Jacob de Backer (Antwerp c. 1555-c. 1585)
The Liberation of Saint Peter
oil on canvas
44 x 58 in. (111.8 x 157.3 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Van Marle & Bignell, The Hague, 8 June 1950, lot 97, where acquired by the parents of the present owner.
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Lot Essay

This remarkable large-scale composition was formerly believed to be by Otto van Veen until Jacques Foucart correctly attributed it to Jacob de Backer, a short-lived but talented and prolific Mannerist painter active in Antwerp during the final quarter of the sixteenth century. As is typical of works given to de Backer, the present painting employs a highly personal combination of Italianate and northern mannerist tendencies. While no evidence is known to suggest that de Backer ever undertook a trip to Italy, he appears to have been particularly influenced by the work of Giorgio Vasari, whose stolidly built figures provided a starting point for de Backer’s own. Moreover, the central angel, viewed partially bent with one leg in front of the other and arms extended, likely derives from Raphael’s similarly conceived figure in his fresco for the Stanza in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican (fig. 1).
De Backer and his studio treated this subject on several occasions, including in a work formerly given to Frans Floris but now attributed to de Backer in the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans, Orléans (inv. no. 1364). Compared with that example, the present painting exhibits a heightened sense of dynamism, notably in the figure of the contorted sleeping soldier at upper right whose pose recalls that of de Backer's Sloth (Accidia) for a series of canvases depicting the Seven Deadly Sins that were acquired for Alessandro Farnese in Antwerp in 1594 (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples).

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