Adriaen de Vries, sculptor to royal courts and wealthy cities, is the subject of the recent exhibition in Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Los Angeles; the accompanying catalogue is the first lengthy publication on this artist since Lars Olof Larsson’s monograph of 1967. De Vries’s works were among the highlights of the exhibition, Netherlandish Mannerism, held in Stockholm in 1986, but the present show is dedicated solely to the sculptor, and its well-illustrated catalogue convincingly presents him as one of Northern Europe’s major talents at the turn of the seventeenth century. The introductory essays round out this view of the artist by addressing monumental works unobtainable for the exhibition. These include the towering fountains for Augsburg and the fascinating mortuary chapel at Stadthagen – family epitaphs line the circular inside wall, framing the large central sculpture of Christ Risen, triumphant over the soldiers about his tomb; impressive as theatre, it forcefully engages the visitor in the sepulchral drama of resurrection and redemption.
De Vries’s remarkably free handling of material is noted and attributed to a sprezzatura on the part of the artist, a virtuoso approach recalling the treatment of wax bozzetti or the lack of finish on certain paintings. But how much more dramatic and arresting such rough modelling is on finished bronzes. Broad areas are broken up, reflecting light prismatically and presenting forms less as they might be ideally known than subjectively perceived under transitory lighting conditions. There is a sense of movement, of dynamism that distinguishes these bronzes from the classicizing and thoroughly composed statues of Giambologna, in whose studio de Vries worked for several years. Reliefs like the Bacchus Discovering Ariadne in Amsterdam (cat. no. 26) show rough channeling of the surface that has less to do with the supposed anatomy of the body than with abstract patterns of light – the instant in which Bacchus’s hand reveals the languorous nude, charted with undulating contours. Equally impressive is Mercury and Psyche,now in Paris (cat. no. 3). The two deities are posed with knees bent in opposite directions, forming a composite pattern of great interest. Contemporaries seem to have been fascinated with de Vries’s complex figural arrangements; Jan Muller engraved both the Mercury and Psyche and de Vries’s Abduction of a Sabine from three different points of view.
This publication is principally about court art. Frits Scholten’s substantial introductory essay details de Vries’s work for Carlo Emanuele I at Turin before focusing on the sculptor’s two stays at Prague in the service of Emperor Rudolf II. During the Thirty-Years War, several important creations from the Prague periods were carried off by the Swedish to their palaces to the north, the subject of another article by Görel Cavalli-Björkman. Scholten presents de Vries in the role of image-maker for the upper nobility, creator of palace sculpture and small bronzes for display in the cabinets of the leading aristocracy. The catalogue is a thoroughly researched study that provides unusually rich documentation about court life and the arts in Europe around 1600.
Although perhaps a bit specialized for most visitors to the exhibition, the catalogue remains a good reference work for art historians. A number of informative shorter essays complement Scholten’s introduction. Adriaen de Vries’s second trip to Italy, his fascination with ancient sculpture, and his critical dialogue with antiquity are the subjects of Lars Olof Larsson’s contribution, accompanied by a shorter exploration of de Vries’s historical reputation; Rosemarie Mulcahy discusses the significance of the sculptor’s stay in the Milan shop of Pompeo Leoni; Francesca Bewer analyzes the technical aspects of de Vries’s bronze casting; Uwe Heithorn addresses colour and lustre as distinctive properties of the artist’s treatment of surface; and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann evaluates de Vries’s ten surviving drawings as indices of the role and functions of drawing in the process of production.
De Vries is presented as a Dutch sculptor and, indeed, the artist appended the words ‘Hagiensis Batavus’ to his signature, prompting the authors of the foreword to remark that the sculptor ‘never disavowed his Dutch roots’. Certainly Netherlandish sculptors were extremely well-represented at European courts during the second half of the sixteenth century. Apart from Giambologna, who was born in Douai and studied initially with Jacques Du Broeucq, the rolls include Willem van Tetrode, Hans Mont, Elias de Witte, Hubert Gerhard, Johan Gregor van der Schardt, Pierre de Franqueville, Frans Aspruck, Alexander Colijn, Jacob Cobaert, Niccolo Pipi, and many others. We might ask what it meant to be a Dutch sculptor at a time when careers could only be made abroad, away from the disruption of iconoclasm and revolt. What is Dutch about de Vries or the other sculptors who reside in Florence, Rome, Innsbruck, or Prague? What techniques, interests, insights, or prejudices did they inherit from their Netherlandish tradition?
The bronzes of Adriaen de Vries are well-reproduced. Photography plays a more radically interpretative role in the representation of sculpture than of painting, and it is here put to good use; many of the pieces are seen from two or more vantage points. The colour illustrations are generally good, particularly those of the baptismal font in the church at Bückeburg and of the chapel at Stadthagen.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto
Editor’s Note: Adriaen de Vries won the 2000 Mitchell Prize for outstanding exhibition catalogue.