Pieter Lastman, The Angel of the Lord preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, 1616, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Pieter Pietersz Lastman (1583 – 1633) was the fourth of at least seven children born into the Dutch middle-class family of Pieter Segersz and Barber Jacobsdr. From a young age, he was surrounded by skilled artists and craftsmen; three of his brothers (those who had survived into adulthood), Jacob, Seger and Claes, worked respectively as a sailmaker, a goldsmith and an engraver, whilst his sister Agnietje’s marriage to the painter François Venant later in 1625 drew his family deeper into Amsterdam’s artistic circles. Lastman’s mother too had, at one time, dealt in second-hand goods including paintings and prints, which may have encouraged her son Pieter’s choice of profession.

Around the age of fourteen, Lastman was apprenticed to Gerrit Pietersz. Sweelinck, renowned painter of the Dutch Golden Age and himself a pupil of Cornelis van Haarlem. Lastman’s apprenticeship soon led him to Italy, a place that he was undoubtedly encouraged to visit by Sweelinck who had himself travelled to Rome to study some years before. Lastman’s own sketches of the Palatine Hill, including the drawing shown here, would suggest that he too visited the city that was, at this time, the centre of Italian painting. It is one of only two works that record his time in Italy (sometime between 1603 – 1607) which, when set alongside his earlier drawings, demonstrate a growing refinement in the handling of line that can also be detected throughout his later oeuvre. Aside from his technique, Lastman’s approach to creating atmosphere was greatly influenced by the Italian style. Indeed, he adopted Italian culture quite widely, so much so that during his sojourn there, he signed his works as ‘Pietro’ rather than ‘Pieter’. Even after his return to the Netherlands, he developed such authority on the topic of Italian art that in 1619 he was involved, alongside four other artists, in the authentication of Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St. Andrew.

Pieter Lastman, View of the Palatine Hill in Rome, 1606, Private Collection

Lastman’s fascination with the art of Italy, and particularly of Caravaggio, became a keystone in his teaching. It was through Lastman’s own experiences, studies and memories that his pupils – Rembrandt foremost among them, certainly, but also Jan Lievens, Bartholomeus Breenbergh and others – became aware of Caravaggio’s dynamism and chiaroscuro, incorporating elements of both into their own work. We can look, for instance, at Rembrandt’s dramatic depiction of The Sacrifice of Abraham, with the angel swooping down at the last moment to grab Abraham’s wrist, causing his knife to fall from his grip. This follows a similarly dramatic depiction by Lastman himself, which in turn may draw on Caravaggio’s 1603 painting for its silhouetting of the primary figures against a darkened landscape, thus highlighting the ultimate moment of drama. As Rembrandt never travelled to Italy, his understanding of the Italian Baroque would have been filtered through Lastman’s teachings.

Lastman returned to Amsterdam in March 1608, where he received a number of important commissions. Three religious works, entitled The Adoration of the Three Kings, Christ Blessing Little Children and Christ Bearing the Cross, were commissioned by King Christian IV of Denmark and were intended for his private chapel in Frederiksborg Castle; Lastman spent much of the early 1610s working on these particular paintings, which were noted for their direct, emotional quality. These accompanied 19 other works by Pieter Isaacsz., Adriaen van Nieulandt, Werner van den Valckert and Jan Pynas. With his work hung alongside those of his talented contemporaries and at the behest of a King, Lastman secured his position as a leading artistic figure in Northern Europe at this time. Sadly, these 22 works have since been lost, following a devastating fire at Frederiksborg in 1859.

Lastman continued to live with his family in Amsterdam’s Sint Anthoniebreestraat until 1624. Indeed, it was in this same house that Rembrandt received his early training under Lastman’s tutelage. It was also at this same time that Lastman was painting The Sacrifice of Manoah (currently with Dickinson). He was particularly drawn to lesser known narratives from the Old Testament and, whilst many of them only ever took shape in the form of drawings or engravings, some – including this work – became full-scale panel paintings.

Pieter Lastman, The Sacrifice of Manoah, c. 1624, for sale with Simon C. Dickinson Ltd.

The Sacrifice of Manoah depicts the Danite Manoah (seen here in red robes) kneeling before his burning sacrifice, offered to God in his desire for a child, as an angel – God’s messenger – rises heavenward in the flames. Manoah and his wife, upon seeing this miraculous ascension, gaze in astonishment from beside the sacrificial altar. With their prayers answered by God, the pair later became parents to a son named Samson, who would be the last of the Old Testament Judges and would free Israel from the hand of occupying Philistines.

This is one of two versions of the composition that Lastman painted. Indeed, he was known to return to particular religious subjects so as to offer different perspectives of the same story. One noticeable difference between these two depictions is the role that Manoah’s wife plays in the narrative. In this version, she appears almost hidden behind both the large stone altar and her husband’s prostrated body, his arms outstretched before her. In fact, her representation here is based on a figure in one of Lastman’s earlier paintings, Christ and the Woman of Canaan, from 1617. In the other version of The Sacrifice of Manoah from 1627, however, the wife (whose name is never mentioned in the Bible) takes a more active role and her reaction to the ascension of the swirling angel is heightened by her raised arms and upturned head, which appear to glow in the light of the sacrificial flame.

Pieter Lastman, Christ and the Woman of Canaan, 1617, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Pieter Lastman’s great religious works, characterised by their vibrant colours and dynamic compositions, are sought after by discerning collectors, particularly those with an interest in Rembrandt and his orbit. A number of these fascinating narrative paintings, those below among others, have been acquired by renowned museums, including the Mauritshuis, which acquired the St John the Baptist Preaching as recently as 2019. A small number, however, remain in private hands and rarely appear on the market. Together, these works – particularly those from the 1610s and 1620s – represent some of the finest examples of Lastman’s painterly oeuvre.

Pieter Lastman, The Good Samaritan, 1612-15, Private Collection

Pieter Lastman, Hagar and the Angel, 1614, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

Pieter Lastman, The Rest of the Flight into Egypt, 1620, The National Gallery, London

Pieter Lastman, The Raising of Lazarus, 1622, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Pieter Lastman, St John the Baptist Preaching, 1627, Mauritshuis, The Hague