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Work: 73 x 46 cm
Frame: 92 x 64 cm
The painting depicts the discovery of Achilles by Odysseus. Thetis, Achilles' mother, wanted to prevent her son's participation in the Trojan war, and so, dressed in women's clothes, hid him among the daughters of Lycomedes of Skyros. Odysseus, well aware that Achilles was needed to win the war against Troy, managed to discover his true identity through a ruse. Odysseus is depicted here as a merchant who comes to offer beautiful objects, including weapons. While the daughters choose jewels, Achilles opts for the sword. The painter has depicted life at the court of Lycomedes and focuses the attention on Achilles, dressed as a woman, who has just unsheathed the sword. The theme was popular from the Italian renaissance onwards and was occasionally adapted in the Netherlands since the late 16th C. Interpreted allegorically, the Achilles theme illustrates absolute heroic virtue. Despite his mother's precautions, Achilles follows his true calling and will go to battle.
Examples from the 17th C. are unusually numerous (e.g. Francken I, Sebastiaan Vranckx, Theodoor van Thulden, etc.). The version of P.P. Rubens (now Madrid, Prado, inv. no. 1661, canvas, 267 x 246 cm), on which Anton van Dijck probably also contributed, undoubtedly exerted a strong influence in the Antwerp artistic milieu. The painting offered must be situated in the same Southern Netherlands tradition. The decorative style of the figures and the enamel-like finish of the whole clearly point in the direction of the Antwerp painter Hendrik van Balen (1575-1632). Van Balen was a renowned painter in the early 17th C. During the performance of the Rosary Cycle in St. Paul's Church in Antwerp (ca. 1617), he received a remarkably higher wage than P.P. Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anton Van Dyck. Although he was a skilled painter, by contemporary standards his compositions seem somewhat linear and overloaded. However, the horror vacui is not really disturbing because of the colourful upholstery of the whole. As a theme, the scene presented here fits perfectly in his style idiom. Rubens' example, which was created shortly before 1620, was Van Balen's starting point for the structure of his composition. He has paraphrased Rubens's onset in the right half of his painting (note the backward-facing man in the right foreground and the touch of the left arm by the man further back who may be identified with Odysseus) and extended it to the left with colourful spectacle elements that should evoke the rich court life. Compared to Rubens, the psychological tension in Van Balen's version is less developed. The difference in size between the two paintings also contributes to a different interpretation of the traditional theme.
That Hendrik van Balen worked out the theme of Achilles between the daughters of Lycomedes is apparent from a statement in Gerard Hoets' Catalog of Naamlyst van schilderyen met derzelfver pryzen', The Hague, 1752, in which a painting with the theme 'Achilles onder de Maagden, door van Baalen, het landschap van den Fluweele Breugel , zo goet en eel als ooit gezien is' (Achilles among the Virgins by Van Balen, the landscape by Jan Breughel, as good as has ever been seen' is mentioned. The work is attributed to Hendrik van Balen and Jan Breughel I (1568-1625). The explicit mention of the landscape may suggest that this is not the version, although 'the landscape' can eventually refer to the lavish still life in the foreground.
The painting is accompanied by a certificate from Katlijne Van der Stighelen of December 1997 (prof. Dr. Katlijne Van der Stighelen (°1959) is a Belgian art historian. She is known for her research and publications on female artists in the Netherlands and portrait painting by the Flemish masters. Katlijne became a doctor in art history at KU Leuven in 1988, with a thesis on Anna Maria van Schurman. She was subsequently appointed associate professor in 1990, professor in 2001, and full professor in 2007 at the same university. In 2002, she held the Rubens Chair at Berkeley University for three months. Since 2003 she is a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts. In 2018 she was curator of 'Michaelina. The leading lady of the baroque', a retrospective that was part of Antwerp Baroque 2018 and was set up in collaboration with the Rubens House and Tourism Flanders, link): "Moreover, the connection should be made with a painting of the same title from the museum of Aix-en-Provence. The painting has been reproduced very little but was associated with Hendrik van Balen some time ago (in the catalogue 'Le siècle de Rubens dans les collections publiques françaises', Paris, Grand Palais, 1977, p. 281, reference is made to the painting at Aix: Achille chez les filles de Lycomède). As far as composition is concerned, the work in question fully corresponds to the painting on offer. There may be two versions of the same theme. The way of working undeniably seems to betray Van Balen's own contribution. The doll-like structure of the women's faces, the recurring dark piercing eyes, the soft and somewhat plump-looking anatomy, the small hands with short parallel fingers: these are all stereotypical characteristics of Hendrik van Balen's mature style. The balanced dosage of the red parts and the frieze-like position of the protagonists are equally characteristic. Taking into account the chronology that appears in the extensive contribution of Ingrid Jost concerning the oeuvre of Hendrik van Balen (Ingrid Jost, 'Hendrick van Balen D. Ä. Versuch einer Chronologie der Werke aus den ersten zwei Jahrzehnten des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Kabinettsbilder', in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 14, 1963, pp. 83-128), the work can be situated between 1620 and 1630. This dating is also confirmed by the relationship with Rubens' composition, which was created shortly before 1620."