Democritus, the laughing Philosopher

Oil on Panel
24 x 18 5/8 inches, 60 x 46.5 cm

The present picture is undoubtedly painted by Jacob Backer and it can securely be dated in the first half of the 1630s. Stylistically this painting on oak fits the pattern of ‘tronies’ he painted just after his arrival in Amsterdam, 1632-33.[1] Backer had worked in Leeuwarden with the painter and art dealer Lambert Jacobsz, between 1626 and 1632, before returning to the town he grew up in. There can hardly be any doubt that upon arrival in Amsterdam Backer went straight to Hendrick Uylenburgh, Lambert Jacobsz’s business partner and one of the most influential men in the city. In Uylenburgh’s workshop Backer must have become acquainted with the paintings of Rembrandt, who was at that time Uylenburch’s head of the studio.[2]
In Leeuwarden Backer had primarily produced rather colourful history paintings in the style of Lambert Jacobsz, such as the Tribute money, now in Stockholm, or Hippocrates visiting Democritus in Abdera, in the Alfred Bader collection in Milwaulkee.[3] In Leeuwarden, he may have seen paintings by Rembrandt or Lievens from their Leiden years that appeared in Lambert Jacobsz’s shop, but nothing could prepare the young Backer for Rembrandt’s dynamic and modern paintings the latter created in Amsterdam.
Looking more closely at the painting under discussion, it is especially the extremely free handling of paint that is so astounding. As was customary with the young Backer’s ‘tronies’, he set up the picture with a thin layer of dark paint, barely covering the ground that shines through at various places. The dynamic and swift brush strokes that shaped the old man’s beard, in part with the back of the brush, are quite reminiscent of Rembrandt’s and Lievens’s working method at that time.[4] The same applies for the handling of the flesh colours, with long and sweeping strokes in pinkish and white paint, or the volumes of the old man’s drapery, grey blue, highlighted with spontaneous strokes of white. Especially the pointing hand with multiple layers of sweeping brush strokes, give us the image of an extremely talented painter.
The picture is best compared with a signed picture in Berlin, the Old man looking at a piece of glass, no doubt an Allegory of sight and part of a series of the five senses (fig. 1). Both pictures are really very similar in their handling of the paint, not only in the faces of the two old men, but the way the hands and drapery are shaped as well. These pictures were painted directly after Jacob Backer’s arrival in Amsterdam, somewhere in 1633. The monogram in the Berlin picture, a modest and simple JB, was only used in the period before 1635.
The old man was a much favoured model for the artist, since he can be found in other paintings, such as the Old man with a coin (Allegory of avarice) in the Mittelrheinisches Landesmuseum in Mainz[5], or the Bearded old man with a cane, probably a copy after a lost painting by Jacob Backer.[6] The Laughing old man was probably more than just a ‘tronie’. It is more than likely that Backer had meant to portray the laughing philosopher Democritus here, therewith implying that the picture may have had a companion piece that presented the weeping philosopher Heraclitus. Unfortunately, no companion piece is known, although Backer must have painted the subject at least once more. In 1803, a picture was auctioned as ‘Heracliet en Democriet by de waerelds Globe, kloek geschilderd, door J. Backer, op paneel, hoog 34.25 breet 38.5 duim’.[7] The subject matter was very popular in Dutch painting of the 17th Century, as Albert Blankert was able to demonstrate.[8]
Peter van den Brink

[1] J. van der Veen, “Jacob Backer, een schets van zijn leven”, in P. van den Brink et. al., Jacob Backer (1608/9-1651). Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam & Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, Waanders, Zwolle 2008, pp. 10-25, esp. 17-18.
[2] On Uylenburch and Rembrandt’s early years in Amsterdam, see Jaap van der Veen & Friso Lammertse, Rembrandt & Co. Dealing in Masterpieces/Rembrandt en Uylenburgh. Handel in meesterwerken. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London / Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam 2006.
[3] Peter van den Brink, in Amsterdam & Aachen 2008 (o.c. note 1), pp. 205-206, no. A3 (Stockholm), pp. 208-209, no. A8 (Milwaulkee).
[4] It is therefore not at all surprising that a small name plate with the name Jan Lievens is attached on the frame, implying that it was once attributed to him.
[5] Peter van den Brink, in Amsterdam & Aachen 2008 (o.c. note 1), pp. 223-224, no. A54.
[6] Werner Sumowski (Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 6 Bde., Landau/Pfalz 1983–95, VI, pp. 3689, 3757, no. 2174) attributed the painting to Jacob Backer, but it is probably a workshop copy. This figure was used for a large history painting, depicting The continence of Scipio, we now only know from another copy, that was auctioned on December 20th, 2002, in Paris (Drouot Tajan), as lot 40, with an erroneous attribution to Gerbrand van den Eeckhout.
[7] Sale collection C.G. Blanken, The Hague (Bosboom), 4 June 1803 (L6097), lot 4 (fl. 3,16 to Hardenberg). See Kurt Bauch, Jacob Adriaensz Backer. Ein Rembrandtschüler aus Friesland, Berlin 1926, p. 81, no. 58.
[8] A. Blankert, “Heraclitus en Democritus – In het bijzonder in de Nederlandse kunst van de 17de eeuw”, in Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 18 (1967), pp. 31-124.


Private Collection, Sweden