About Abraham Willemsens
Birthplace unknown circa 1605/10 – 1672 Antwerp
His last name is sometimes spelt Willemsen, though the signature of the very rare fully signed paintings reads Willemsens.
Versatile painter of outdoor genre scenes, sometimes in a context of landscape or of biblical and mythological painting.
Willemsens also painted the figure staffage in some depictions of the Four Elements by Jan van Kessel I.
Willemsens is documented in Antwerp from 1625 until his death in 1672.
He was inscribed in the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp in the year 1627/28 as a pupil of Guillaume Anthoni (also known as Gilliam Antonissens), a painter born in Burgundy, France, who was active in Antwerp.
Willemsens himself had two little known apprentices: in 1651/52 and in 1654/55.
Our painter must have enjoyed a certain prestige in Antwerp for he has been dean of the Antwerp cross-bow guild of Saint George, the so-called “Oude Voetboogh”. The guilds of Saint George and of Saint Sebastian of those days should in a certain sense be compared to today’s service clubs: as a cross-bow was more expensive than a hand-bow the guild of Saint George was the more classy of the two.
During the 1650s and 1660s Willemsens is known to have provided pictures to Antwerp’s best known international art dealers: Matthijs Musson (1658 and 1663) and Guilliam Forchoudt or Forchondt (1669).
Jean-Michel Picart, a still-life painter from Antwerp (circa 1600 – 1682) had moved before 1635 to Paris. Though he continued painting he also became an important art dealer. Dr. Erik Duverger (1969, P. 227) mentions that Picart complained in a letter from April 1662 about the paintings of Willemsens: they had become more expensive because he has so much work (“want hij is seer verandert van de preysen omdat hij soo veul te doen heeft”).
Strangely enough Willemsens was a completely forgotten painter until the early 1990s, as no fully signed or monogrammed pictures had been known until then. Some of his paintings had been attributed to the so-called “Maître aux béguins”, a master named this way after the type of little hats worn by the beguines, which regularly occur in his paintings.
The art historian Gregory Martin identified this “Maître aux béguins” as Abraham Willemsens in two articles published in Apollo in February 1991 and February 1993. It was thought that the Maître aux béguins had been an artist working in Paris under the influence of the famous Le Nain brothers, as had for example Jean Michelin and the Maître des cortèges.
Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain were born in Northern France, in or near Laon, around 1600. By 1630 they all three lived in Paris where they shared a studio. Usually the three brothers are referred to as the Le Nain, for it is particularly difficult to distinguish their individual hands: all three worked in a remarkably similar style, sometimes they even collaborated on the same painting, and all three signed only with their last name. The Le Nain specialised in scenes of peasant life, but not as a form of entertainment or education for the middle and higher classes of society as one regularly sees in Flemish or Dutch paintings. Their intimate paintings also lack the extreme realism that one finds with Caravaggio. Their humble peasants were painted with much sympathy and warmth, with a greatness that one does not immediately associate with poor farmers (and that one would later find back during the 19th century in the oeuvre of Jean-François Millet and of Gustave Courbet).
Abraham Willemsens is recorded in Paris circa 1645. He probably worked here for a longer time, which explains the influence of the Le Nain.
Paintings of another Antwerp painter, Adriaen Willemhoudt, have wrongly been given to Willemsens (Jan De Maere and Marie Wabbes, 2003, Nr. 27 and Jahel Sanzsalazar, 2008). The reason was not that much stylistically, but rather because of his monogram that reads A.W., and because he also worked for the Forchoudt firm.