Jacob Backer probably studied painting in Amsterdam, but his first teacher remains unidentified. In 1626, at the age of eighteen, he entered the workshop of the history painter Lambert Jacobsz. in Leeuwarden, presumably as an advanced student or trained assistant. His employment lasted about six years, during which Govert Flinck (1999.140, 25.1998.53), seven years Backer’s junior, was Lambert Jacobsz.’s pupil. By 1633, Backer returned to Amsterdam and quickly established himself as a portraitist and painter of biblical and mythological subjects. He and Flinck—who returned with Backer to Amsterdam and completed his artistic education with Rembrandt around 1635–36—became leading exponents of the classicizing style adopted by Dutch history painters in the 1640s. There is no evidence to support the persistent assertion that Backer, too, was a pupil or associate of Rembrandt.
Arnold Houbraken wrote in 1718 that he could not do justice to Backer’s reputation without mentioning “his outstanding way of drawing. Certainly he drew his Academy figures, especially the women, so artfully on blue paper with black and white chalk, that he took the crown from all his contemporaries.” Studies in black and white chalk on blue paper of single figures, nude and clothed, comprise the great majority of Backer’s surviving drawings. Only a few are securely attributable to him because they bear an autograph signature or served as studies for paintings. The Harvard work is one of two female nudes that he translated into a painting and, as such, provides a valuable reference for distinguishing Backer’s studies from those by Flinck and others who drew from live models in the same media and, occasionally, during the same session.
Backer executed the study in preparation for painting the nearly life-size goddess in Venus, Adonis, and Amor (c. 1650–51; Fig. 1). He posed the model as Venus would appear on the canvas, adding a swath of drapery to cover her lower body and adjusting her legs and right hand. The left arm, on which she leans in the drawing, disappears behind Adonis’s back on the canvas.
The eighteenth-century inscription on the verso of the sheet, Jacob Bakker het Schilderij bij Rapoen (“Jacob Bakker the painting with Rapoen”), provides a clue to the provenance of the picture (see Fig. 1) before its acquisition by the ruling family of Hesse-Cassel, where it was first documented in 1749. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to identify with certainty the family with the surname Rapoen or Raphoen that owned Venus, Adonis, and Amor before the middle of the eighteenth century.