While it has been pointed out on numerous occasions how much Bruegel as a “second Bosch” owes to his celebrated predecessor, this book-length study breaks new interpretive ground about their relationship. Ilsink, already well known as a major Bosch expert, addresses himself to the dominant theme of art made out of other art. His central argument is that Bruegel’s use of Bosch led him to a novel self-consciousness and to the innovative concept of artistry itself. In the process, individual artistic achievement emerges out of reference to a model, much as Mark Meadow has argued (NKJ, 47, 1996) for understanding Bruegel as an emulator, engaged in surpassing his model (though Meadow focused more on the relation to Early Netherlandish precedents).
Ilsink chooses case studies about the Bosch/Bruegel relation that engage reference in the sense of intertextuality (intervisuality?) more than traditional iconography. He begins with three distinctive, seemingly personal Bosch drawings as a case study: Owls’ Nest, Tree Man, and the literal rendering of a folk saying, The Field Has Eyes, The Forest Ears (The latter image incorporates the very name of the artist, Bos, and in the framework of this book it has an all-important handwritten Latin inscription, “it is a poor spirit which only works with the inventions of others, and is unable to bring forth its own ideas”). All three images set the sinister tone of worldly corruption and evil that has always been linked to Bosch’s oeuvre, and the Tree Man in particular makes its own internal reference to the celebrated figure within the Hell wing of Bosch’s (early?) Garden of Earthly Delights. We cannot know how Bosch presented these finished works, but Ilsink claims for them a distinctly personal, even private function.
He then considers Bruegel’s most self-referential drawing, The Painter and the Connoisseur, a work that clearly parodies the differing roles of the scruffy bohemian at the mercy of the market and its short-sighted but free-spending clients. In contrast to the aristocratic clients documented as offering commissions for Bosch, Bruegel’s later representation already suggests the commodification of easel paintings and self-parody. A related work, preserved in copies (Paris, Louvre), shows A Painter before his Easel, on which a fool is pictured. Ilsink compares both drawings to Bosch’s lost Conjurer and reads them as engaging the problem of sight and vision in art.
Ilsink’s third chapter focuses on the small panel of Two Apes (1562; Berlin), which he reads as concerned with the problematic relation between art and nature. He relates this topic to later gallery images that feature apes as pseudo-connoisseurs of art but also to the phrase, “art the ape of nature.” This same praise for Bruegel’s mastery of naturalism was featured in the rhetoric of Abraham Ortelius in his famous album amicorum quotation about the late artist, who could make art worthy to stand in for nature itself.
But after art made from nature, the culmination of the book, its fourth chapter, focuses on the art made from art, Bruegel’s adaptation of Bosch, particularly in the print designs issued by Hieronymus Cock in Antwerp, who also issued a number of would-be “Bosch” engravings (now on view as the subject of a Bosch/Bruegel exhibition at Calvin College, edited by Henry Luttikhuizen, The Humor and Wit of Pieter Bruegel the Elder). While much of this material is familiar, this strong argument about artistic self-awareness turns the focus onto both artists as both initiators and exemplars of a novel modernity. In this respect, Ilsink’s study resembles the multi-faceted modern consciousness ascribed to Albrecht Dürer by Joseph Koerner two decades ago in The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (1993). Thus here the early 1556 print of Big Fish Eat Little Fish, drawn by Bruegel but ascribed to Bosch on the print, resulted not merely from shrewd marketing by the publisher; it also stemmed from an homage to the older artist, in a creative imitation – indeed, even a classical rhetorical imitatio, as suggested by Mark Meadow – so complete that Bruegel seems to “channel” the older, more familiar artist and demand comparison, indeed judgement by a sophisticated viewer. Indeed, the main subject, assimilation, exemplifies the very process of its making and tallies with Van Mander’s later advice that artists should absorb a model (inslorpen) in order to be able to make use of it uit den geest.
Ilsink devotes a section to Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) as well as to a Bouts-influenced drawing of The Damned (Louvre), which he restores to discussion as an autograph early work by Bruegel by showing affinities with Boschian monsters. As has been noted, the painting at once imitates Bosch, even for the golden figure of St. Michael, and rejects the Italianate mode of the Antwerp cathedral altarpiece by Frans Floris (1554) in a doubly interpictorial dialogue. Thus does Bruegel establish his affiliation through a choice of model, even as his demonic figural vocabulary gets increasingly naturalistic as it descends to the lowest, most tactile level of earthly materialism; however, perceiving the same phenomenon, Ilsink instead associates this act of glorious creativity with God as creator, deus artifex, a Renaissance artistic concept that defies the Bosch precedent (and favors an idiom closer to the ideality of Dürer or Floris).
Each page of this thoughtful book provides stimulation on both levels: individual pictorial analysis as well as overall concept of artistic identity and the creative process. Matthijs Ilsink has made a strong argument about artistry by both Bosch and Bruegel, the Boschian Bruegel before peasant subjects. Even if they did not need more endorsement of their importance to the history of art, both masters now take an enhanced place in the early advocacy of artistic assertion and in creative use of models for discerning viewers within the emerging visual practice of Renaissance rhetoric.
University of Pennsylvania