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Work: 58 x 52 cm
Our painting is made after the work 'The Conjurer', which is part of the collection of the Musée Municipal in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. There are different opinions about the Saint-Germain-en Laye work, since there are five known versions of the magician (Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Private collection California; Musée Municipal, Saint-German-en-Laye; Coronari Auctions; link). Bosch connoisseur Charles de Tolnay attributed the copy in Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Bosch with some reserve. "Having had several occasions to re-examine the panel," he wrote, "I am inclined to regard it as an original." According to him, all other versions are derived from this panel. In 1958, the various versions of 'The Conjurer' were published and discussed by art historian Lotte Brand Philip. According to her, the Saint-Germain Magician is a non-faithful, highly simplified copy of a lost tondo, which had the same "additions" as a copy of 'The Conjurer' in Philadelphia. According to De Tolnay, however, the additions were not Bosch's, but were devised between 1540 and 1560. He also assumes that this is a youth work by Bosch. Later art historians are more cautious, as Max Friedländer described it as 'perhaps only an old copy', although he admits that the best example is in Saint-Germain. According to Ludwig von Baldass, this is a copy of an early work by Bosch. Dendrochronological research has now shown that it was created around 1502 at the earliest and therefore cannot be youth work. Bosch connoisseur Bernard Vermet therefore thinks that the work very likely originated in the vicinity of Bosch, which would be an indication of the existence of a studio. (link)
The painting depicts how people are fooled by lack of alertness and insight, creating a 'spellbinding tension'. The conjurer on the right of the image captures his apt and diverse audience with a game of cups and balls. The central character and true focus of the image is the man of rank in the forefront who leans in and is fixed on the pearl in the conjurer's hand while unaware of being relieved of his money purse. Bosch depicts the conjurer as a common criminal, luring in the prey. Beasts are used in the painting to symbolize human traits that allow for deception and victimization. The little owl from the basket at the conjurer's waist signifies his intelligence. Frogs jumping out of the mouth of the central character represent the extent to which the victim let go of reason and gave in to bestial impulses. The child engrossed in our victim and the man stealing the money purse seems to exemplify the Flemish proverb: 'He who lets himself be fooled by conjuring tricks loses his money and becomes the laughing stock of children.' Another Flemish proverb, published and widely distributed ca. 1480 in Bosch's hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch about the time of this painting, is: 'No one is so much a fool as a willful fool.' (link) In other words, the main theme of the work is credulity. In French, the work is called 'L'Escamoteur', which means both magician and pickpocket. The frogs probably illustrate the saying 'swallow a frog', which also refers to extreme credulity. (link)
De Tolnay describes it as follows "At first one thinks they are witnessing a humorous incident of the well-known kind: a cunning magician makes frogs jump from the mouth of a simpleton, who does not notice that an accomplice of the magician is meanwhile robbing him of his purse. The stupidity and glee on the faces of the bystanders, their ridiculous seriousness, make an extremely comical impression on the outsider who sees through the game. But the anecdotal theme is overshadowed by the inner intentions of the artist: the group wholly succumbed to the magician's suggestive power becomes a symbol of humanity, defenseless at the mercy of ridiculous sorcery." (C. de Tolnay, Hieronymus Bosch. Het volledige werk, Alphen aan den Rijn, 1984, pp. 86-89).
On an engraving by Balthasar van den Bosch from the mid-16th C., the representation is also clarified by the following caption:
Och wat vintmen coenskens in tswerelts ronden
Die door den guijckelsack wonder connen brouwen
En doen tuolck spouwen met hare loose vonden
wonder op de tafele waer dore sij huijs houwen
daeroen betrouwse niet tot gheene stonden
want verloordi oock borse tsoude brouwen. (link)
Finally, what our 'Boschiaanse' version makes very exceptional is the coat of arms with the lion rampant on the robe of the figure on the far right. The appearance of the coat of arms of Flanders is particularly unique. The same representation occurs only rarely, among others in the judgment of Cambyses by Gerard David (The skinning, above the door in the background). It also shows that the work was more than likely commissioned. (link)
The painting is accompanied by a certificate from Dr. Jaco Rutgers of 8 March 2023 (all observations done on the basis of an inspection of the original painting):
"One of the most successful compositions by Hieronymus Bosch can be seen in this painting by a slightly later follower (fig. 1). It is a very appealing scene about deceit and immorality which is shown on multiple levels. The original painting by the master is lost but it is known in a number of versions, the most famous one in the Musée Municipal de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (inv. 872.1.87, fig 2). This was long considered an original by Bosch but was more recently dismissed as such and is now generally thought to be by a follower. An engraving showing the same composition was issued by Balthasar van den Bosch, a printmaker active between in the 1550s and 1560s (fig. 3). The variations between the painted versions and this engraving seem to suggest that indeed the print was not based on any of the known compositions but that they were more likely based on another prototype. In the print, for instance, the pickpocket to the left is not working alone but as part of a two-men-team. Anyhow, that the subject of the conjurer was a common one in Bosch’s workshop is also shown by a drawing in the Musée de Louvre which shows the charlatan and his entourage in a somewhat different setting and constellation (inv. 19197, fig. 4).
The present painting can be dated to the third quarter of the 16th century. The painter focused on the bystanders and made an effort to adjust some faces, clothes and the modelling of folds to fit a slightly more ‘modern’ taste. For instance, the collar of the pickpocket to the left, who is looking up with his spectacles on his nose, is changed into a ruff, en vogue in the second half of the century. Also, the painter attempted to give the figures a more naturalistic and/or more individualized appearance in comparison to the St. Germain-en-Laye panel. These variations, and also the high quality of this work, show the artist to have been more than just the random follower. In these aspects, as well as stylistically, this composition can be compared to, for example, The Concert in the Egg in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille, another Boschian subject treated by a later 16th century follower (inv. P.816, fig. 5). Also for the Concert in the Egg, a related drawing from Bosch’s studio is preserved which is in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (inv. KdZ 711).
This Conjurer was produced for the art market in the county of Flanders, as is suggested by the coat-of-arms with the black lion on a yellow ground that is attached to the green robe of the bystander to the far right just below his left shoulder. The painting even may have been made on commission for a Fleming. The number of engravings produced in Antwerp in the same period, for instance on the request of the print publisher Hieronymus Cock and his firm Aux Quatre Vents, indicates that there was a serious Bosch revival in the Low Countries a few decades after the artist’s death. The present work may have been a product of the same phenomenon.
The Conjurer by a follower of Bosch is a very attractive painting in its own right, painted by a very skilful artist, and is also a highly important discovery that considerably contributes to our knowledge of the fame and fortune of Hieronymus Bosch in his century. Especially the inclusion of the coat-of-arms of Flanders, which places maker and audience in that county, is a detail very rarely seen in painted compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries. In fact, I only know of one other occurrence on a panel painting, namely in the second panel of Gerard David’s Cambyses Diptych, above the arched gate upper centre in The Shedding of Sisamnes."