Masters of Mobility


14.3 Heimbach’s Handicap

To return to the question whether Heimbach’s handicap did have any consequence on his art, I would like to make the following observation on some of his late paintings.1 It is in these works that Heimbach becomes more original and abandons the close relationship to Netherlandish models.

The Interior with Three Figures Reading is a good example of Heimbach’s unusual approach to the theme of reading persons [20]. The figures represent Count Anton Günther and his family. By contrast to other painters of his time, he shows the persons with closed lips, everybody has a letter, everybody is on his own, and the figures are somehow isolated. In fact it looks more like a reading competition than a group of figures interacting. Although this kind of composition is comparable to works by Pieter de Hooch (1629-in or after 1670) [21] it does not reach the same painterly quality. Maybe Gerson had this type of works in mind when he disqualified Heimbach’s work as ‘dry and dull’.

A small work on copper in Hamburg, The Patient, offers more painterly quality and is another fine example of Heimbach’s different approach to common themes [22]. Instead of mocking the ill person or the caregiver, provoking laughter from the spectator, Heimbach shows a more compassionate view of the patient, eliciting to empathize with him. If we compare his Patient to the famous Operation by Adriaen Brouwer (1603/5-1638) today in Frankfurt the different meaning comes clear [23]. Heimbach’s painting also plays with the well-known theme of the doctor’s visit – a symbol for the unfaithful wife as can be seen in Frans van Mieris’ (1635-1681) painting in Los Angeles [24]. Heimbach limits himself to show just an ill man and others taking care of him.

Wolfgang Heimbach
Portrait of the family of Count Anton Günther of Oldenborg (1583-1667), with his consort Sophie Catherine and his son Count Anton of Aldenburg, dated 1667
Copenhagen, The Royal Danish Collection - Rosenborg Castle, inv./ 732

Pieter de Hooch
Homely interior with a woman by a fire and two men playing a board game, c. 1680-1682

Wolfgang Heimbach
The Patient, dated 1669
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, inv./ 438

Adriaen Brouwer
Back surgery
Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, inv./ 1050

Frans van Mieris (I)
The doctor's visit, dated 1667
Los Angeles (California), Malibu (California), J. Paul Getty Museum, inv./ 86.PB.634

The Still life with kitchen maid in Kassel is an unusual combination of genre and still life painting [25].2 The way in which the maid appeals to the spectator is comparable to the Old Man in a Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) [26].3 But whereas this motif of the glass window is to be considered as part of the trompe-l’oeil tradition in Hoogstraten’s work in Vienna, it is a motif of social exclusion in Heimbach’s still-life in Kassel. In contrast, Hoogstraten’s man opens the door and looks outside. Another, earlier example of the theme is a Boy Looking through a Casement, who is knocking at the crystal [27].4 The gesture of the boy – excluded behind the window – is a playful interaction with the spectator. A similar approach is to be found in the maid in Heimbach’s painting. She is behind the barred window and therefore excluded from the table with food. The meal has apparently ended recently because the food has already been eaten, although there is still much left to eat. The look through the bars evokes a desire to be part of the meal or at least to eat the rest. As no other person is present in the painting, the spectator is slipping into the role of the departed diners. Looking closer, however, the spectator discovers that the glass is broken and the social separation between master and servant, between maid and meal is somehow volatile. This fragility is maybe the most striking feature of Heimbach’s painting.

Wolfgang Heimbach
Breackfast table with kitchen maid behind the window, dated 1670
Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, inv./ GK 613a

Samuel van Hoogstraten
Old man in a window, dated 1653
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv./ GG 378

circle of Hans von Aachen
Boy looking through a casement, c. 1600-1610
Great Britain, private collection The Royal Collection

In his work Heimbach combined aspects of trompe-l’oeil with still life painting. So if, so to speak, we put together the painting of a Boy Looking through a Casement with a still life by Frans van Schooten (1587/8-1656) or similar paintings, we get a Heimbach. The motif of broken glass with figures behind is also to be found in the aforementioned painting showing washerwomen in Denmark (see § 14.2). Does this detail mean anything in particular? Is it a symbol of social exclusion? Does Heimbach refer to his handicap in such a detail?

Especially in Dutch art we know of some deaf-mute painters who were very successful, such as Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) the mute from Kampen, who was a renowned landscape painter, Jan Jansz. de Stomme (165-1657/8) a successful portraitist in Groningen, or Maerten Boelema de Stomme (1611-1644) a still life painter from Leeuwarden, all active at the same time as Heimbach, who was also called ‘the mute of Ovelgönne’.5 Johannes Thopas (c. 1626-1690/95) from Arnhem, who had a reputation for his portrait drawings, can be added to the list.6 Except for their suffering from the same handicap, their social situations could not have been be more different. Whereas Hendrick Avercamp came from a learned family and was therefore probably able to write and communicate on a high level, Johannes Thopas was subject to a guardianship order and spent his whole life in a protected family environment.7 We do not have such detailed information about Maerten Boelema de Stomme. In contrast, both Jan Jansz. de Stomme and Wolfgang Heimbach are said to have been able to discuss complex theological problems with hands and signs. Furthermore, they both had a servant at their disposal.8

Whereas in still life, landscape and portrait painting the question of a relationship between handicap and artwork may not seem to be relevant, it might be a key for understanding Heimbach’s personal style of his genre scenes. When social interaction is limited to the visual contact – looking at the eyes and mouths of the opposite, as mentioned by Winkelmann – the eye of the painter becomes obviously more focused on the outer appearance of people. So to return to Gerson’s comment on Heimbach’s art, we might conclude, on the one hand, that he is of course right when he mentions the lacking ability of invention in his painting. But on the other hand, especially looking at the late work of Heimbach, we may say that some of his paintings display a strongly descriptive approach to the surroundings, which strikes the spectator because of its simplicity. Maybe Heimbach’s disability to speak and hear – both senses of sound – made him focus more on close observation. He transformed what he saw into appealing and somehow provocative images which also may be seen as comments on social exclusion – like the ill patient or the maid looking through a broken window.

With this idea in mind the Kitchen Interior in Nuremberg dating from Heimbach’s Italian sojourn might be a less mysterious image than previously thought [28].9 A noble man is counting money while several servants are working in a kitchen. But would a noble man wearing the habit and the cross of the order of Santo Stefano enter a kitchen simply to buy goods? Could this again be a close observation of social differences? Maybe we have to see a kind of allegory of social disparities in the painting instead of a simple description of a kitchen scene. But I would like to leave this question open to further research.

Wolfgang Heimbach
A family in a kitchen doing household tasks, dated 1648
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv./ GM 1346


1 Interestingly Gerson does not refer to Heimbach’s handicap.

2 Oil on canvas, 69,5 x 84,5 cm, signed: in Coesfelt./Wolffg. HBach. C. f:/ao. 1670’, Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, GK 613a. Morsbach 1999, no.. D 1.

3 Oil on canvas, 111 x 86,5 cm, signed SvH / 1653. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, GG 378.

4 Boy Looking through a Casement, panel, 73,8 x 61,6 cm, Royal Collection, RCIN 404972. Shawe-Taylor/Scott 2007, p. 68-69 (as a Flemish Master, c. 1600-1610). It is documented before 1612 in the Collection of Henry, Prince of Wales. The composition seems to have been famous, as two more versions are known. One is in the Borromeo Collection in Isola Bella (Italy). A third one was auctioned as Circle of Samuel van Hoogstraten, panel, 72 x 61 cm, c. 1655-60, auction Vienna (Dorotheum), 1 March 1994, no. 114 (RKDimages 293210). As Rieke van Leeuwen has pointed out, the early mention of the painting in the Royal Collection in 1612 contradicts an attribution to Hoogstraten. She proposes the Circle of Hans von Aachen.

5 J. Bikker in Bikker/Roelofs 2009-2010, p. 20-21; Broos 2015.

6 Ekkart 2014.

7 Ekkart 2014, p. 15.

8 Morsbach 1999, pp. 15-16; Ekkart 2014, p. 15.

9 Oil on canvas, 59 x 78,5 cm, signed: CHMP / W / fec. 1648, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Gm 1346. Morsbach 1999, no. AI 17; Morsbach 2008, no. Ia 4.15.

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