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Theodoor Rombouts (Antwerp 1597-1637), A Merry CompanyEstimate $2,000,000 – $3,000,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

oil on canvas, 94 x 67 1/8 in. (238.7 x 170.6 cm.), signed lower right, on the chair ‘T. ROMBOUTS.F’.

Provenance: Acquired in the 18th century by Monsieur de Chalut de Vérins and installed in the Hôtel Crozat (now the Ritz Hotel), place Vendôme, and by descent to his adopted daughter
Lucile Deville, née Desroches, and by descent to
Comte Dulong de Rosnay, 17 place des Etats-Unis, and by descent to his daughter
Madame G. de l’A. (château de Spoir), and by descent to the present owner.

Literature: D. Roggen, “Werk van M. Stomer en Th. Rombouts,”, Genste Bijdragen tot de Kunstgeschiedenis (1951), 1952, pp. 269-273.
B. Nicolson, The International Caravaggesque Movement, Oxford, 1979, p. 84.
B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford, 1979, I, p. 165.

Exhibited: Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Chefs-d’oeuvre des collections parisiennes, November-December 1950, no. 65.

Notes: Rombouts’ splendid and sumptuous, thirteen-figure A Merry Company is one of the finest and most ambitious examples of Caravaggesque painting in Flanders to have appeared on the market in many years. Born in Antwerp, Rombouts studied with Abraham Janssen before embarking on a prolonged sojourn to Italy, where, like the Utrecht painters Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Barburen, he spent a considerable period of time, living principally in Rome (though perhaps in Florence, too) between 1616 and 1625. His style was transformed by his study of contemporary Roman painting – especially that of Caravaggio and his followers, in particular Bartolomeo Manfredi – and after returning to Antwerp in 1625 and joining the Guild of Saint Luke, he enjoyed a successful career producing genre scenes such as the present painting. Unlike other Northern Caravaggisti, however, the Flemish origins of his style remained as important as the Italian influences that acted upon it.

Around a large dining table covered with a white tablecloth sits a large group of well-dressed, prosperous men and women dining, drinking and flirting with one another. At the center of the scene is a hearty, impressively mustachioed soldier, his back to us, who carves a roast before him; his sword is slung over a splendidly rich red coat. The table is filled with an opulent abundance of meat, fruit, bread and wine. The painting is one of the best examples of a series of monumental compositions by Rombouts in horizontal format, with many lively figures socializing, and rendered with dramatic chiaroscuro, appropriated from Caravaggio, an almost tangible rendering of fashionable clothing and a palette inspired by the colors of Rubens and Janssen. Indeed, his teacher’s influence is especially evident in Rombouts’s strongly three-dimensional, almost sculptural conception of his figures and his creamy, heavy handling of paint. The vivid, sometimes flamboyant costumes of his figures evoke the works of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, who also employed brilliant and eye-catching colors in their genre scenes. A Merry Company is distinguished not only by its large-scale, but by the great care and captivating vitality with which Rombouts portrays the particular facial characteristics, gestures, manners and personalities of each of his figures and clearly elucidates their relationships and intentions. The dynamic sense of space in which his characters engage with each other is due in large part to Rombouts’s striking diagonal structuring of his composition, the unexpected (and quite modern) cropping of the figures at the picture’s edges, and the bold foreshortening that is most effectively employed in the rendering of the central soldier and his almost three-dimensional chair.

Nothing is known of the original owners of A Merry Company, and it seems that Rombouts often produced his monumental genre scenes for the open market. However, it has an illustrious 18th-century provenance, when it was acquired by Geoffroy Chalut de Vérins, treasurer-general of the house of the Dauphine, Marie-Josèphe de Saxe, mother of Louis XVI, and installed in the boiserie paneling of the Hôtel Crozat in the Place Vendome in Paris, which Chalut de Vérins rented, then bought, from the Marquise de Bethune. This late 17th-century hôtel particulier was one of the most beautiful in Paris, and is today home to the famous Hotel Ritz. After the death of Chalut de Vérins, the house became the property of his adoptive daughter, Lucile Desroches, wife of the fermier-général Nicolas Deville who was guillotined in the Revolution. The painting passed by descent to her great-grandson, the Comte Dulong de Rosnay (who lived at 17, place des Etats-Unis), and from him to his daughter, the chatelaine of the château de Spoir (as of 1941), and by descent to the present owners.

Rombouts often painted several versions of his compositions – for example, there are two autograph versions of The Tooth-Puller (Prado, Madrid and Galerie Narodni, Prague), and at least three versions of The Card Players (Antwerp, Saint-Petersburg and Madrid) – so it is not surprising that a second version of A Merry Company is known, in the Karlsen Collection in California (formerly Weiss Gallery, London); it is somewhat smaller in size (155 x 223.5 cm.) and unsigned.

Christie’s. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS PART I, 28 January 2015, New York, Rockefeller Plaza