Introductory CommentsThe Lonsdale Produce Market is a major new addition to the oeuvre of the great Flemish artist Frans Snyders (1579-1657), whose magnificent still- life and animal pictures, both large and cabinet-sized, impressed his contemporaries and established models for future generations. This market scene came to light recently, in 2011. Although it was in the collection of the earls of Lonsdale, apparently it had gone unremarked by connoisseurs, scholars, and tourists. The flamboyant first earl of Lonsdale James Lowther (1736-1802), known in his day as “wicked Jimmy,” a tempestuous character, but one who had a great love for the arts, is said to have bought the work, but it was never exhibited and knowledge of its existence disappeared. Currently, it is with Johnny van Haeften, the London art dealer.
The Market patently derives from two of the four market scenes (The Hermitage, St Petersburg) commissioned by the Habsburg official Jacques van Ophem. Van Ophem ordered a set of four markets for the antechamber to his office in his grand mansion in Brussels around 1618-1620. It consists of pictures of stalls where fish, flesh, fruit, and vegetables are portrayed in large-scale canvases, each with one type of provision. For The Lonsdale Market, Snyders fused the compositions of the produce scenes to form a new image, reproducing motifs verbatim. Yet differences can be observed, most notably in the figures.
These changes raise interesting questions, most importantly why did Snyders integrate two separate compositions to form a new scene? This is not a pastiche, but a thoughtfully contrived invention intended, I argue, for a specific purpose. Unlike a seigniorial still life where a lordship’s riches for personal use are represented, for instance, game, cattle, aquatic creatures, produce, and poultry, The Lonsdale Produce Market portrays garden commodities to be sold at urban markets; it is an idealized picture of a commercial enterprise. Clearly a central theme is the provisioning network established to provide city dwellers with fresh produce. Thus, rather than an individual who wished to show an estate’s self-sufficency, the so-called “unbought meal,” as it was coined in antiquity, The Lonsdale Market emphasizes the importance of an institution that secures these foodstuffs for the benefit of those unable to possess great estates where such goods were available on the lords’ farms and in fruit gardens.
In this essay, I speculate that a gardeners’ guild in the Spanish Netherlands commissioned the picture for its guild hall. Reasons are given in the text for such a solution. Guilds in the Southern Netherlands had chambers, even buildings, where the business of the guild was carried out, its documents preserved, and where noteworthy occasions were celebrated. What better way to show the ideal of agricultural cultivation carried out by members of a gardeners’ guild then to have a monumental painting portraying an almost encyclopedic depiction of the fruits of their labor.
Additionally, the role of the guild’s members as wholesalers and retailers is presented in the persons of the painting’s staffage. Although men were the public face of the guild in municipal governance, women constituted the labor force, the gardeners, many of the wholesalers and the majority of the retailers. The Lonsdale Produce Market depicts them enacting these duties. But I must emphasize that my reading is speculative, yet evidence does point in this direction.
Further notions pertaining to the imagery are also considered within the text, not least the idea that the riches of the land connote a “golden age,” an era of peace, well-being, health, and productivity. The scene is no less then a paean to the good governance of the Archdukes, whose wisdom had secured the Habsburg lands a respite, a time to revitalize, and restore the prosperity that it had once enoyed. To introduce The Lonsdale Produce Market, I have written a prelude, a brief biography of Frans Snyders, that touches on the subjects he depicted as well as the issue of sets and series. This subject is of importance because the Lonsdale picture is derived from such a group, and it has been posited that picture of fish and flesh was a pendant to The Produce Market.