The Wallace Collection

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Govaert Flinck: A Young Archer (P238)
Treasure of the Month - October 2004

Govaert Flinck: A Young Archer (P238)

This October the Wallace Collection celebrates Black History Month by featuring A Young Archer c.1640 by Govaert Flinck (1615 - 1660) as Treasure of the Month.

A Young Archer is the only certain work by Flinck in the Wallace Collection. Acquired as a Rembrandt (1606-1669) by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1848, it was not until 1913 that the Rembrandt signature was shown to be an addition hiding the remains of another signature below. By 1928 the picture had been re-attributed to one of his pupils, Govaert Flinck, who flourished in Amsterdam in the 1630s, catering for the insatiable market for paintings in the fashionable Rembrandt manner. A Young Archer is one of many paintings by Flinck once taken for the work of the great master himself.

The painting shows a young black boy in three-quarter length on a plain background, richly attired in hunting garb, a bow clenched in his right hand, a bag of arrows slung over his left shoulder. The intricate metal fastenings of the bag strap are carefully picked out and are highlighted, in contrast to the sombre opaqueness of the boy's jacket. Two pearls, a pendant earring and collar-fastening, gleam against the darkness of his skin and clothing. The figure's gaze is directed away from the onlooker with a solemnity both engaging and disquieting. The painting is a tronie or 'expression', a depiction of a model dressed in character. Such paintings were often produced by studio apprentices as technical exercises in the art of character study. Tronies were immensely popular in the 1630's and 40's in the Netherlands, where the market for collecting paintings was much broader than elsewhere in Europe.

It has been suggested that Flinck's portrayal represents a huntsman, a lowly occupation which in the 17th-century might have been deemed appropriate to the race of the sitter. However, an inscription below a print by Jan de Visscher (c. 1636-after 1692) made from a drawing of the same subject by Cornelis Visscher (?1629-c.1658) offers the possibility of an alternative interpretation. The inscription reads:

us heft den Moor met pijl en Boogh / Den vyandt of het wilt in't oogh

(thus the Moor with the bow and arrow shoots [looks] the enemy in the eye)

Previously thought to refer to an unknown literary figure, the inscription may in fact allude to the famed Nubian bowmen of classical times. Nubia, (another term for Kush - a region in the Nile valley south of the first cataract, and part of present day Sudan/Ethiopia), was a military power which gained immense respect in the Roman world partly because of its tradition of highly skilled bowmen. The Nubians remained famous into late Antique times, partly due to their role as mercenaries in wars across the Mediterranean, as 'pupil smiters'- bowmen skilled in the art of hitting their target in the eye.

Why did Flinck choose to depict his young model as an archer? Reasons might include a desire to portray a different skin colour and physiognomy from his usual subjects, the availability of the archer's props in his studio and the enormous popularity of archery as a sport in 17th-century Holland or, perhaps, an awareness of the story of the skilled archers from Old Testament Africa. Rembrandt is certainly known to have been fascinated
by Old Testament stories and characters. Whatever his true identity or purpose, there is certainly more clout to this beguiling youth than he has previously been given credit for.