Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Golden Age

Joachim Wtewael (Netherlandish, Utrecht 1566–1638 Utrecht)
Oil on copper
8 7/8 x 12 in. (22.5 x 30.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, The Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, Edward J. Gallagher Jr. Bequest; Lila Acheson Wallace Gift; special funds; and Gift of George Blumenthal, Bequest of Lillian S. Timken, The Collection of Giovanni P. Morosini, presented by his daughter Giulia, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Spear Jr., Gift of Mrs. William M. Haupt, from the collection of Mrs. James B. Haggin, special funds, gifts, and bequests, by exchange, 1993
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 631
The Utrecht painter Joachim Wtewael was among the most sophisticated of Netherlandish Mannerists, as is evident from this exquisite cabinet picture on copper, dated 1605. The subject is taken from the opening pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses (I, 89 ff.), which describe a time before the ages of silver, bronze, and iron when "spring was everlasting . . . streams of sweet nectar flowed," and mankind, "without a law," did right and lived contentedly.
Wtewael is known especially for his small paintings on copper, among which this spectacular picture of 1605 is one of the finest examples in terms of conception, execution, and state of preservation. The work first came to light in the 1980s. Previously no painting by Wtewael of this subject was known, although there are three references to such a picture, or to more than one, in old inventories. There is strong circumstantial evidence that this work is identical with the one cited in the 1619 inventory of the imperial Kunstkammer in Vienna (Lowenthal 1997), which would mean that the painting was probably acquired not long after it was made, by one of the greatest collectors in Europe, Emperor Rudolf II, in Prague.

The theme of the Golden Age (Aetas aurea) was taken from the opening pages of the Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 18), which was the primary source of mythological subjects in Netherlandish art from the late sixteenth century onward. The relevant passage (1.89–112) follows the first eighty-eight lines describing the creation of heaven and earth, water and air, animals and mankind: "In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right . . . "

For the most part, Wtewael based his interpretation on Ovid's text, but he also must have admired the treatment of the theme by his Utrecht colleague Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) in a masterful drawing of 1603 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), and the superb print after it, dated 1604, by the Antwerp engraver Nicolaes de Bruyn (1571–1656). In fact, Bloemaert's composition, by far the most impressive version of the story by a Netherlandish artist up to that time, probably inspired Wtewael's turn to the subject in the first place.

This work is a quintessential cabinet picture in its extraordinary refinement of execution, its classical theme, its references to other works of art, and its minute study of naturalistic details, in particular the various shells—themselves collector's items—which suggest (unlike the trees) that the mythological paradise was to be found somwhere in the East Indian Ocean. In every respect, the painting seems the perfect Rudolfine image, given the emperor's love of erotic mythologies, forest scenes, naturalia, and precious works of art. It is also probable that Rudolf II would have recognized parallels between the Golden Age and his own reign. Wtewael would have been familiar with this sort of analogy, since Ovid's description of the Golden Age had just been presented as a metaphor for beneficent rulership in Karel van Mander's Schilder-Boek, published in 1604.

Two drawings by Wtewael appear to represent initial and nearly final stages in his development of this composition. The earlier drawing (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich), usually described as unfinished, is mainly concerned with a scheme for framing the view, with naked couples, gnarled tree trunks, and Cupid-like children sinuously bracketing the sides of the composition, and in the center the motif of one boy helping another to mount an agreeable goat. The second drawing (Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden) is quite dissimilar, and very close in design to the painting.

A large, crude copy, apparently dating from the seventeenth century but not close to the work of Joachim or Peter Wtewael, was on the German art market in the early 1980s.
[2012; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed and dated (bottom center, on rock): JOACHIM, WTE / WAEL FECIT / AN 1605
?Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, Prague (until d. 1612); ?his brother, Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, Vienna (1612–d. 1619); inv., June 28, 1619, no. 18, as "Ein taffel auf cupfer, Aurum seculum von Wtewael"); ?monsieur Borely, palais Borely, Marseille (until 1855); probably by descent to his grandson, marquis de Panisse-Passis, Paris (until 1988; sale, Palais des Congrès, Versailles, June 5, 1988, for Fr 7,200,000 to Hazlitt); [Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, 1988; sold to Agnew]; [Agnew, London, 1988; sold to Ortiz Patiño]; Jaime Ortiz Patiño, London (1988–93; sold through Newhouse to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.

Utrecht. Centraal Museum. "Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638)," February 21–May 25, 2015, no. 22.

Washington. National Gallery of Art. "Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638)," June 28–October 4, 2015, no. 22.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638)," November 1, 2015–January 31, 2016, no. 22.

Paul Jeromack. "Old Master Paintings." Art & Auction 10 (September 1988), p. 151, ill., reports that it "was knocked down to Hazlitt's John Morton Morris for FF7.2 million ($1.15 million)".

Julian Agnew in Agnew's 1982–1992. London, 1992, pp. 66, 76, colorpl. 57.

Anne W. Lowenthal. Letter to Walter Liedtke. October 8, 1993, confirms that it is "a splendid example of [Wtewael's] work]".

Walter A. Liedtke in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1993–1994." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 52 (Fall 1994), pp. 26–27, ill. (color, overall and detail), calls it "distinctly Netherlandish in its realistic light and shade, soft modeling and many textures, and in its Jan Brueghel-like landscape".

Edgar Peters Bowron. "Full of Details and Very Subtly and Carefully Executed: Oil Paintings on Copper Around 1600." The International Fine Art Fair. Exh. cat.1995, p. 9–10, fig. 1 (color), states that the "glowing palette, sinuous forms, and sophisticated composition emphasize the strength of the mannerist idiom in the Netherlands in the first decade of the seventeenth century".

Anne W. Lowenthal. Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan. Malibu, 1995, pp. 72, 80 n. 124.

Walter Liedtke. "Style in Dutch Art." Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered. Ed. Wayne Franits. Cambridge, 1997, pp. 116–17, figs. 73–73a (overall and detail), observes that the landscape and still life elements recall works by Jan Brueghel the Elder, and compares the treatment of figures to that of Annibale Carracci.

Anne W. Lowenthal. "The Golden Age by Joachim Wtewael at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Apollo 145 (February 1997), pp. 49–52, figs. 1 (color), 2 (detail), ill. on title page and cover (color detail), calls it the only known surviving painting of this subject by Wtewael, noting that the date places it relatively early in the artist's career; identifies Ovid's "Metamorphoses" as the source of the iconography, and suggests the "proximate inspiration" may have been Abraham Bloemaert's "Golden Age," engraved in 1604 by Nicolaes de Bruyn; compares it to drawings by Wtewael of the same theme (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich; Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden); reports that a work on copper of this subject by Wtewael is recorded in a 1619 inventory of the collection of Emperor Rudolf II in Vienna.

Joaneath A. Spicer in Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age. Exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Baltimore, 1997, pp. 30–31, 44, 334.

Edgar Peters Bowron. "A Brief History of European Oil Paintings on Copper, 1560–1775." Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1575–1775. Exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum. New York, 1998, p. 9, fig. 1.1 (color).

Wayne Franits. Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution. New Haven, 2004, p. 66, fig. 58.

Walter Liedtke. "The Golden Age by Joachim Wtewael." Metropolitan Museum Journal 40 (2005), pp. 93–104, figs. 1, 7 (overall and detail), colorpl. 6, states that the Munich and Dresden drawings [see Ref. Lowenthal 1997] show the development of the composition, and notes that these were made in response to treatments of the same subject by Hendrick Goltzius and Abraham Bloemaert; argues that Emperor Rudolf II acquired it shortly after it was painted, and that it is the picture by Wtewael listed in the 1619 inventory of the imperial Kunstkammer in Vienna.

Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), p. 64, fig. 78 (color).

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, p. xi; vol. 2, pp. 846, 975–86, no. 224, colorpl. 224, fig. 281 (color detail).

Anne W. Lowenthal in Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael. Ed. James Clifton, Liesbeth M. Helmus, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Exh. cat., Central Museum, Utrecht. Washington, 2015, pp. 7–9, 119–21, no. 22, ill. (color).

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. in Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael. Ed. James Clifton, Liesbeth M. Helmus, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Exh. cat., Central Museum, Utrecht. Washington, 2015, p. 38, ill. pp. 36–37 (color detail).

Stijn Alsteens in Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael. Ed. James Clifton, Liesbeth M. Helmus, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Exh. cat., Central Museum, Utrecht. Washington, 2015, p. 56.

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