Wals was a key figure in the generation of painters who took the Roman countryside as their subject, and focused on the ancient monuments of the area. Like his Northern contemporaries, Cornelis Poelenburgh, Bartholomeus Breenbergh, and Claude Lorrain, Wals made drawings from nature. These he translated into small, highly evocative, circular paintings that, in their attention to atmospheric effects, look forward to Corot’s work in Italy two centuries later.
The Artist: Born in Cologne, Germany, probably between 1590 and 1595, Gottfried (known as Goffredo) Wals made his career as a landscape painter in Italy. Aside from an interlude in Rome from 1616 to about 1619, he spent his early years in Naples. The excellence of Wals’s landscapes drew the attention of the young Claude Lorrain, who trained under the German for two years (1620–22). From 1623 to about 1630–31 Wals worked in Genoa, and, after a yearlong stay in Savona (1631–32), he again took up residence in Naples. Wals perished in an earthquake about 1638–40, probably in the Calabria region of southern Italy. He counts among the northerners who popularized landscape as an independent and highly collectible genre in Italy in the first third of seventeenth century. As a specialist in small pictures notable for their subtle handling and tranquil mood, Wals continued the legacy of poetic landscape painting inaugurated in Rome by his compatriot Adam Elsheimer.
The Picture: The Metropolitan Museum’s well-preserved and minutely executed painting is dominated by two ancient towers, both heavily eroded at their bases and overgrown with foliage. Those, together with the decaying wall at the left, frame a plunging view toward the gentle hills in the background. The low horizon and the arc of the roundel format afford generous space within the composition to the light blue sky. The ground is strewn with architectural fragments—segments of columns, capitals, and architraves—suggestive of the bygone splendor of antiquity. In the foreground, the man standing amid the ruins, dressed in a classicizing robe, appears to contemplate the passage of the centuries. Farther back, two other men are engaged in conversation, and a washerwoman descends a set of stairs. Grazing cattle and sheep and additional human figures populate the background landscape. Most likely this is an imaginary view constructed from motifs and impressions of light gathered while sketching in the countryside.
Though unsigned, the Museum’s picture is fully consistent with Wals’s style and preferred themes as they have come to be understood in recent decades (Roethlisberger 1997; Repp-Eckert 2006). Secure attributions of paintings to Wals are an achievement of relatively recent scholarship, beginning only in the late 1960s, based initially on comparison with his rare monogrammed etching, Landscape with Trees by the Water (MMA 2002.347). In the meantime, more than thirty paintings have been assigned to the artist, including the only reliably dated work, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt of 1619 (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo). Roundels on copper constitute the majority of his known oeuvre. The Metropolitan’s stands out from that group for its unusually large size—many measure little more than half its diameter. Our roundel’s date cannot be discerned with any precision. Although the 1630s have been suggested as likely (Roethlisberger 1997), until a clearer understanding of Wals’s development is reached, a range from the 1620s through the 1630s can be retained as possible (see further considerations of dating the artist’s oeuvre in Marcel Roethlisberger, "From Goffredo Wals to the Beginnings of Claude Lorrain," Artibus et Historiae 16, no. 32 , p. 14; and Repp-Eckert 2006, pp. 258–59).
A same-size replica of the Museum’s roundel, lacking the men in the fore- and middle ground, exists in a private collection (Repp-Eckert 2006, fig. 22). Although Wals is known to have copied his own work, as attested by the two versions of Country Road by a House (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), recently a measure of doubt has been cast on the replica’s authorship by Wals on the basis of quality (see the opinion of Rafael Valls related in Repp-Eckert 2006, p. 271 n. 70).
[Joshua P. Waterman 2013]
private collection, Newbury, Berkshire (until 1997; sale, Dreweatt Neate, Newbury, March 5, 1997, no. 178, as Flemish School, 18th century, for £55,000 to Hall & Knight); [Hall & Knight, London and New York, 1997; sold to MMA]
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
Marcel Röthlisberger. Letter to Richard Knight. April 11, 1997, considers it one of Wals's finest and largest paintings and his most elaborate architectural setting; notes that the two central square towers are distinctly imaginary elements; describes the other version as in a "private collection" and observes that without doubt both pictures are wholly autograph and contemporary, although ours "emerges as the more interesting and satisfactory of the two on account of the presence of the figures"
Walter Liedtke in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1997–1998." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66 (Fall 1998), observes that "it would be tempting to assume that . . . this picture was painted outdoors and recorded an actual site were it not so evocative of antiquity and tranquil afternoons in the Roman campagna".
Marco Chiarini inMicco Spadaro: Napoli ai tempi di Masaniello. Ed. Brigitte Daprà. Exh. cat., Certosa di San Martino. Naples, 2002, pp. 30–31, ill.
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 35–37, no. 9, ill. (color).
Anke Repp-Eckert. "Nachträge zu Leben und Werk des Goffredo (Gottfried) Wals (um 1590/1595–1638/1640)." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 67 (2006), pp. 249–51, 271 n. 68, fig. 21.
A variant of this picture measuring 40.5 cm diameter and also on copper was with Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam, from 1943–44; its present whereabouts are unknown. The foreground figure in our panel and the three figures that animate its middle ground are not present in the lost variant and there are other minor differences in the two compositions.