A fine ebony and pen-engraved mother-of-pearl and lacquer inlaid baleen collector’s cabinet by or attributed to Herman Doomer (1595-1650) and Jean Bellekin (c. 1597 - 1636)
Northern Netherlands, probably Amsterdam, circa 1630- 1635
W. 61 cm x D. 38.5 x H. 50 cm (closed)
Private collection, France
The overall ebony veneered cabinet on four bun feet, supporting ebony Termini in the form of a massive ebony three-horned faun with ionic capital, the front two diagonally placed, the back pair facing outwards. The two doors with yellow or gilt copper mounts reveal a magnificent interior of a long folly panel resembling three top drawers, a central painting on copper flanked by four small drawers, under which a long bottom drawer, all above a retractable games board. Each drawer, with a gold or gilt filigree puller, and both the interiors of the doors are decorated with a slat of uncoloured baleen overall inlaid with pen-engraved mother-of-pearl and silver-thread in ‘kwab’ or auricular design (for comparable design see: the fence of the choir in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam after a design by Johannes Lutma, 1645).
The top panel at the front, which can be lifted when the top of the cabinet is open, reveals a secret drawer. The left part of the front shows a hunting bird of prey with its catch surrounded by foliage, sitting on rockwork which consists of lacquer finely inlaid with all sorts of sparkling (semi)-precious stones, metals, and other materials. The scene continues at the right panel with another bird of prey, but without a catch. Finally, the central panel shows two mother-of-pearl half-dragon half-bird figures or gryphons facing each other, fronted by a yellow or gilt copper auricular-style metalwork applique.
The centre has a pair of small drawers decorated with floral motifs on eac side, the top right drawer holding an original inkwell which is rare for the period, and a secret drawer at the back. The extended bottom drawer shows a deer hunting scene, with on the left the hunter and his dog and on the right panel, the deer chased by more dogs. The central panel shows a cartouche flanked by two birds or phoenixes. The slats on the interior of the main doors show flower sprays with tulips, lilies, ranunculus, and peonies. In the very centre of the cabinet is a painting depicting Judith and Holofernes, identified as from the Northern Netherlands and dated around 1630-1640 by Dr Fred G. Meijer. It falls to the front, revealing that the back of it is painted in a black-and-white checkered pattern, which is continued in ebony and marine ivory or bone on the bottom of the four-sided mirrored interior it reveals. The ceiling, suspended by four heavy gilt-metal columns, is inlaid with presumably palisander, African padouk, ebony, oak and marine ivory or bone. This complete interior comes out when a handle to the ceiling is pulled, revealing another identical, but now square, mirrored interior with three secret drawers at the back. The lid at the top of the cabinet, with three mirrored and inlaid baleen panels on the inside, opens to a compartment lined in red leather. The very top has a sliding panel, also revealing a possibly original red-leather lined interior.
The attribution of this cabinet to Herman Doomer and Jean Bellekin was made by observing the high-quality carving and engravings and comparing the different attributed works of art by these artists in museums and literature. Several small cabinets and a few large armoires by Herman Doomer are known, among which are the famous cabinets in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. One of which was recently acquired by the museum. Prof. dr. Reinier Baarsen, now Curator Emeritus Decorative Arts and Furniture of that same museum, has argued, in his article Herman Doomer, Ebony Worker in Amsterdam in The Burlington Magazine (November 1996), that Doomer had a very successful career as can be concluded from the portraits Doomer and his wife had painted by their friend Rembrandt van Rijn. However, Baarsen attributes only four cabinets and one picture frame to Doomer. Baarsen, in little more than one sentence, later eliminates a substantial group of high-quality ebony furniture. An important change in the view of works by Doomer was a collector’s cabinet purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2011.181), which was acquired in 2011 and not known to Baarsen when he wrote his article in 1996. It is the first argument that Doomer created a larger number of these and probably other furniture forms. The finely engraved mother-of-pearl flowers on this cabinet are very similar - if not identical - to those on the large Rijksmuseum cabinets. The veneer on the inside was undoubtedly the final argument to attribute it to Doomer. Interestingly, some of the ripple mouldings and the engraved mother-of-pearl flowers and birds are nearly identical to our cabinet. Another cabinet, privately restored by Iskander Breebaart (senior restorer at the Rijksmuseum), can also almost certainly be attributed to the master himself because of the same reasons the Metropolitan cabinet was attributed. However, the ripple mouldings were completely renewed by him since they were replaced by plain veneer when (probably) a few fell off and got lost over time (leaving only four originals). (1 & 2)
Doomer’s ripple mouldings on cabinets are recognised by the wave ending in a straight line in the corners. This implies that these mouldings were made with the frame’s dimensions in mind, as seen in the Metropolitan cabinet and in the Rijksmuseum. Nevertheless, this is not an argument to not attribute other works to the master since the first Rijksmuseum cabinet shows neat ripple mouldings on the bottom of the cabinet but not ending in a straight line in the corners. When one considers Doomer making custom mouldings is an argument, the cabinet present with perfect corner solutions should be by him. Similar corner solutions, but not ending in a straight line, can be found in one of the two cabinets by Doomer in the Boijmans-Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam (Div. M 90 b & M 17 a-d ). Remarkably, when studying 17th-century cabinets from the Northern Netherlands, Germany, and Antwerp (since they are often misattributed), Doomer is the only cabinetmaker who ever thought of an eye-pleasing solution for the corners. (3)
Some other arguments for the attribution are the massive gilt brass columns in the interior, which are in other cabinets always made of wood, the fine openwork hinges, lockplate and applique in the ‘Lutma’ style, the excellent ebony veneer, finely carved figures, the door-hinges not hidden and pointing outwards, the drawers being made of solid African padouk (like in the Met-cabinet), the front termini that are placed diagonally to those at the back which is very Doomeresque and the cabinet itself in the base made of snakewood or another hardwood. Another strong argument for the attribution to Doomer is using unworked baleen. No other examples of the use of this material in works of art are known besides this cabinet. However, there is a significant exception: a picture frame in the Amsterdam Deutzenhofje regentenkamer, which was recently attributed to Doomer and will be published soon.
Van Seters can attribute an ebony chessboard to Jean Bellekin by the signatures below three of the four portraits of Roman Emperors (Jean signs with IB and Jan with Jan Bellekin/ Belkien). In the chessboard, a petite mother-of-pearl shield is signed as well. Jean can be regarded as the ‘editor’ of the chessboard here. Still, the Guild would not let him create things in ebony, so an ebonist or cabinetmaker must have helped him. Van Seters argues that the maker must be Willem Albertse Deutgens, who made ebony frames for pearl shell-engraver Dirck van Rijswijck. His argument is Deutgens having “drie paerlemoeder ronties gesneden van Jan Belquin” in his estate when he died in 1659. Remarkably enough, in the estate of Herman Doomer, several mother-of-pearl engravings by Jean Bellekin were listed too. It is, therefore, possible that Doomer was the ebonist supplying the chessboard. The latter is further strengthened by the fact that the ebony cabinet in the Rijksmuseum, which has proven to be by Doomer but not signed by him, has mother-of-pearl engraved inlays and signed by Bellekin. A closer look at the inlays on the chessboard and those of the kunstkabinet presented here reveal that the mother-of-pearl figural inlays are nearly identical to each other, especially the hunter, dog, and deer. One cannot conclude differently that the mother-of-pearl engravings on this cabinet are by Jean Bellekin. The engraved plaques on the Metropolitan cabinet are identical to those of our cabinet but, in these cases, depict birds and flowers. (4)
When observing the different carvings on one piece of furniture presumed to be by Doomer, or on different ones, the quality of the engraving fluctuates a lot. However, for any artist, it is easier to work on a grand scale than on a small miniature scale (perhaps a reason why our termini figures are less detailed than the almost 30 cm figures of the Rijksmuseum cabinets). On the chessboard, the portraits of Roman emperors are highly sophisticated, while the smaller engravings of animals are beautiful but could be better. In the past, it was presented as a fact that Doomer operated on his own, and Bellekin did so too. Perhaps they did so in the large, magnificent pieces as those in the Rijksmuseum.
Nevertheless, this would make these two workmen exceptional in Amsterdam since all craftsmen had apprentices working in their workshops. Rembrandt portrayed Doomer and his wife, and one cannot presume him to be so successful while he worked on his own and finished merely a few pieces a year. It is perfectly possible that some of the more ‘generic’ works of art (although superb) were made under the supervision of the meester Kistemaker, or in Bellekin’s case meester paerlemoersneyder.
A Catholic whaling merchant?
The cabinet presented here is unusual in many aspects. First, the imagery on the panels and the painting are rarely seen on such table cabinets. The hunting scenes on the drawers are an unconventional choice - especially in engraved mother-of-pearl. The immediate question one
asks is why the vases with flowers on the doors were not continued in a floral motif on the drawers. It is possibly the first argument that the decoration was not randomly picked but might have a meaning.
Using the story of Judith and Holofernes as a central painting in a kunstkabinet is highly unusual, too, especially in combination with flowers and hunting scenes rather than with other biblical stories. Since the picture is identified as from the northern Netherlands, it is also remarkable that the scene was chosen. Judith slaying Holofernes in the first half of the 17th century symbolised the Catholic fight against the Protestants and Ottomans. Judith refers to the pious, and Holofernes, the barbaric Assyrian, to the Protestants and Turks. Could the owner of the cabinet have (secretly) been a Catholic? (5)
Finally, the most remarkable feature of this cabinet: is the use of uncoloured whale baleen. The use of (whale) tooth marine ivory or bone instead of elephant ivory was more common at the time and must be pointed out, especially in combination with the unworked baleen. Ivory was used in high-end furniture such as cabinets by Herman Doomer (see: Rijksmuseum BK-1975-81) and Willem de Rots (see: Rijksmuseum BK-2005-19), under which this cabinet can be placed, but also in furniture produced in larger quantities such as the Antwerp kunstkabinetjes.
Now if there is something all art historical research tells us, it is that whenever there is something out of the ordinary in a decoration scheme, it was done on purpose by the artist or has a meaning for the patron. Could the cabinet have something to do with whale hunting? After all, the hunting scenes are placed directly on baleen. The latter was clearly to be identified as such by the spectator and not blackened to resemble ebony. Whale hunting, or the whaling industry, was prominent in Dutch society of the 17th century and even was an essential part of the economy. However, what could be the connection between Judith, Holofernes, and whaling?
It could be that the person ordering this cabinet was a Catholic. However, since he was free to be Catholic in Amsterdam, why would he criticise the city where he gathered his fortune? Could it be possible that a Catholic, who certainly knew the meaning of the story of Judith was a symbol of the fight against Protestantism through the counterreformation, commissioned this depiction on his cabinet since he fought a Holofernes or a Goliath for all that matters? To answer that question, one must investigate the history of the whaling industry of the Netherlands, to be more precise the Noordsche Compagnie.
The Noordsche or Northern Company was a Dutch whaling trade cartel, founded by several cities in the Netherlands in 1614 and operating until 1642. Soon after its founding, it became entangled in territorial conflicts with England, Denmark, France, and other groups within the Netherlands. However, vast fortunes were made in the industry, with prominent wealthy figures such as the founders Nicquet and Hinlopen. The company was dissolved in 1642. The company had started receiving intense competition from Dutch interlopers and Danish whalers. Whaling was slowly privatised, and private traders finally pushed the cartel aside.
This could be a battle between David, Judith, Goliath, and Holofernes. The young nouveau riche battled the old wealthy, established merchants. It certainly would not be the first time that a young wealthy Amsterdam merchant would show off his newly gathered fortunes in the form of a life-size portrait or exuberant furniture. However, who could have been the Catholic nouveau merchant who became riche in the whaling industry?
Conversely, the curious cabinet could be made exactly what it was intended for: keeping curiosities. It would be filled with rare objects of artificial and natural origins. The use of baleen, mother-of-pearl, hunting (for rare things) and a rare image of Judith and Holofernes would comply with the use of it.
1) Reinier Baarsen, “Herman Doomer, Ebony Worker in Amsterdam” in: The Burlington Magazine, November 1996, Vol. 138, No. 1124, pp.
(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, “Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2010–2012” in: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 2012, v.
70, no. 2 (ill.)
(3) W.H. van Seters, “Oud-Nederlandse Parelmoerkunst: Het werk van de leden der familie Belquin, parelmoergraveurs en schilders in de 17e eeuw, in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ), 1958, Vol. 9, pp. 173-238
(4) Iskander Breebaart & Gert van Gergen, “Pressed baleen and fan-shaped ripple mouldings by Herman Doomer” in: Proceedings 11th International Symposium on Wood and Furniture Conservation, Amsterdam, 9-10 November 2012, pp. 62-74
(5) R. Ward Bissell, “Artemisia Gentileschi - A New Documented Chronology” in: The Art Bulletin, 50, 1968, pp. 153-168