In the bible the Parable of the Blind explains that man should only trust God. It is our fate that when men follow those who pretend to be their guide (those in power), misfortune comes to all.
This subject was regularly treated in 16th and early 17th century Flemish painting. The best-known composition is by Pieter Brueghel the Elder; it dates from 1568.
The different treatments of the blind leading the blind should be seen against the contemporary events within society, especially the rise of Protestantism and the subsequent wars.
I have found another version of our composition by Vrancx, which is signed with a monogram; it was sold at Christie’s London, in 2014.
Vrancx painted three other versions in mirror view: one is monogrammed, the other two are unsigned.
About the subject of our painting
The theme of the parable of the blind leading the blind is biblical, it derives from Matthew, XV: 13-14.
Christ, when told that he had angered the Pharisees by criticising their spiritual leadership, had replied : “Let them alone: they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
So it was understood that man should trust no one else but God, in all other cases misfortune will happen.
The best-known 16th century painting representing the blind leading the blind (six men in total) is of course the one by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples dating from 1568.
But the eldest treatment of the subject, dating from the early 16th century, must have been made by Hieronymus Bosch. That drawing is lost, but it is known through an engraving (showing two blind people in the foreground and two more in the background) by Pieter van der Heyden. It was published by Hieronymus Cock in or circa 1561.
Cornelis Massys made already another composition and engraving of this subject circa 1540, with four blind figures.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger made several versions of his father’s iconic composition from 1568, three of them are in public collections: in the Louvre, Paris, in the Galleria Nazionale, Parma and in the collection of the Princes of Lichtenstein, Vienna.
Before these versions by Pieter Brueghel II another Flemish painter, Maerten van Cleve, who was actually a contemporary of Pieter I, made several versions of this theme, some of which might have been influenced by the composition by Pieter the Elder (Basel, Kunstmuseum), but others seemingly much more original (Christie’s London, 8/12/05).
The subject of the blind leading the blind remained popular in the first half of the 17th century.
About our painting
Sebastiaen Vrancx painted several versions (four more) with five blind (four men and a woman), plus a dog:
- the same composition as ours, oil on panel : 36,9 X 27,9 cm, signed with a monogram, sold twice at Christie’s London in 1996 and 2014, and once at Sotheby’s London in 2007;
- of a variation of this composition in mirror view there are three known versions, all three oil on panel: one signed with a monogram was sold at Sotheby’s in the same 2007 sale; two unsigned ones were sold as by Vrancx at Christie’s Paris in 2008 and at Ansorena Madrid in 2011.
It is thought that these paintings by Vrancx were probably inspired by an engraving after a lost painting by Pieter Brueghel I.
About Sebastiaen Vrancx
Antwerp 1573 – 1647 Antwerp
Important painter of battle scenes, genre scenes, landscapes and of historical (biblical and mythological) scenes.
Pupil of Adam van Noort; other important pupils of van Noort were Jacob Jordaens and Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
Vrancx probably travelled to Italy circa 1595/1597: he visited Venice, Rome and Naples.
From the year 1600/1601 he became a Master in the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp. In 1612 he was elected dean.
That same year he married a sister-in-law of the landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht.
Vrancx played an important role in the social life of his home-town Antwerp:
- in 1607 he joined the Rhetoric chamber “De Violieren” (he was also active as poet and as author of theatre plays);
- after 1610 he joined the Romanists (the Confrérie of St Peter and Paul), an association of 25 artists and other influential people who had travelled to Rome (in 1617 he was their dean);
- in 1613 he became an officer in the local civic guard, in 1621 he became captain.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because the parable of the blind leading the blind is a typical Flemish theme of the 16th and first half of the 17th century.