Over several generations members of the Francken family of painters formed the backbone of Antwerp painting in the early baroque period. A large panel by their most imminent representative, Frans II. Francken (1581 – 1642) was bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2004. With his typical dedication to minute details, imagination and wit Frans Francken gives a lively account of the Adoration of the newborn Christchild by the Three Magi, introducing the powerful, light translucent brushwork characteristic of his late period. However, in an earlier century the panel of the Adoration had been nailed to a wooden support in an effort to stabilize it. Thus, a long and careful restauration was necessary which has only now been completed, guaranteeing not only a more solid condition but also a more satisfactory visual appearance of the work.
The exhibition places this restored masterpiece by Frans Francken of 1632 in the context of other surprising discoveries. Already in his own lifetime Francken catered mostly for an elite of connoisseurs, and, up to the present day, art collectors never ceased to admire his works. It is therefore more than just coincidence that the exhibition draws almost eclusively on private holdings normally not accessable to the public. A dozen important but little known paintings reveal the artist’s talent as a most gifted storyteller rendering contemporary concerts and banquets as fascinatingly as the sacred acts of the bible or bizarre medieval legends.
Thus, the Three Magi arrive with almost an overdose of exotic oriental treasures and beasts including camels, parrots and elephants. A naked woman is being introduced to witchcraft amidst strange sensations of light and smoke and fantastic creatures. Virgil, the great poet of Roman antiquity, is represented as a sorcerer with amazing magic power. And a panel that resurfaced only recently shows Francken as a master of night scenes as well. The Babylonian King Belshazzar celebrates his last feast with courtiers and mistresses amidst precious silverware, delicate textiles and deliciously baked peacock- and rabbit-shaped pies all shimmering and sparkling in the mysterious light of candles and torches.