When Frans van Mieris painted his self portrait, A Cavalier, between 1657 and 1659 he would never have imagined that it would eventually end up in Australia. Indeed, back in the 1600s, Australia was a continent still to be discovered by Europeans. Known only as this mysterious land mass with the moniker Terra Australis, it was van Mieris’s fellow countrymen who were the first Europeans to sight parts of Australia’s coastline. Among the numerous entries listed in the National Museum of Australia’s timeline of European voyages to the Australian continent, the one dated “1619” caught my attention. Here we read that this was the year a Dutch sailor, Frederick de Houtman, both sighted and charted a string of islands about 60 kilometres west of Geraldton on the Western Australian coast, which became known as the Abrolhos Islands – so named for the Dutch phrase ‘Abri voll olos’, which translates as ‘Keep your eyes open’. Given that the islands consist of coral reef communities, they are aptly named, as many a reef has snagged a ship, often with fatal consequences. In the world of art theft ‘Keep your eyes open’ is a mantra that we can all adopt as we remain on the lookout for missing artworks, including, A Cavalier (self portrait).
While we’re on this theme of voyages of discovery, just how did Frans van Mieris’s painting end up in the antipodeanoutpost that came to be known as Australia?
According to Otto Naumann, an authority on Frans van Mieris, the earliest records show that A Cavalier was in a private collection in Brussels. It changed hands three times in the 1800s (1807, 1815, 1824) and ended up in London. Here it appeared to remain in private collections, again being sold in 1920. It is then listed three times with three different dealers, all in the year 1938. In 1955, the Newhouse Galleries in New York get a mention, and it is here that Naumann’s records end. (See Naumman, Otto. Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) The Elder: Volume Two, Catalogue and Plates. Doornspijk [Netherlands]: Davaco, 1981, p. 59). It is a matter of public record that the prominent Australian art patron and philanthropist, James Fairfax, purchased A Cavalier in 1988 which, coincidently, was also the year Australia celebrated its bicentenary, commemorating 200 years since the first European settlers arrived. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (dated June 20, 2007), Fairfax bought the painting from a London dealer and explained his motivations for the purchase:
“In those days, van Mieris was not as well known as he is today,” he said. “I found a very attractive painting of a Dutch cavalier at a price I thought I could afford. I thought it was quite a coup at the time.”
James Fairfax donated the painting to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1993. A decade later, in 2003, an exhibition of his donated works was held at the Gallery. Titled, The James Fairfax Collection: A Personal View of European Masterpieces, the Gallery’s then Director, Edmund Capon, has this to say about both the collector and the collection:
“A private, independent and quietly passionate collector, James Fairfax has over the past four decades assembled the finest private collection of European Old Master paintings, prints and drawings in Australia. The quality and distinction of the works he has acquired would grace any of the world’s great public institutions.”
Four years later a significant component of his collection would go missing, when A Cavalier was stolen in June 2007. It should be noted that while the painting was purchased by James Fairfax, it now remains the property of the NSW State Government and upon its recovery it will be given back to the Gallery to once again form part of the collection that bears Fairfax’s name.
For many years the Australian continent lay undiscovered by Europeans but eventually it was sighted by Dutch sailors in the 1600s. Hopefully A Cavalier (self portrait), painted by a Dutch Master in that same era, will also be discovered. Everybody, “keep your eyes open.”