A painting of a painting of a painting

Or, 17th Century Flemish Artception.


I watched Tim’s Vermeer last night which heavily features Vermeer’s Music Lesson. In the top right hand corner of The Music Lesson there’s a painting on the wall which got me wondering about paintings of paintings. I was pretty sure they cropped up in other works by Vermeer, and I’d come across paintings of complete collections before so thought I’d see how popular they were. It turns out there are a lot.


You’ve got paintings of paintingsportraits with paintings, paintings of artists in the studio, self-portraits with artwork, paintings of art galleries… And those lists are by no means comprehensive. There was just too much to choose from to make an interesting post, I had to go a level deeper.

If we had a complete list of every painting that featured another painting and a complete list of every painting featured in a painting, finding a painting of a painting of a painting would be trivial. It would be whichever painting (or paintings) appeared on both lists.

I don’t have those lists.

I started with paintings of galleries and art collections both for the numerical advantage they offer and as the depicted art is the subject matter it’s more easily discernible than art featured incidentally in other paintings. Wikipedia tells me these paintings of galleries and art collections became popular among Flemish artists in the early 17th Century, driven by early innovators like Frans Francken the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder and there certainly are some great ones by Flemish artists:

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Senses series with Rubens


William van Haect’s Alexander the Great visiting the Studio of Apelles:


And more recent examples like Samuel Morses’s Gallery of the Louvre:


But great as these and dozens more are, none of them feature paintings that feature paintings. They do, however, feature some pretty famous works: the Louvre painting above features what is probably the most famous painting in the world, The Sense of Sight at the top has Rubens’ Tiger Hunt, and Apelles’ gallery in the middle has works by Van Dyck, Rubens, Titian and more, though I have to give a special mention to Frans Snyder’s The Game Larder as it current resides at Charlecote House just a few miles up the road from me.

So the new game was spotting famous works in other works, I went back to the first paintings I’d looked over by Francken and Brueghel to see what I could find. I had a low-res image of one of Francken’s works that I was pretty sure contained Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, a higher-res image confirmed that it did and a little more searching confirmed that it was a painting of the actual painting. But the search results had also thrown up another painting and even in the thumbnail it looked like it might contain my original quarry.


The painting was Sebastian Leerse in his Gallery (seen at the top of the post) and the painting at the bottom right was definitely what I was after, the question now was: was that a real painting? And of a real painting? Or a painting of some imagined painting of a painting?

The original is held by the The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, and their site handily informs me that:

Francken himself appears to be represented twice in this collection of paintings. In the centre of the picture hangs a Biblical scene, an adoration of the magi, that is quite reminiscent of a known work by him. The painting in the bottom right is also by Francken. It represents the ancient legend of the Greek painter Apelles, who became infatuated with his model Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great.

That second work would be this:

Apelles and Pancaspe

Apelles and Pancaspe by Frans Francken the Younger


Detail of the two works

As for whether the painting in this painting is a real painting… yes and no. Apelles lived well over two thousand years ago and while he likely did paint Pancaspe/Campaspe we have no idea what that painting looked like. Still pretty neat though.

If you know of any other examples hit me up on twitter @dan_connolly.