Jacob de Backer

Jacob de Backer - The Three Ages of Man

An Allegory of the Three Ages of Man: the Burden of Time

Jacob de Backer was a Flemish mannerist artist, active in Antwerp ca. 1570 – 1585. Little is known of his life; even the dates of his birth and death are uncertain. According to Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606), the Flemish biographer of early Netherlandish and Northern renaissance artists, de Backer was abandoned at an early age by his father and worked for several years in the studio of Antonio Palermo, an Italian-born painter and art dealer. Later he is supposed to have worked for Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder. There is no mention of Jacob de Backer as a master in the Antwerp guild of St Luke, although he was certainly active in Antwerp. Known commissions include for example a Last Judgement for the funerary monument of the famous Antwerp printer and publisher Christophe Plantin. A series of the Seven Deadly Sins was bought in Antwerp by Alessandro Farnese’s secretary Cosimo Masi in 1594 and taken to Italy. These paintings are now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.

The artist died at the early age of 30 – van Mander believed this to be because he had been worked so hard by Palermo – but nevertheless left an impressive body of work, although scholars do not agree on the definitive scope of his oeuvre. Many Flemish works of variable artistic quality from ca. 1550-1600 with a strong influence of late Italian mannerism have been attributed to him, even though there are clear stylistic differences between them. As there are multiple versions of many of his works, some also suggest he ran a large workshop, but this has not yet been conclusively proven.

The present work can be attributed to Jacob de Backer on stylistic grounds; participation of his workshop is probable, due to the large size of the canvas. It is a larger version, however with small variations, of the Allegory of the Three Ages of Man currently in the Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg). Like many of his compositions, the work deals with complex allegorical subjects. This has been interpreted as evidence that the artist enjoyed a humanistic education and his patrons were from Antwerp’s educated class.

The work depicts a man, buckling under the weight of a load of stones. Above him hovers the figure of Time, who is adding to his already heavy load from a basket. Were it not for the support of Hope (the winged female figure with the anchor) and Faith (the woman with the lamb), who help carry his burden, he would not be able to move another inch. The main subject of the painting revolves around this central group, symbolizing the burden of time and age. However, the whole can also be considered an allegory of the three ages of man: to the right, an eager young boy, wearing the same clothes as the central figure, is being strapped with an empty basket by a female Janus figure, which stands for the beginning of life. To the left, an old man, hunched by the weight of a burdensome life, is relieved of his burden by Death.

Artist: Jacob de Backer (Antwerp ca. 1555 - ca. 1585)
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 145 x 185 cm