Sphinx Fine Art
Joseph van Aken was a Flemish painter active in England. He began in Antwerp painting genre scenes in the Flemish tradition but arrived in London with his family around 1720 and continued to produce genre paintings as well as conversation pieces. His Interior of an Alehouse reveals his Flemish training, although the figures are wooden and stilted and the work devoid of moralising intent. His Covent Garden Market (c. 1726–30; version, London, Museum of London) and The Old Stocks Market (c. 1740; version, London, Bank of England) show his adaptation of this genre tradition to contemporary London scenes, and the several versions of these works attest to their popularity. Van Aken also painted portraits and conversation pieces including A Musical Party on a Terrace (c. 1725; Eastbourne, Towner Art Gallery & Local History Museum), which betrays a French influence in its lively brushwork and informal composition.
In the 1730s and 1740s van Aken abandoned independent work, taking up employment as a drapery painter for other artists. He worked for Joseph Highmore, Thomas Hudson, George Knapton, Henry Winstanley, Arthur Pond, Allan Ramsay, Bartholomew Dandridge and others. Usually, these artists painted only the face, leaving van Aken to fill in the rest. Some of them relied heavily on his judgement: Winstanley painted his faces on a piece of cloth, which van Aken would then paste on to a larger canvas, arranging the composition himself; others, such as Ramsay, sent him drawings and instructions suggesting postures and draperies. Van Aken was especially known for his costumes inspired by those in Anthony van Dyck’s paintings, as well as that derived from Rubens’s portrait of Hélène Fourment (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
Horace Walpole’s quip ‘Almost every painter’s works were painted by van Aken’ suggests van Aken’s prolific output has led to problems of attribution. In addition, artists made their reputations to no small degree on his ability, and his elegant poses and sumptuous draperies attracted patronage for them. In 1745 his services were solicited by John Robinson (c. 1715–45), a portrait painter from Bath; but van Aken’s other employers were so jealous of his ability that they threatened to withdraw offers of employment if he agreed to work for Robinson. He received a similar threat when he was offered work by the popular portrait painter Jean-Baptiste van Loo. Such extreme reaction is a gauge of van Aken’s popularity at the time, as well as a reflection of his discreet input into the works of important artists. In 1748 he travelled to Paris with Hogarth and Hayman, and then by himself to the Netherlands.
Ramsay and Hudson were joint executors of van Aken’s will. His younger brother, Alexander van Aken (d. 1757), was also a drapery painter and was employed by Hudson after Joseph’s death. Another brother, Arnold (d. 1736), was also an artist, but his output was limited to small conversation pieces and a series of engravings of fish, entitled The Wonders of the Deep (1736).
Joseph van Aken is represented in the following collections: Tate Gallery, London; Museum of London; Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, Manchester City Art Gallery, amongst others.