JOHANNES LEEMANS (The Hague c. 1633 – The Hague 1688)
A Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Bird Cage, Birdcalls, and a Powder-Bag
oil on panel
11 ⅜ x 11 ⅝ inches (28.8 x 29.5 cm.)
Private collection, Doorn, The Netherlands
Born into a family notorious for violent behavior, Johannes Leemans seemed destined for a less than ordinary life. His elder brother Anthony (1630-before 1673) fled The Hague after he had stabbed down a man at a kermesse, and Johannes would not prove much of an exception. According to a document dating from 1674, Leemans had murdered an army sergeant, a certain Herman Gorel, nine years previously. According to the artist’s son, named Anthony after his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his paternal uncle, Leemans was a drinker who regularly turned his son’s house upside down. Fortunately for posterity, Leemans not only knew how to handle weapons, but also how to paint them with astonishing accuracy.
Well known for his trompe l’oeil still lifes with rifles, hunting gear, bird cages, and occasionally dead game, usually depicted against whitewashed walls, Leemans may have received first-hand knowledge as a weapons expert from his grandfather, who is mentioned in the The Hague archives as an armourer. Leemans’s father was active as a wine trader and cloth merchant. Leemans may have taken over his father’s business, for he is mentioned as a wine trader in the archives more often than as a painter. He may have dabbled a bit in real estate as well, for he is mentioned many times in the 1670’s and 1680’s, purchasing a number of houses in The Hague.
Leemans’s brother Anthony, mentioned above, was active as a still life painter working in very much the same vein as Johannes. There may have been a third brother who was a painter as well, since several paintings are known which are signed “H Leemans”; indeed, Johannes had a younger brother named Herman. However, Herman never registered as a member of the painters’ guild, and several early paintings by Johannes are signed with initials J and L connected with a hyphen, which can be easily mistaken for an H.
Dated works by Johannes are known from the period 1664-1684. Most of his works are on a large format, usually 30 by 40 inches or bigger, and often follow the same compositional scheme: a bird cage in the center, a powder-bag below, bird-whistles to the left and right, flanked by bird-caps, powder-horns, trumpets and other paraphernalia, and a rifle over the bird-cage. Rather more unusual are his few small-scale compositions, such as the present painting, which are painted in a more subtle technique, with delicate light effects and gentle, subdued colors. Even though his oeuvre shows little change throughout the decades, it should be noted that Leemans rarely repeated the exact same compositional elements. Especially his rifles show a high degree of variation, and form a valuable source for weapons’ historians.