This impressive and large-scale canvas is a fine example of a gallery painting, a popular subject in 17th-century Flemish painting. Such images were pioneered by Frans Francken II and Jan Brueghel I shortly before 1620, but their wide appeal extended throughout the period. The architecture of the present painting, which previously bore attributions to David Teniers II, Gonzales Coques, and Gillis van Tilborgh, can instead be convincingly attributed to Pieter Neefs II through comparison with a signed and dated painting of 1650, now in a private collection (fig. 1). Following the standard practice of the day, the figures in the present work were all but assuredly painted by a collaborator. Their full faces can be compared with those that appear in similar gallery interiors by Tilborgh, including one today in Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst. The possibility that one or more additional artists executed the paintings that appear within the present work also cannot be ruled out. Indeed, the garland painting in Neefs’s work of 1650 bears the signature of the still life painter Joris van Son (see A. van Suchtelen and B. van Beneden, Room for Art in Seventeenth-Century Antwerp, Zwolle, 2009, p. 104).
The overall spatial arrangement of the present painting is exceptionally close to Neefs’s gallery interior of two years earlier. Both paintings are lit by three rows of windows, the lower two registers of which are fitted with shutters. Similarly, in both paintings a fireplace anchors the center of the back wall, while a door—open in the painting of 1650 and closed in the present painting—pierces the wall at left. Both works likewise are finished with wooden floors and ceilings and an identical gothic stonework architectural element set into the ceiling above the fireplace. The inclusion of this detail in both paintings suggests that it either derived from a real architectural element known to Neefs or, more likely, a drawing produced in the artist’s studio.
At least two of the paintings that appear in the present painting can be connected with extant or documented works: Jacob Jordaens’s Mercury and Argus—a near identical, if rather larger, version of which is today in Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria—and Cornelis Saftleven’s Jacob at the Well, known today through a fragmentary copy. Various other paintings can be attributed with certainty, but the precise compositions appear to be lost. These include Joos de Momper’s Rocky landscape with a traveler on horseback installed on the back wall at upper left, Teniers’s Interior with peasants smoking and drinking directly below the Jordaens, and Neefs’s Church interior immediately to the right of the fireplace. Less certain are the Ships in a stormy seascape to the left of the fireplace (Bonaventura Peeters?); the large Denial of Saint Peter above the fireplace (Gerard Seghers?); the Garland of roses, tulips, carnations, and other flowers with a portrait of a young girl in a sculpted cartouche above the door (Daniël Seghers?); the Perseus and Andromeda in the lower left foreground and Assumption of the Virgin at right (Cornelis Schut I?); and the large Rape of Europa at lower right, which is probably a Flemish painting loosely based on Titian’s famous version of this subject (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). The remaining landscapes largely appear to be by fashionable Flemish painters active in the first half of the 17th century, including Jan Brueghel I, Jacques d’Arthois, Teniers, and Thomas van Apshoven. Among the portraits are works in the style of Adriaen Thomasz. Key (upper right), Gonzales Coques (lower left foreground), and Sir Peter Paul Rubens or his studio (right, flanking the door).
The image of the lunging dog and chained monkey at lower left—which, along with the still life on the table at right, appear to have been painted by a different hand—likely provides a symbolic gloss on the painting itself. Fettered monkeys, which feature with surprising frequency in gallery interiors, symbolized man’s enslavement by earthly desires. Paintings were luxury objects, and the merit of their acquisition in the predominantly Catholic Southern Netherlands was hotly debated. The very act of collecting elicited concerns about greed, avarice, and idolatry. By contrast, the dog with bared teeth may allude to the classical philosopher Diogenes’s well-known statement that dogs, a common symbol of truth and fidelity, will bite their enemies. The pending confrontation between dog and monkey might, therefore, be interpreted as a reference to the battle between truth and falsehood.
We are grateful to Fred Meijer for his assistance in identifying the paintings in the present gallery interior.