Teniers cataloged paintings ... in a painting

Collecting works of art was considered an important princely activity in the 17th century. Pride in a personal collection needed to be celebrated, and knowledge of its items had to be shared among the collector's peers and disseminated even more widely to the public as a sign of status.

All these factors contributed to a remarkable project carried out by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690). It culminated in the publication, in 1660, of the "Theatrum Pictorium" or "Theatre of Painting," the first illustrated printed catalog of a collection of major paintings.

Teniers, a native of Antwerp, was appointed court artist to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, the governor of the Austrian Southern Netherlands. Among Teniers's first activities after moving to Brussels in 1651 was the painting of several different pictures of his patron's art collection. In these pictures Teniers accurately replicated in miniature many individual masterpieces.

Teniers's paintings were theatrical rather than literal. The settings varied, and so did the specific masterpieces shown. The large rooms not only displayed the collections, but also the collector and significant members of his court – and his dogs.

In the example shown here, Teniers prominently portrays himself holding a drawing and standing behind a table that once belonged to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.

Teniers must have known that this particular painting of the Archduke's collection was intended as a gift for his cousin, King Philip IV of Spain. The artist included certain paintings that would have appealed to Philip or that perhaps rivaled his own art collection.

The composition of this painting is also different from other treatments of the subject. It is symmetrical and includes a partly opened door at the back, through which can be glimpsed another gallery containing further paintings.

It seems more than a coincidence that Velázquez, Philip's court painter, would have seen Teniers's painting before he painted "Las Meninas" in 1656. The Teniers was dispatched to Madrid in 1651 or 1652 and was seen and described there by Lázaro del Valle in 1653. "Las Meninas" similarly draws the viewer into it by means of a half-opened door at the back of a large state room.

'David Teniers and the Theatre of Painting' is on view at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London until Jan. 21, 2007.

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