Far from stirring up controversy, his paintings were coveted by the establishment. The second version of “The Massacre of the Innocents” was made for a grand official residence, the Prinsenhof. Another Prinsenhof commission resulted in “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” (1592-3), a mythological scene that covered an entire wall. These were the most prestigious assignments in the city, garnered by an artist not yet 30.
Even more intriguing than the support of the civil authorities is the early patronage of Jacob Rauwaert, a rich Amsterdam collector and dealer more than thirty years Cornelis’s senior, who had apprenticed with Maarten van Heemskerck, an originator of Knollenstil, before redirecting his energies from making art to buying and selling it. Rauwaert provided the financial underpinnings for the group of Italian-influenced artists that was later termed the Haarlem Academy. The eldest of the three artists at its core was Karel van Mander, a painter who came from Flanders in 1583, having previously spent three years in Rome. He made his mark in Haarlem as a critic and theorist. Goltzius, a draftsman of genius, won fame through his engravings. Cornelis was the ambitious and productive young painter with a gloriously theatrical bent.
In addition to “The Fall of Lucifer,” which, considering the execution time required, was probably commissioned, Rauwaert owned at least 15 paintings by Cornelis, including two other major canvases: “Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon” (1588) and “Hercules and Achelous” (1590). The “Dragon” — which occasioned a magnificent engraving based on its design by Goltzius, his first collaboration with Cornelis, dedicated to their patron — portrays the dreadful beast sinking its teeth into the face of one chap and its claws into the meaty, decapitated body of another. “It doesn’t look like he’s being devoured,” said Aaron Hyman, assistant professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University, when I remarked on the painting’s sadistic relish. “It’s more like he’s being tortured.” In Rauwaert’s third important Cornelis painting, “Hercules and Achelous,” the hero is seen grasping the horn of a river god that has taken the form of a bull.
These large paintings would have been displayed in the reception rooms of Rauwaert’s grand Amsterdam house. What did visitors think about all these lovingly limned male limbs? Probably nothing at all. Like the art historians who followed them centuries later, they would have remarked only on the thematic content. When the American art historian Julie L. McGee published a pioneering biography of Cornelis in 1975, she saw in “The Massacre of the Innocents” simply the theme of religious persecution, timely for Protestant resistors (Cornelis himself was raised Catholic) to Spanish rule. Pieter Van Thiel, in the compendious Cornelis catalogue raisonné that was his life achievement, ignores any homoerotic content in the oeuvre and writes, risibly, that a tepid late painting provided “evidence that he possessed more libido than he usually showed.” A more recent article by Lisa Rosenthal, an associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, analyzed “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” of 1592-3 as a commentary on civic virtue. In the four centuries since Cornelis’s death, only Hyman, in a 2016 essay, has addressed the randy elephant in the room.