Bartholomeus Maton
The Flea Hunt

Leiden c. 1643 – after 1682 possibly Stockholm

The Flea Hunt

Oil on panel (oak) 26 x 21 cm

Charles-Paul-Jean-Baptiste de Bourgevin Vialart de Saint-Morys, by whom sold at the below sale
Sale Paris (Paillet, Milliotti, C.P.: Boileau), 6-23 February 1786, lot 149 (this lot 7 February)i
Langlier, acquired at the above sale
Collection Comte Charles Cavens (1844 – 1921), Brussels (not documented in his estate sales of 1922)
Collection H. Servais, Oldenzaal (as Joost van Geel), c. 1950 (photo RKD)
Private collection, Netherlands

C. Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten Holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts, 10 vols., Esslingen & Paris 1907-28, vol. 5 (1912), p. 376, nr. 181 (under Godefridus Schalcken as “Mann in rotem Gewand beim Flohsuchen. Einen Floh drückt er gerade tot. – Zuschreibung nicht ganz gesichert” and as in the Cavens Collection)
T. Beherman, Godfried Schalcken, Paris 1988, p. 398, nr. 181 (as quoted from Hofstede de Groot, referring to a painting attributed to Godefridus Schalcken)

In his shadowy dwelling an elderly man sits, completely absorbed by his search for fleas. He appears to have found one and tries to kill the small creature by crushing it between two fingers. On the table is a plain still life with a pewter “pispot” and a candlestick that is artfully reflected in the former piss pot. A coarse woollen blanket hangs down from a beam as a curtain.

It was the Utrecht Caravaggist painter Gerard van Honthorst who introduced the theme of the flea hunt into Dutch painting in the early 1620s.ii In a recently rediscovered work he uses, in line with so many of his genre scenes, the flea hunt as an allusion to promiscuity and general playfulness.iii From antiquity, the flea has been used as a symbol for sex owing to its proclivity to sucking blood from its targets. Writers as early as Aristotle, Pliny and Ovid, and continuing on to Honthorst’s contemporaries John Donne, Peter Woodhouse and Christopher Marlowe, all wrote on the intimate and intense associations of the flea with sex.iv It is quite possible the flea hunt in Maton’s painting has a sexual connotation since the prominent piss pot and candlestick were also frequently used as visual metaphors for the female and male genitalia respectively, for instance very abundantly by Jan Steen in many of his works. It is noteworthy that Maton’s teacher also once included the flea hunt as a motif in a painting. In an interior scene showing an old woman delousing and combing a child, which triumphantly holds up a caught flea or louse between his two fingers. However, Dou used the caught and vulnerable small animal that is about to be killed as a symbol for the frailty of life, as is also underlined by the presence in the same scene of another boy who is busy blowing up a pig’s bladder, a motif that echoes the soap bubbles that are an iconographic cliché referring to vanitas as well.v Maton probably took his lead from his teacher Dou and gave a new twist to the iconography. The image of an old and bald man at flea hunt can easily be understood as vanitas, while the sexually charged imagery in this context could be taken to refer to the old man’s diminishing libido, which vanishes as easy and quickly.

Maton dressed his greybeard in a blazing red jacket. This eloquent and powerful red is a hallmark of Maton that recurs time and again in his works. Maton lavished much attention on the rendering of the various materials, from the course wool and shiny metal of the piss pot to the old wrinkled skin of the protagonist, and thus shows him a worthy successor of his master Dou. This amusing scene, with its rich metaphoric and beautifully observed details, thus not only provides food for the mind but also satisfies the eyes.

Maton’s family came from Flanders. Bartholomeus Maton’s grandfather was a locksmith and settled in Leiden around 1600 in a house – his own property – at the Voldersgracht (presently Langebrug). It was here that Bartholomeus’ father, Jean Maton (? – 1653), was born. In December 1641 he married Sara Grouwels (? – 1660), who was from Aachen. Jean Maton was registered in the Album Studiosorum of Leiden University as a minister on 6 May 1647, at age 39. It is not known when Bartholomeus was born. On 16 March 1666 took his oath as a member of the Leiden militia guard. As membership required an age of at least twenty, Maton must have been born between 1641, the year of marriage of his parents, and 1646. Bartholomeus Maton is one of the few painters who is firmly documented as a pupil of Gerrit Dou. On 24 May 1669 he is mentioned in the records of the Leidse Guild of Saint Luke ‘desijpel van Gerrit Dou’, together with Matthijs Naiveu and the presently unknown Gerrit Maes. Two years later, in 1671, he obtained membership of the guild himself as an independent master and three years after that, in 1674, he was appointed for two consecutive years as “hoofdman” of the guild. On 3 June 1679 the burgomaster of Leiden granted him permission to travel to Sweden. The guild records indeed show that he had fulfilled his dues until 1678. Then, the comment follows: “Uyt de stadt vertrocken” (left town). In November 1680 Maton was in Amsterdam and here drew his testament op, as was customary prior to a foreign travel in those days, appointing his brother Daniel, who lived in Sweden sole heir. At this moment Maton was thus unmarried and childless. In the following years Maton is thought to have sojourned in Sweden at Vinspong and to have worked for the Dutch merchant Louis de Geer the Younger (1622-95).vi On 18 April 1682 Maton sold the house at the Voldersgracht that was initially bought by his grandfather. There is no more information about his life and activity after this date and we do not know when and where he died. He may have returned to Sweden and have died there, an assumption primarily based on the fact that there are still several works there by him. In 1719 a Bartholomeus Maton, a wine merchant from Stockholm, married in Leiden. This will have been a son of Maton’s brother Daniel.

i: “Une Figure d’Homme, représenté à mi-corps, & assis contre une table, paroissant dans l’attitude d’attraper une puce”. As on wood and 9 x 8 pouces.

ii: It also appears in works of the Bamboccianti, see for instance: W. Thompson, “Pigmei, pizzicano di Gigante”: The Encounter between Netherlandish and Italian Artists in Seventeenth-Century Rome, (PhD thesis John Hopkins University, Baltimore) Ann Arbor, 1997, pp. 10-11.

iii: Sale New York (Sotheby’s), 29 January 2015, lot 56.

iv: For this, see: J. Judson and R. Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst, Doornspijk 1999, p. 199. John Donne’s poem “The Flea” is one of the better known modern literary sources. Honthorst eliminates any subtle innuendo here as he depicts the procuress helping the smiling, half naked woman search for fleas on her clothing, all lit by Honthorst’s candlelight. Honthorst treated the subject in another painting, signed and dated 1628 (The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio) which includes two peeping voyeurs in the background of the scene, yet another aid to the viewer in these otherwise not so subtle metaphors.

v: For this painting, see: R. Baer, The paintings of Gerrit Dou, (PhD thesis New York University) Ann Arbor 1990, no. 49.

vi: K. Sidén, “Dutch art in Seventeenth-Century Sweden. A history of Dutch industrialists, travelling artists and collectors”, in: Geest en gratie. Essays Presented to Ildikó Ember on Her Seventieth Birthday, Budapest 2012, pp. 94-103; in particular pp. 99-100.