Until the publication of this dedicated rescue operation, Adriaen Thomasz. has been one of the most ill-defined artists working in Antwerp during the turbulent times of the second half of the sixteenth century. Biographically he still remains something of a mystery; neither the place nor the dates of his birth or death are recorded, and what is known could be written on one side of a postcard. Although there are a handful of religious pictures, he was primarily a portraitist, who has always been a useful name to attach to that mass of anonymous works which exists today. Stylistic evidence indicates that he must have been a pupil of Willem Key, who was, it has been proved, no relation. The author of this monograph develops this connection by suggesting that Adriaen Thomasz. took over his teacher’s studio on his death, which would explain the continuing close links with the art of the older man. His fortuna critica is no more enlightening. By ignoring him altogether, Van Mander set the pattern for writers up to the second half of the nineteenth-century. And even subsequently he has been remarkably little studied. As Jonckheere points out, the most substantial piece is Carl Van de Velde’s contribution to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art.
The book usefully follows the pattern of the traditional monograph; introductory chapters examining life and work set in the historical and intellectual context of the times are followed by a full catalogue raisonné, very well illustrated in both colour and black and white. The volume is based on a doctoral thesis, and, if the writing style is an indication (‘I argue’, ‘I assert’, ‘I posit’ and so on), little change has been made to the text. But what comes over is the author’s passionate devotion to his chosen artist and a determination to define his oeuvre.
Key was not a very original artist. He was much indebted to his near contemporaries, such as, for example, Michiel Coxcie, whose painting of Cain and Abel he copied as far as the two principal figures are concerned in his one Old Testament subject. His portraits, which account for ninety per cent of his oeuvre, are often difficult to distinguish from the work of his near contemporaries Willem Key, Anthonis Mor and Frans Pourbus the Elder. Moreover, he was given to establishing certain details such as poses, the delineation of a hand and so on, which he then repeated in other portraits. His qualities primarily consist, as Jongkheere emphasizes, in his excellent craftsmanship as a painter on panel, and, more importantly, on his skill in painting the human head and hands to a very high standard of realism. Walking boldly through a mass of not easily distinguishable portraits, the author has assembled a coherent group of works under Key’s name, but, as he makes plain, connoisseurship depends on minutiae, such as the artist’s predilection for dirty finger nails, muddy feet, hairy chests and so on, the finer points of which are not invariably easily discernible in illustrations, even those, as here, of good quality.
It is perhaps a sign of the times in which they were painted that the three altarpieces associated with Key have lost their central panels. (The wings in Antwerp are signed and dated, but those in Brussels and Paris are only attributable but convincingly so here.) Notwithstanding such a deprivation of knowledge, the author is able to develop a full interpretation of Key’s art, ‘steeped in humanism and Calvanism’. Following on from a historical survey of the period, he reads much of that belief into these and the handful of other known religious works.
There is a small point, at least as far as Key scholarship is concerned. In connection with the painting of Cain and Abel, largely after Coxcie, Jonckheere mentions the two drawings of the two main figures, in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Although he assumes they are copies by Rubens after Key, there is another school of thought which believes that they are only retouched by Rubens. And if the latter is the case, who are they by? The subject will be given a good airing by Kristin Belkin in her forthcoming Corpus Rubenianum volume, devoted to copies by Rubens after Northern artists.
One unusual feature of Key’s work is the existence of a number of seemingly preparatory studies, which are technically so finished that it is difficult to believe that they were not made as ends in themselves. Jonckheere explains the practice as ‘ manifest[ing] the painter’s perfectionism.’ The catalogue of genuine works concludes with two signed chiaroscuro woodcuts and one drawing, a copy after Michiel Coxcie, the attribution of which to Key must remain uncertain. Overall this is a valuable pioneering volume, which brings the oeuvre of an ill-defined yet rewarding artist into much clearer focus.