Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits



A Banquet Scene: An Allegory on Love and Lust, circa 1590–1600

oil on canvas

monogrammed HF in the lower left

41 ½ x 54 ¾ in (105.3 x 139 cm.)


Private collection, France



The Weiss Gallery, historical reflections; early portraiture 1520–1780, 2007, no. 6


Hieronymus Francken I came from an eminent family of Flemish artists. He was brother to Frans Franken I and Ambrosius Francken I, and uncle to Frans Franken II, Ambrosius Francken II, and Hieronymus Francken II. Whilst his brother Frans Francken I established a successful family workshop in Antwerp, Hieronymus journeyed abroad and his earlier works are much influenced by his travels in Italy during the 1560s. By 1566 he was established in France as it is recorded that in 1568 Cornelis Floris, the Antwerp master builder, sent his son to Paris to serve his apprenticeship with Hieronymus I. From 1578 he was painting for the court of Fontainbleau, and in 1594 he was officially appointed ‘Peintre du Roi’ to Henri III, a position he retained under Henri IV until his death in 1610.

Hieronymus was proficient in a variety of genres, including biblical, mythological, historical and allegorical scenes. In 1585 he painted an Adoration of the Shepherds with donor portraits of the Thou family, which remains in situ in the Parisian church of St. Ursule-de-la-Sorbonne. In the same year, in collaboration with his brother Ambrosius I, he completed a triptych with scenes from the Life of St. Eloi, Bishop of Noyen, for the altar of the Blacksmiths’ Guild in Antwerp Cathederal.[1]

For a brief period in France, during Henri III’s reign (1574-1589) there was a fashion for depicting scenes of dancing at the Valois court. Only a handful of these fascinating images survive today including examples in the Louvre, Versailles, Blois and Rennes museums. Some of these represent specific events, for example, those at the Louvre and Versailles have been identified as representing the ball given to celebrate the marriage in 1581 of Anne, Duc de Joyeuse, to Marguerite de Lorraine.[2] However, other paintings, such as the Dancing Scene at the French Court of Valois attributed to The Master of The Valois Revels (c. 1580–85), formerly with The Weiss Gallery in 1998, are more generalised ‘courtly scenes’.[3]

However, our painting is not just a ‘courtly scene’, it is also tells a complex allegorical story. The central couple, gracefully performing their dance and gently holding hands, represent the ideal of courtly love, complimented by the elegant lady playing the clavichord. In contrast, in the lower left of the painting a young man sits embracing a lover and behind them stands the procuress. The man gestures towards a table set with food, in front of which are various amphoras of water and wine, symbols of lust. The sexual connotations in this painting are further enhanced by the opulent display of food in the foreground of the picture as many of which, such as the oysters, asparagus and parsnips, were considered to be aphrodisiacs. Shellfish in particular had erotic connotations, with the opening of outer layers required to expose the soft voluptuous flesh inside.[4]

The composition of the painting is set like a theatre stage: the dancers are shown in an elegant interior with an opening through curtains which reveals two further scenes of narrative action in the background - a drunken young man being ejected from a tavern and then later wallowing in mud in a pig pen. While the walls are grandly decorated with paintings, these depict scenes of eroticism. The richness and abundance of this banquet scene conveys the new sensuality of the renaissance but it is also intended as a symbolic warning against immoral behaviour and man’s excessive concern for the material pleasures of life, especially food and drink. It may well be that the more erotic symbolism warn against the sins of the flesh and present the viewer with a moral choice between good and evil. Thus the moralising intent of the painting is becomes clear, as a narrative tale which warns against the perils of lust and excess.

Hieronymus’s more famous nephew, Frans Franken II, was later to repeat these motifs in some of his own works, demonstrating the amount of collaboration between this remarkable family of artists. For example elements such as the table laid with dishes of food, the group of musicians in the corner, the central dancing couple and the small dog staring out at the viewer are found in works such as the Tanzegesellchaft (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe) and L’ouverture du bal (with the De Jonckheere Gallery, Paris).




[1] J. Guiffrey, Artistes Parisiens des XVI et XVIIe siecles, 1915, pp. 25-44.

[2] Kelly, “The Master of the Valois Revels” in Connoisseur, 1931, LXXXVIII, pp. 296-301.

[3] See The Weiss Gallery, illustrious company: early portraits 1545-1720, 1998, cat. no. 5.

[4] P. Rynck, How to read a painting. Decoding, understanding and enjoying Old Masters, 2004

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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