Stephanie Dickey

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Unknown, in the manner of Edwaert Collier

Unknown, in the manner of Edwaert Collier (Dutch, Breda ca. 1640–after 1707 London or Leiden)

Untitled Trompe L’Oeil, n.d.

oil on canvas

54 x 37.8 cm

Gift of Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E., 1984


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From an English collection

Purchased from Brod Gallery, London, England, 1968 as Evert Collier

Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E.


Exhibition History

The Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, Tomlinson Gallery, 1 September – 3 November 1996

Light Echo: Dianne Bos and Doug Welch, McMaster Museum of Art, Panabaker Gallery, 17 September – 31 October 2009

Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 27 August 2013 – 25 January 2014

Edwaert Collier was born in the Dutch city of Breda around 1640. He established himself as a painter of vanitas still lifes in Leiden and later in Amsterdam, but his best-known works date from a period of residence in London, England (1693–1706), where he developed the pictorial formula seen here, known as a letter rack: a flat board with ribbons tacked across it to hold personal items ranging from sealing wax, quills, and scissors to newspapers, letters, and engravings. These still-life paintings belong to the genre of trompe l’oeil, intended to fool the eye of the viewer by creating an illusion of three-dimensional reality. Collier was not the first artist to develop the letter rack as a pictorial type—he may have seen similar paintings by Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten—but he made it a specialty during his London period, painting dozens of variations. As Dror Wahrmann has shown, Collier aimed to do more than delight viewers with his masterful technique. The objects in his letter racks were carefully selected and arranged to contain hidden allusions to contemporary politics and topical events. He often depicted actual dated newspapers or royal speeches, but, as Warhman discovered, made minute changes to the text or juxtaposed motifs to create playful associations.[i] Although difficult to decode today, the witty implications of these manoeuvres would have been appreciated by politically savvy contemporaries as well as by connoisseurs.

The Hamilton painting is clearly inspired by Collier’s letter-rack formula. Elements such as the knotty pine backboard and the red stick of sealing wax are found in numerous compositions by the master. However, careful analysis of form and content suggests that this painting is by another hand: either a copy of a work by Collier (if so, the original has yet to be traced) or an imitation in which another artist develops his own composition following Collier’s lead. This judgment is the product of connoisseurship, built on close visual analysis as well as consideration of the painting’s iconographic content. In building the case, it is helpful to compare the Hamilton painting with a signed work by Collier such as The Smell, now in the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation in Houston, a painting from around 1706 in which several similar motifs recur (Fig. 1).[ii]

Overall, the composition of the Hamilton painting closely resembles a type perfected by Collier, but the problem lies in the details. In formal terms, the rendering of individual motifs is less accomplished than one would expect from Collier himself. For instance, the folded newspaper seems too heavy and limp to be made of crisp newsprint and is not convincingly rectangular in shape. The front page text is sketched in, but only the title can be made out. In contrast, the printed and handwritten texts in the Houston composition (Fig. 1) are more legible. In addition to a London newspaper, we see a royal speech and a letter addressed to Collier, providing an illusionistic way to include his signature. The folded pages of these documents are convincingly modelled, with careful attention to the play of light over their wrinkled surfaces.

The paper, at upper-left, bearing an oval bust of a young man seems to be a portrait print. This was a popular and highly collectible art form of the time, but its appeal consisted mainly of public figures such as monarchs, preachers, and artists, usually identified by laudatory inscriptions. Printed figure studies could also depict anonymous character types whose colourful costumes, expressions, or attributes lent emotional depth or humour to the scene. An example is the jovial figure in the engraving featured in the Houston painting, whose pipe identifies him as a smoker. As indicated by the print’s inscribed caption, the figure and his activity are meant to symbolize the sense of smell. Collier renders portrait prints so accurately that in many cases his motifs can be matched with existing engravings. In contrast, the young man in the print depicted in the Hamilton painting lacks both particularized features and a caption to identify him.[iii] If there is an actual prototype, the artist has not provided enough information to identify it.

Another motif favoured by Collier is the folded letter with traces of red sealing wax and a round postmark visible on one corner. In Collier’s paintings (for instance, Fig. 1), the date on the postmark can often be read.[iv] In the Hamilton painting, the postmark is illegible. This could be due to surface abrasions, but, like the bland character of the portrait print, it might also be the work of an artist who simply imitated this motif without concern for its specific meaning

These traces of carelessness or ineptitude in both form and content are inconsistent with Collier’s precise attention to detail, leading to the conclusion that the Hamilton painting is by another hand. It is one of a number of extant paintings that can be described as generic, simplified variants on Collier’s letter-rack formula, but, so far, it cannot be connected with any of Collier’s known imitators.

The trained eye of the connoisseur can evaluate character and quality, but further research through technical analysis could yield useful insights. For instance, scientific examination could determine whether the paint and canvas date from the artist’s own time and locality, or from a later period. Autoradiography might reveal whether changes are preserved beneath the surface, suggesting the development of an original composition rather than a copy. In the present exhibition, these tools are applied to other puzzles, leaving this one still to be solved.

[i] Dror Wahrmann, Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) provides the first thorough study of Collier’s work. I am grateful to Prof. Wahrmann for corresponding with me about the Hamilton painting.

[ii] Edwaert Collier, The Smell, c. 1706, oil on canvas, 62.5 x 52 cm, Houston, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, inv. 1986.9.

[iii] The lack of a caption could indicate that this is a proof before letters, but the print remains unidentified.

[iv] Wahrmann, Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks, 98–9 and fig. 5.7; Wahrmann has identified thirty-nine examples and suggests that Collier may have used these postmarks to date his paintings or to mark canvases in a series.