Cornelis de Man, 'An interior with a seller of curiosities'

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Cornelis de Man (Delft 1621 - 1706) The Netherlands, Delft
1675 - 1680
Oil on canvas
94.6 cm
86.8 cm

Pictured in the catalogue of the 'Asia in Amsterdam' exhibition in the Rijksmuseum: K. Corrigan (ed.), Asia in Amsterdam - The culture of luxury in the Golden Age, Amsterdam 2015, p.135 fig. 1.


Possibly Van Cruyce, London
Richard Chapell Whaley (?-1769), 86 St. Stephen’s Green, now Newman House, Dublin
Thence by descent, since 1920 hanging in the house of the previous owners, a private collection, near Dublin, Ireland

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In this work, De Man depicts a prosperous middle class company in a rich interior, visited by a seller of curiosities and his servant. The seller has brought a basket full of rare and exotic shells. The servant is sorting out the shells while the seller’s affected gestures suggest he trying to convince the wealthy burghers to purchase his goods. A young boy standing behind the merchant is holding a conch shell to his ear, according to a popular folk myth, to hear the ocean.

The seller is wearing a ‘Japonsche rok’. The ‘Japonsche rok’, a kimono tailored into a kind of house robe, was first introduced in the Netherlands after the trade relations with Japan had been established in 1609. In the last decades of the 17th century, the Japonsche rok was worn especially by scholars, doctors, merchants, astronomers and geographers as distinguished attire, and appears in numerous 17th century Dutch portraits.

The seated woman, elegantly gowned in a white satin dress, probably the lady of the house, already seems to have made her choice: she is holding the most valuable shell of them all, the Nautilus. Behind the seated lady another young lady, standing, is pointing her finger up, possibly in admonition.

De Man frequently introduced objects of symbolic significance into his pictures. Traditionally, shells have often been interpreted as the attributes of Venus, the Goddess of Love. The maid’s (?) pointed finger could thus be read as a warning not to fall for the beauty of the shells, not to fall in love. However, no other motifs in this painting suggest that De Man’s intention was of moralising nature, or that he was overly critical of its burgerlijke comforts.

The lady could also point out that no candles are lit in the chandelier hanging from the beamed ceiling, stressing out the skill with which De Man has accurately captured the daylight, penetrating through a large window on the left of the composition. The warmth of the natural light particularly illuminates the Lady of the House. De Man has skilfully rendered the various materials and textures, such as the satin of the lady’s dress and the seller’s robe, the velour tablecloth, the polished copper of the chandelier, the smooth inner surface of the shells and their coarse outer surface.

The feature of the prominent mantelpiece in the right of the composition, as said before, seems to have been a favourite with De Man, and also the chair with the lion’s head and even the bulky satin robe of the seller are recurring motifs. In particular, the motifs recur in a similar composition, also portraying a seller of curiosities, in the Musée Dapper, Paris. And although the setting is different, the scene is very similar, portraying a near identical seller, and a number of identical naturalia. In this scene the Lady of the House is less distracted by the seller’s exotic and expensive goods, but she is directly looking at the viewer as if to reassure the viewer that she will not greedily fall for the seller’s tricks. The figures in the Musée Dapper are slightly stiff and impassive, whereas the in the present painting De Man has focussed more on the anecdotal character of the scene and has portrayed the figures ‘in action.’  


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