Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (1562-1638) is seen as one of the most important Mannerism painters of The Netherlands. Van Haarlem was born into an affluent family. When his parents fled the Spanish siege of Haarlem in 1572, Cornelis remained behind with Pieter Pietersz, to whom he was apprenticed. In 1580 and 1581, he studied under artists in Rouen and Antwerp, before returning to Haarlem. Around 1584, Cornelis met Hendrick Goltzius and Karel van Mander, forming their own Haarlem Academy. These three artists represent the Dutch brand of Mannerism, with complex compositions featuring nudes in twisted poses and intricate positions, often in religious and mythological scenes. Cornelis van Haarlem also painted portraits, kitchen scenes and still lifes.
The Old Testament story of the Discovery of the Cup in Benjamin’s Sack narrates an episode from the life of Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son, much to the envy of his older brothers. In an attempt to regain their father’s love and attention, they sold Joseph as a slave to a slave merchant. During his enslavement Joseph however managed to climb up at the court of the King of Egypt, obtaining an influential position. When by chance the brothers of Joseph visited the court they no longer recognized their brother. Depicted in the painting is the moment when one of Joseph’s soldiers discovers a silver cup in the grain bag of Joseph’s youngest brother Benjamin during a field trip. This was planted there on purpose by Joseph to test his brothers. Upon returning at the Kingly court Joseph revealed to his brothers his identity and forgives them for their mischievous deeds in the past (Genesis 44:12).
According to P.J.J. van Thiel, the undated Discovery of the Cup in Benjamin’s Sack must have been painted in 1594 or shortly thereafter. The figures, partially rendered against the light just like those in The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea (fig. 1), are arranged in a half circle, the brothers of Joseph to the left and his servants to the right. In the same painting a figure seen from the back wearing a turban wears the same yellow costume with shoulder decorations and slits on the thighs as the soldier holding the cup in the present painting. The right half of the painting is composed similarly to the group of soldiers on the right, seen mainly against the light, in the contemporaneous Meeting of Jacob and Esau (fig. 2) in the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton. According to Van Thiel the dating of 1594 deduced from this observation could be somewhat early, because the painting is also related to Judah and Tamar of 1596, in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem (fig. 3). The pose of Joseph’s major-domo, who confronts Benjamin with the missing cup, dates back to the figure that served as the model for the stooping soldier in the centre of the Massacre in Bethlehem, in the Mauritshuis in The Hague (fig. 4).
During the period the present work is painted Cornelis worked out scenes with half-length figures into plain, perfectly balanced composition, harmoniously composed of grand forms with flawless contours and faultless curves, regardless of whether the subject matter was uplifting or ordinary.
Private collection Graf Joseph Franz Anton von Waldburg-Zeil-Wurzach;
His Sale, 29 March 1806, no. 165;
Private collection Frank Gattrell, Fordingbridge, England;
Sale Sotheby’s New York, 11 June 1981 and 21 January 1982;
Sale Christie’s London, 11 December 1987, no. 71 (colour ill.);
Private collection, France;
with Douwes Fine Art at TEFAF 2013;
Private collection, The Netherlands.
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, ‘De Hollandse Michelangelo. Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638)’, Sept. 2012 – Jan. 2013.
– P.J.J. van Thiel, ‘Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem 1562-1638, A Monograph and Catalogue Raisonné’, Doornspijk 1999, cat.no. 12, p. 295, pl. 111 (ill.);
– J. Niessen, ‘Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638) ‘, Haarlem 2012, p. 71, no. 64, illustrated.