Jan van der Venne was born in Mechelen, at an unknown date. He is also known under the name ‘Pseudo-Van de Venne’, because he used to be wrongly thought of as the brother of the better known Dutch painter Adriaen van de Venne. In 1616 he was recorded as a Master in the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in Brussels. As a painter to the court in Brussels, Van de Venne counted several important patrons amongst his clients, including the Cardinal Infant Ferdinand and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm.
Van de Venne mainly painted genre scenes, specialising in caricatured, so-called ‘low-life’ subjects, such as card-players, tooth-pullers and musicians, and in expressive religious scenes. Because he regularly painted gypsies he is also known as ‘le Maître des Tziganes’ in France, where many museums have paintings by his hand. His love of brownish tonalities and the choice of his themes are similar to those of contemporary painters like Adriaen Brouwer and Adriaen van Ostade, or Benjamin Cuyp and Andries Both. Van de Venne’s idiosyncratic 'nervous' style might have been influenced by David Teniers I; some authors even mention our painter must have studied under him.
Although few of his paintings are signed - the present work included - the very specific style, subject matter, use of light and brilliancy of Jan van de Venne have allowed for the reconstruction of a consistent oeuvre which can confidently be given to him. The present work, the authorship of which was confirmed by Dr. Bert Schepers of the Rubenianum, depicts an allegory of sight. Originally, this work must have formed part of a series of five works, depicting the five senses; the other four panels have presumably been lost. An old man peers into a pair of eyeglasses, which he is holding in his right hand. Eyeglasses were invented in Italy in the late 13th century. Following the invention of the printing press and the subsequent availability of books, newspapers and engravings to the ‘common’ man, their use became widespread. During the seventeenth century spectacles were still mainly used by the elderly. As they did not have ears yet, the glasses had to be perched on the nose, or held manually, as can be seen in our painting.