Gerard Wigmana

(Workum 1637 – 1741 Amsterdam)

Sleeping Venus

26 1/3 x 20 7/8 in. (67 x 53 cm.)
oil on panel
Circa 1715; In an old giltwood frame


(Probably) Sale, London, 1737, among six paintings by Wigmana (LucretiaSleeping VenusLot and his DaughtersVertumnus and PomonaMary MagdaleneCleopatra).
Private collection, France.
Private collection, London.


(Probably) B. van Haersma Buma, “Gerardus Wigmana. De Friese Raphael,” in De Vrije Fries, XLIX, 1969.

Catalogue Entry

Gerard Wigmana was an eighteenth-century painter from the Northern Netherlands. He was born on September 27, 1673 to merchant Jan Tiaerdts and his wife Gaitske Gatzes Wigmana, in the small Frisian town of Workum. Wigmana developed a passion for painting at an early age, as attested by an episode following the death of his father in 1688/1689. When his mother wanted him to learn a decent trade, Wigmana replied by saying “If I can’t learn painting, let me learn weaving,” meaning he wanted to become a painter at all costs. Wigmana took drawing lessons with a local glass painter and studied with painter Joachim Burmeister, before becoming a student of Jelle Sybrandi, a member of the Dutch painters’ society. In the early 1700s, Wigmana made a trip to Rome, which had a long-lasting influence on his life and art. He lived in the city for about three years, before returning to the Netherlands. Back home, Wigmana worked for seven years as an art teacher for Princess Henriette Amalia’s children John William Friso and his seven sisters. He eventually settled in Amsterdam in around 1709, where he remained active as a painter until the end of his life.1

Fig. 1. Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, oil on canvas, 108.5 x 175 cm., 1510, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

The present painting by Wigmana has been interpreted as a depiction of Venus sleeping. The goddess is portrayed as a nude woman, partially covered by an almost transparent veil. She lays down on silky cream and red sheets covering an armchair-like bed. She is shown in a sensuous, eroticised pose: her legs are slightly spread, her right leg stretched out to touch an exquisite Baroque footstool with blue damask lining and wooden lion feet. Venus’ right arm effortlessly follows the line of her body, while her left arm draws a semi-circle ending in a hand turned upwards. The goddess’ head, slightly turned back and to the right, rests on a pillow, where her long, blonde hair flows loose. Her parted lips, which reveal her upper teeth, suggest she is sleeping deeply. The presence of Cupid, who usually accompanies his mother in this iconography, is evoked by a wooden putto head decorating the end of the bed frame. The scene is set in an interior. A large green curtain is drawn to the right to reveal a large, stone column. On its base, the artist’s signature appears.

Fig. 2. Nicolas Poussin, Sleeping Venus, oil on canvas, 73.3 x 98.8 cm., 1630, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

The painting has been dated to circa 1715, a few years after Wigmana’s sojourn in Rome. In the early eighteenth century, the city was still setting the standards of academic painting. As was customary for Dutch painters, Wigmana reached Italy through France. He studied at the Royal Academy in Paris for one year, before moving on via Marseille or Nice and then Genoa and Livorno, and arriving in Rome on November 14, 1699. During his studies with Giovanni Maria Morandi, a pupil of Pietro da Cortona and an academician at the Accademia di San Luca, Wigmana sought to master the art of Italian Renaissance painters by copying their works. According to biographer Johan van Gool, the artist made so many copies of Raphael that he came to be known as the “Frisian Raphael”.2 In his biographical book Korte schets of denkbeeld, Om tot een groote volmaaktheid in de schilderkonst te geraken – published posthumously in 1742 by bookseller Jacobus Ryckhoff 3 – Wigmana lists nearly fifty artists he found inspirational. In addition to Raphael, Correggio, Guido Reni, Veronese and Titian (of which he copied a painting in Modena on his way back home) are also mentioned. The iconography of the Sleeping Venus is rooted in the painting of these artists. Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (Fig. 1) had indeed inaugurated a long series of paintings dedicated to the subject, which became popular in Renaissance and Baroque art. Artists such as Titian (now lost and only known from copies) and Correggio themselves (1528 ca, Musée du Louvre), as well as Annibale Carracci (1603, Musée Condé, Chantilly, Oise, France), Artemisia Gentileschi (ca. 1625, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) and Poussin (Fig. 2) all produced their own variants on the theme. In his book, Wigmana also mentions four times the art of Antoon van Dyck, who was by no chance nicknamed the “Flemish Raphael”. The voluminous curtain and the classical column in the present work suggest that Wigmana was probably familiar with van Dyck’s portraiture.

Fig. 3. Gerard Wigmana, Mayor Saco van Aitzema of Dokkum and his wife offer Tsar Pieter the Great a meal in Amsterdam, oil on canvas, 1697.

The impact of Wigmana’s stay in Italy on his art is revealed if one compares the Sleeping Venus to his curious Mayor Saco van Aitzema of Dokkum and his wife offer Tsar Peter the Great a meal in Amsterdam, dating to 1697 (Fig. 3). The realism and true-life depiction of a family meal were replaced by mythological and historical subjects, and a classicizing, academic style. Wigmana’s book is once again a fundamental source of information to understand his vision: perfection in painting was the artist’s lifelong goal. According to Wigmana, the painter shall build true beauty by merging the best that nature has to offer, a concept that was rooted in classical antiquity and was later pursued by the aforementioned Italian masters, who are therefore to be imitated. Wigmana’s academism translates into a high degree of technical perfection, masterfully exemplified in the present work. The execution is meticulous and accurate, yet soft and sweet. Every roughness and unevenness are avoided. Brushstrokes are not visible and melt in overall harmony, allowing for an enamel-like finish of fine sophistication and virtuosity.4

Fig. 4. Gerard Wigmana, The Morning Toilet, oil on panel, 43.2 x 31.7 cm, Private collection.

In his book, Wigmana also discusses the use of light, affirming that harmony between light and dark is a key element of a successful painting. Large paintings as a whole must be bright, but in small ones the light should fall on the main figures to attract the viewer’s attention. In the Sleeping Venus, Wigmana has masterfully put his own instructions into practice. The goddess’ figure is illuminated by a source of light coming from the upper left, in a way that her body seems to shine of its own. The use of chiaroscuro in the bed sheets creates a sculptural effect, while the background remains in the shade. From this perspective, the work can be closely compared to Wigmana’s The Morning Toilet (Fig. 4), where the artist exploited a similar use of light. Wigmana used to reserve such a treatment of light to cabinet paintings, which he is documented to have produced in great quantity. In a historical moment when halls and reception rooms were often covered by wallpaper, paintings were destined to smaller rooms, primarily to cabinets. Hence, small dimensions, accuracy of execution and emphasis on a few, main figures – all elements characterising the present work – were natural features for paintings that were meant to be looked at from up close in an intimate, private environment. In the eighteenth-century, cabinet paintings were produced for the open market, and variations of the same subject could circulate freely. This is confirmed by a work attributed to Wigmana, which, although smaller and lower in quality, replicates the present painting’s composition almost identically, if not for slight variations in the background (Fig. 5). Another small painting attributed to Wigmana’s circle, depicting the ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene (Fig. 6), suggests that successful compositions could be exploited repetitively and adapted to different subject matters.

Fig. 5. Attributed to Gerard Wigmana, Venus Sleeping, oil on panel, 42 x 55 cm., Private collection.

Fig. 6. Circle of Gerard Wigmana, The ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene, oil on panel, 37.5 x 31.2 cm., Private collection.

A private fruition of the present work is also suggested by its explicit eroticism. Venus’ body is presented to the viewer, largely nude and brightly lit. Her legs slightly apart. Sensual content was already present in Dutch genre painting of the seventeenth century, primarily in the form of brothel scenes (the so-called bordeeltjes) and symbolic motifs laden with erotic significance.5 Yet, pictures such as the present one suggest a change of style from the Baroque. They are forerunners of a naturalised and classicised eroticism that would become distinctive of Rococo painting. From this perspective, Wigmana’s Sleeping Venus could be closely compared to the nudes of the feinmalerei artists of his generation, such as Adriaen van der Werff, who painted a series of sensual, mythologically inspired pictures for the open market (ex. Fig. 7). These works anticipate the profusion of provocative nudes that, in Europe, would later reach its peak in France in the allegorical, mythological and historical paintings of artists such as Lemoyne van Loo, and, primarily, François Boucher.

Fig. 7. Adriaen van der Werff, Venus and Cupid, oil on oak panel, 45.1 x 33.4 cm., The Wallace Collection, London.

In terms of provenance, the present work could be possibly identified with the Sleeping Venus included in the list of six paintings by Wigmana that were auctioned in London in 1737, probably following Wigmana’s documented stay in the city.

1 For a detailed study on the artist, see 'Gerardus Wigmana, de Friese Raphael', in De Vrije Fries, XLIX, 1969, pp. 43-65.
2 De Nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche kunstschilders en schilderessen: Waer in de Levens- en Kunstbedryven der tans levende en reets overleedene Schilders, die van Houbraken, noch eenig ander schryver, zyn aengeteekend, verhaelt worden, (The Hague, 1750).
3 Korte schets of denkbeeld, Om tot een groote volmaaktheid in de schilderkonst te geraken, (Amsterdam: by Jacobus Ryckhoff, 1742).
4 Austrian art historian Theodor von Frimmel was the first one to underline this aspect of Wigmana’s painting in his article ‘Ein signiertes Werk von Gerard Wigmana’, in Blätter für Gemäldekunde 3/7 (1907), pp. 109-113
5 For a study on the subject, see, for example, Wayne Franits “Wily women? On sexual imagery in Dutch art of the seventeenth century,” in From Revolt to Riches. Culture and History of the Low Countries, 1500–1700, (London: University College London Press, 2017), pp. 220-233.
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The work bears a label 13 and an illegible wax stamp on the reverse.
The panel is slightly beveled and seems to be in a good condition. The painted surface seems to be in a good condition except for some wears, but does not seem to show any loss or uplift. The varnish is clear. A few scattered retouching can be seen throughout the surface under UV light. A larger retouching can be detected on the figure’s back.

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