One of the most ambitious and time consuming projects in the field of Early Netherlandish paintings is the publication of a volume of the ‘Primitifs flamands Corpus,’ which aims to present and critically evaluate the available technical and documentary evidence of all the fifteenth-century panel paintings in one particular collection. Conceived and introduced in 1950 by Paul Coremans and Jacques Lavalleye, the project has become increasingly ambitious in the intervening years. Methods of technical examination, such as infrared reflectography, have become more refined; new methods, such as dendrochronology, are being applied more systematically; and the art historical literature has grown exponentially. This helps explain why it took all of 39 years to publish the 41 works – single panels and ensembles of several paintings – housed in the Louvre in three volumes. Volume I was published by Hélène Adhémar in 1962, volume II by Philippe Lorentz and Micheline Comblen-Sonkes in 1995, and this final volume, also by Lorentz and Comblen-Sonkes, in 2001. The Corpus is intended as a comprehensive information resource and reference work. The pre-established format of the Corpus classifies the collection’s pictures into ‘groups’ of works, each linked stylistically to known masters, while the remainder of the paintings – usually few in number – are unassigned and called anonymous. The groups are presented in alphabetical order, which does not take chronology or the production of the works in different areas of the Low Countries into account.
Each of the three volumes of the exquisite Louvre collection presents undeniable gems: volume I treats the Bosch, Bouts, Christus, Coter, and David groups; volume II handles the van Eyck, Juan de Flandes, Joos van Ghent, Marmion, and Memling groups. This volume presents the groups associated with Michel Sittow, Rogier van der Weyden, and a number of anonymous masters – the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Master of Frankfurt, Master of Saint Magdalen, Master of Saint Gudule, and the Master of 1499. Catalogued in the van der Weyden group is the Crucifixion of the Parlement of Paris (cat. no. 192), attributed to ‘Andrieu d’Ippre, peintre de Paris’ who left Amiens for Paris in 1444, and died in Mons in 1450; it is thus considered to be an Early Netherlandish, not a French painting. Also found in volume III is an anonymous painting of the Madonna Lactans, which was not included in volume I with the rest of the independent, anonymous pictures. Like volume II, the present is divided into two parts, one reserved for text and one for illustrations. Each of the catalogue’s sixteen works are reproduced in color, except for the Master of the Embroidered Foliage’s Angel Playing the Lute (cat. no. 196), which is reproduced in black-and-white. There are an additional 232 black-and-white photographs on 224 plates.
As in volume II, Lorentz and Comblen-Sonkes present the information on each picture with authority and in great detail, first providing the technical data and a description of the work’s state of preservation. They proceed to describe the composition and iconography of each work, using different (often very different) opinions in the literature for reference. There are also reports on the works’ colors, which do not seem particularly necessary as the paintings are reproduced in good quality color. Sections on inscriptions and coats of arms in the paintings are useful, as is the chapter entitled ‘historique,’ which cites key documentary sources, as well as panels in other collections that formerly belonged to the same ensembles as did those in Louvre’s collection (e.g. The Coronation of the Virgin from the Sittow Group, cat. no. 188). It also provides a summary of opinions on attribution and dating. The chapter ‘histoire ultérieure’ summarizes the painting’s history in a chronological table; there one finds information on the provenance, exhibitions in which panels appeared, and the history of their conservation. An independent section is devoted to comparative material, citing copies, early reproductions, and compositionally/stylistically related works. The entries conclude with useful, comprehensive bibliographies, transcriptions of archival and other primary sources (here one finds Peter Klein’s dendrochronological reports), and a list of black-and-white illustrations corresponding to the images, as well as the corresponding inventory numbers of the photographs at the Institut royal du Patrimoine artistique.
Preceding this concluding information is the section entitled ‘opinion personelle de l’auteur,’ which provides space for the authors to present their own interpretation of the paintings. As welcome and enlightening as this is, it also reveals a problem evident in most of the Corpus, namely the near complete lack of comparative illustrations – in this volume there are 12 in total, making it very difficult to follow the authors’ often detailed arguments. This is an understandable problem given the goal of the Corpus to serve as a photographic resource of the collection’s own works. We are able to consult many beautiful details and technical photographs not to be found in other publications. The inclusion of comparative photos would render the volumes exceedingly expansive and perhaps impractical. That some of the infrared reflectography assemblies are digitalized images, while others are traditional mosaics of photographs, further reflects the expansive development of technical documentation.
The book ends with two thorough indices for the three corpus volumes of the Louvre collection – the first lists names and places, the second iconographic themes. Here the wealth of information gathered in the Louvre Corpus is made easily available.
Philippe Lorentz has left his job as curator of Early Netherlandish paintings at the Louvre for a teaching position at the University of Strasbourg. His successor now has a terrific, comprehensive resource with which to further expose and develop the collection to the public, as well as a solid basis for future research.
Graphische Sammlung, Städel, Frankfurt