The King and the Oracle

This time, instead of a still life, a landscape or genre scene, a magnificent history piece. In the seventeenth century, depictions of historical events were considered the highest form of art. But only once in the seventeenth century did anyone think of painting the story of Tarquin and Amalthea. The tale of a unique history painting.

Story portrayed
According to the prevailing theory an ambitious artist in the Dutch Golden Age needed to concentrate on painting scenes from history. The contemporary biographer and critic Karel van Mander promoted this genre in the Netherlands in his Schilderboeck (1604) in emulation of a style which had long been in vogue in Italy.
Artists found their source of inspiration for the subjects they painted in the Bible and classical mythology. The genre required that the artist be skilled in every aspect of painting. It was vital that the action and the expressions of the figures tally precisely with the narrative and that the portrayal should be entirely convincing to the viewer. The multi-talented history painter was considered an aristocrat among artists. Contemporaries valued history pieces more than any other, and so these also commanded the highest prices.
This canvas by Nicolaes van Helt Stocade is a magnificent portrayal of the dialogue of Amalthea, or more familiarly the Sibyl of Cumae, and Tarquin, who reigned over Rome in the six century BC. The sibyl is known by the place in which she resided. She wrote her oracles in a cave at Cumae, south of Naples. According to legend, the sibyls even prophesied the coming of Christ on Earth, which is why twelve sibyls were adopted into the iconography of the Church in the late Middle Ages. In this way, the mythological stories became interwoven with Christianity.

Search
Before taking a closer look at the picture itself, it is worth examining the attribution of the work to the artist Van Helt Stocade of Nijmegen in greater detail. At one time, the painting was thought to have been by Caesar van Everdingen. Although, like Van Helt, he also painted in the classical style, his manner of painting is impossible to reconcile with what we see here. Other artists were also suggested, such as Jan Gerritsz. and Johannes van Bronckhorst, Jan van Bijlert and Jan Wijckersloot, but in the end they too were dismissed as possible authors.
In one of our searches through the archives we stumbled on the name of Nicolaes van Helt Stocade. Upon further investigation it transpired that the painting of King Tarquin and the Cumaean Sibyl fitted in neatly with this artist’s oeuvre of history paintings. Stylistically there were also remarkable similarities: the muscular neck of the man, his large eyes and the brush marks in the hair can also be found in Van Helt’s Jupiter and Ganymede at the National Gallery in Dublin. Moreover, a constantly recurring feature in Van Helt’s work is the discrepancy in the way he painted male and female figures. This is clearly visible in our painting, but equally in his depiction of Susanna and the Elders at Leipzig. The facial expressions and hands of the two elderly men were painted with a far broader brush than Susanna’s body. Indeed, the left hand of the bald elder is surprisingly similar to the opened hand of King Tarquin.
Having completed our own research, we decided to consult the experts in the field. One of those we invited to see what light she could shed on the matter was Drs Jelka van der Velden, who in fact made a study of this artist for her thesis. She visited us to examine the painting and concurred immediately with our attribution to Van Helt Stocade.
In his own day, the artist was far from unknown and mixed in the highest circles. Indeed, in 1649 no one less than William II of Orange commissioned him to paint for his hunting lodge at Dieren, while Van Helt also made a name in Paris as a court painter to Louis XIII. Today we only encounter Stocade’s name on rare occasions, since work by the artist seldom finds its way onto the market.

Royal frugality
Following an agonisingly long search this art-historical discovery was naturally the source of much satisfaction. But the restorer also contributed to our sense of triumph. During the restoration, the dark background vanished and in its place came a golden wall hanging with a delightful decorative motif in red. Tarquin’s crown was transformed – the six visible points of his original diadem were reduced after restoration to three. But the most spectacular detail to appear, was the right hand of the sibyl, with which she held up a book over a fire basket. It was these elements that made it more than probable that the scene portrayed by the artist was from the legend of Tarquin and the Sibyl of Cumae.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus described the story of the two figures in his Antiquitates Romanae, written around 30 BC. The sibyl had proposed to King Tarquin that he buy her nine books of prophesies. When the king responded that the price was too high, she threw three of the volumes in the fire. For the six remaining books she then asked the same price, but the king once again refused and so the sibyl consigned another three books to the flames. Moreover, she refused to part with the remaining bundles for less than the amount she had originally demanded for all nine volumes. So in order not to miss this final chance too, the king at last relented and agreed to pay the price.
The costly sibylline books were preserved at the Capitol in Rome. For the Romans the oracles contained in these volumes were of supreme significance and were consulted in special circumstances. Leaders would often justify policies and decisions by referring to the sibylline prophesies. Then in 83 BC the books were lost in a fire. Remarkably, a new collection was compiled whose use was eventually banned in AD 400.

Open book
Now that we know the story, the expressions speak volumes. We see the questioning glance of the monarch countered by the challenging expression of the woman as she threatens to cast the valuable book into the fire. As the painter shows, the king was made to beg for those last three books. And he seems all too eager to take the bundles with his open right hand. With his left hand Tarquin is even greedier, trying to snatch the book from under the sibyl’s arm.
Van Helt Stocade portrayed the climax of the story. Our attention is grabbed almost automatically by the book held up high, which forms the focus of the composition. The opened pages reemphasise the tension in the confrontation between the figures of the monarch and the sibyl. The invisible diagonal line between the two pairs of eyes is accentuated by other diagonals in the work, such as the pattern in the sibyl’s headscarf, the king’s left hand and muscles of his neck. In this way Van Helt used compositional elements to produce a convincing depiction.

Abroad
No other depiction of Tarquin and the Cumaean Sibyl is known in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. Van Helt Stocade spent many years abroad, first in Rome and Venice, later in France. Given that the story of the sibyl was more familiar to Italians, it may well have been there that Van Helt was inspired by the theme. Yet there is no known example of a depiction of this scene in Italian art either.
In Rome the artist was a member of the Schildersbent, a society of Dutch and Flemish painters who were known as the Bentveughels. It was here that Van Helt acquired the nickname Stocade, which he henceforth appended to his surname and included in his signature. The Italian word stocco refers to a type of dagger. According to the Nijmegen exhibition catalogue Van de schilders binne deser stadt (1962) the painter may have been named after this long dagger as a result of his appearance. Perhaps Van Helt was tall and gaunt, or perhaps he had a long, thin nose.
After Italy, Van Helt went to Paris where he had arrived by 1637. There the painter made his name by acquiring an appointment as court painter to King Louis XIII. Around 1645 he settled in Lyon where he married Johanna Houwaert. Landscape painter Jan Asselijn became his brother-in-law when the latter married Johanna’s younger sister. In fact the two artists already knew each other from Rome. Asselijn was known there as Crabbetje, in reference to his malformed left hand.

Contrasting duo
Back to the painting. The fact that the story of Tarquin and Amalthea was to our knowledge never depicted by any other artist in the seventeenth century makes this painting in itself a world of difference.
But the depiction contains enormous diversity too. In our discussion of the attribution we saw that Van Helt employed different ways of painting male and female figures. Thus we see a tremendous contrast between the gentle appearance of the sibyl and the robust visage of the king. The skin of the Cumaean is painted with more white pigment, which gives her face a soft pink hue, compared to the tanned physiognomy of Tarquin. Remarkably, the monarch and the sibyl face each other in complementary poses. Both regard the other over their left shoulder, the man being viewed from the front, and the woman from behind. To link these poses more closely, Van Helt harmonised the gold and deep red of the wall hanging in the background with the palette he employed for the figures. It is a clever compositional ploy which the person who painted over the work seems entirely to have failed to notice.
The restoration revealed a clearly visible distinction – both aesthetic and historical – in form and content. And in the end, the long search for the artist’s identity was rewarded. King Tarquin and the Sibyl of Cumae painted by Nicolaes Van Helt Stocade is the perfect work with which to demonstrate the many different aspects of the world of art history.

Nicolaes van Helt was born in Nijmegen around 1614. The artistic climate in Nijmegen in the early seventeenth century was far from inspiring, so Van Helt probably served his apprenticeship as a painter in Flanders. He was subsequently to spend many years abroad, first in Rome and Venice and later in France.
In his Levens-beschryvingen der Nederlandsche Konst-schilders en Konst-schilderessen (1729-1769) Jacob Campo Weyerman provides some interesting details about Van Helt Stocade which deserve to be cited here: ‘He was a good painter, who drew his figures solidly, employing tender and fleshlike colours and brushwork, so that they have been much sought after by many prominent personalities. The King of Great Britain, Queen Christina of Sweden, the Duke of Brandenburg and the Prince of Orange competed and bought up all his paintings wherever they managed to find them.’
Although other details about his royal patrons are lacking, it is known that Van Helt Stocade was commissioned in 1649 by William II of Orange to provide decorative paintings for his hunting lodge at Dieren, for which he was paid the princely sum of 400 guilders. For the artist this was reason enough to return permanently to the Northern Netherlands. In Amsterdam he joined the artists’ guild in 1652.
Van Helt Stocade had no lack of prestigious commissions. For example, he contributed significantly to the decoration of Amsterdam’s new town hall, now the Royal Palace on Dam Square, and to the palatial Trippenhuis, home of the brothers Louis and Hendrik Trip and now of the Koninklijke Academie van Wetenschappen, also in Amsterdam. One of his last commissions was for a chimneypiece at the town hall in his native Nijmegen. At the same time, Van Helt Stocade painted numerous portraits, which suggests that his contemporaries were eager to have themselves immortalised by this remarkable artist.

    Michelangelo Buonarotti

    Caprese 1475 - 1564 Rome

    Cumaean Sibyl

    1508/1512
    Fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome

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    Nicolaes van Helt Stocade

    Nijmegen 1614 - 1669 Amsterdam

    King Tarquin and the Sibyl of Cumae

    Painted circa 1650
    Canvas, 100.6 x 83.2 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Nicolaes van Helt Stocade

    King Tarquin and the Sibyl of Cumae

    Painted circa 1650
    Canvas, 100.6 x 83.2 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

    Before restoration

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    Nicolaes van Helt Stocade

    c. 1665/1669

    Susanna and the Elders

    Signed Stocade F. (bottom left)
    Canvas, 131 x 114 cm
    Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig

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    Nicolaes van Helt Stocade

    c. 1660

    Jupiter and Ganymede

    Signed Stocade F. (bottom left)
    Canvas, 119.5 x 113.8 cm
    National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

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