist, and he did paint night scenes of human figures.
In fact de Coster was prominent enough that Anthony van Dyck painted his portrait; the painting is lost but this engraving based on it does survive. It identifies de Coster as a "Painter of Night." Records suggest that de Coster was a member of the circle of Flemish painters of which van Dyck become the most famous. The paintings of those men were valuable objects and have only become more so over time. To be a professional painter for any length of time in those days one had to produce hundreds of works. So where are de Coster's paintings?
Working from that engraving, an art historian named Benedict Nicholson began in the 1960s to reconstruct his oeuvre, arguing that several unsigned works of this period must be by de Coster. This is one of the works singled out by Nicholson, Card Players
. This is of the right period, and it certainly looks like that engraving. It is actually one of a group of similar paintings on this theme, all of which may be by de Coster.
The Denial of St. Peter.
Notice that the woman on the left appears to be the same model as the A Young Woman Holding a Distaff
, perhaps with the same turban.
An Old Man Holding a Glass and a Candle.
Is that St. Peter again? The key influence on this style is Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio had a big impact on several Flemish painters of this period, and people speak of the "Utrecht Caravaggisti." But of these men de Coster seems to have been the most in the thrall of Caravaggio's dark shadows. So Nicholson suggested that perhaps de Coster had traveled in Italy and met Caravaggio or at least some of his followers. There is no documentary evidence of such a trip, but on the other hand we know that other Flemish painters studied in Italy, including van Dyck. So believe what you like.
The Third Denial of St. Peter.
Notice the habit of putting a hand in front of the candle.
Until Young Woman Holding a Distaff
came on the market in 1992, this was probably the most famous work attributed to de Coster: A Man Singing by Candlelight
, now in the National Museum in Dublin.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes
, a disputed attribution.
Anyway this is a fascinating detective story, and only one of many: there are hundreds of unsigned paintings of this period, and a thousand disputes about their origin. I think the core paintings in the Adam de Coster group make sense as the work of one man, and de Coster seems a plausible candidate. But whoever painted it, A Young Woman Holding a Distaff
is just a glorious painting, and I think it is wonderful that it has been brought out of obscurity and revealed to the people of the world.