This is the catalogue of a comprehensive exhibition on Herri met de Bles and his artistic entourage, held at the Musée des Arts Anciens du Namurois, Namur, May 13 – November 1, 2000. The exhibition united over fifty paintings from collections all over Europe and the US, many of them private. The accompanying catalogue is attractively produced, largely illustrated in colour, and includes many (often microphotographic) close-ups of the panels on show.
After an opening essay by Cécile Douxchamps-Lefèvre that broadly surveys the geographical, cultural and religious circumstances of the artist’s life, Dominique Allart, in a clever article, introduces the reader to the most fundamental problems Bles scholarship is currently confronted with, in particular the missing or conflicting data in the master’s biography, and questions of attribution raised by both serial production in Bles’s own workshop and the circulation of copies executed by his rivals and followers; a brief assessment of Bles’s position within the genre of landscape painting between Patinir and Bruegel rounds off this contribution.
There follow two papers concerned with the technical examination of works by Bles and his circle, the first (by Roger Van Schoute, Hélène Verougstraete and Christian Bodiaux) analyzing the panels exhibited in Namur, the second (by Dominique Allart, Sophie Denoel, Pascal Fraiture, Cécile Oger and Georges Weber) providing a detailed look at the paintings in the Liège collections; both are complemented by a third essay that closely scrutinizes two paintings now in private collections, one by Bles, the other by Lucas Gassel (Jacqueline Couvert and Hélène Verougstraete). It is the second of these studies that is the most interesting, as it demonstrates that beyond accounting for an art work’s present physical condition, technical analysis can profoundly affect our understanding of entire artistic genres, even of the history of taste itself. A case in point is a painting executed during the 1530s by either Bles or a member of his circle, and showing a number of ships – galleys, caracks and galleons – in a narrow estuary bordered by soaring cliffs and fortified towns (Liège, Musée de l’Art wallon, inv. no. 799). Scholars have hitherto believed that the landscape in this much-restored panel had initially served as a dramatic setting for a now-effaced religious scene, such as St John on the island of Patmos. Careful investigation has however revealed that far from ever having featured narrative iconography, the work had been conceived right from the outset as an independent maritime landscape; indeed, given its date, the panel now represents one of the earliest known instances of a seascape, a genre that would of course culminate during the following century in paintings by artists such as Ludolf Bakhuyzen and Willem van de Velde the Younger.
Next come two essays that deal with iconographic minutiae in Bles’s paintings – the representation of vernacular architecture (Luc F. Genicot), and of plants (Claude Gillet). The last two papers are both by Luc Serck, and focus on recurring landscape elements in Bles’s oeuvre(such as the rocky gorge and the cone-shaped village), and the artist’s historiography respectively; the second of these appears somewhat redundant as it partly covers the same ground as the paper by Dominique Allart.
The nine articles that throw light on various aspects of Bles’s work are accompanied by a detailed catalogue of the fifty-three paintings on show, as well as a final bibliography (both compiled by Luc Serck). While the catalogue is exemplary in its scholarliness, contextual approach and actual production (see for instance nos. 1, 4, 13, 25, 51), the bibliography is much less impressive, misspelling Czech and German references throughout, and seemingly only pertaining to Serck’s own contributions to this volume.
My main criticism of this publication concerns the odd discrepancy between the popular slant of Douxchamps -Lefèvre’s introduction (which goes as far as explaining the term ‘humanism’ to its readers), and the highly specialized nature of nearly all the papers that follow (Allart’s essay being the only exception). A scholar may thrill to the discovery of Bles’s partial dependence on non-local building types in his depictions of vernacular architecture, but it is doubtful that the more general reader would be so enamoured of this and other such unrelenting details which flavour much of the book. It would surely have been practicable for the organizers of the exhibition to commission for this volume a more comprehensive survey of sixteenth-century landscape painting and its possible audiences, or a broader, conceptual essay on Bles’s contributions to secular and/or religious narrative.
Though not necessarily of the most intellectually stimulat ing kind, this catalogue is nevertheless a valuable addition to the growing list of studies on Bles and early landscape painting; while some scholars will benefit from the publication of the sometimes astonishing results gleaned from technical analysis, others will turn to the concluding catalogue for future reference and comparative analysis. All will certainly be thankful for the generous number of colour reproductions, which greatly facilitates and enhances the study of Bles’s compelling monadic images.
Getty Postdoctoral Fellow
Humboldt Universität, Berlin