In the last decades painters working in Brussels under the two Habsburg archdukes Albert and Isabella have received monographic treatments only sporadically compared to their Antwerp colleagues although artists whose works enhanced the reputation of the court, such as those by Hendrik de Clerck, drew comparable attention in their time. The first study on the figure painter de Clerck who frequently collaborated with the landscape and architectural painter Denijs van Alsloot was the 1975 dissertation by Willy Laureyssens, which however was never published. Claudia Banz’s Höfisches Mäzenatentum in Brüssel (2000) about the archdukes as patrons offers only limited insight into some painters in their service. Sabine Van Sprang’s book not only focuses on the work and studio of Denijs van Alsloot but thoroughly discusses the period under Albert and Isabella, including artists not easily found in the literature, such as Pieter van der Borcht, David Noveliers, above all Antoine/Antoon Sallaert. Her two-volume publication, based on her 2006 dissertation, is comprehensive, informative, well researched, and richly illustrated, including many details from paintings and drawings.
Vol. I is dedicated to the state of research, the few documents pertaining to Alsloot’s vita, the catalogue of his painted landscapes and drawings, his workshop and collaborators; vol. II consists of the catalogue of Alsloot’s “Wimmelbilder“ (pictures teeming with people) with corresponding preparatory drawings, the courtly festivités, and the ommegang procession of 1615. This is followed by documents, index and list of locations.
Neither Alsloot’s father (presumably the successful Brussels tapissierDenijs van Alsloot), his relatives nor his teacher are known. In 1593 Denijs peintre is first mentioned as gilder; in 1599/1600 he has a workshop in Brussels with one apprentice, thus identifying him as a master. With the help of these dates we may establish his birthdate c. 1568, assuming that he was approximately 25 years old in 1600. In 1606 Alsloot achieved a new status: the archdukes informed the city magistrate that he served from now on at the court as – in the formulation of Van Sprang – “fournisseur privilégie“, as Jan Brueghel the Elder and later Joos de Momper, without the rank of court painter, as Peter Paul Rubens. Between 1608 and 1610 and later, after 1616 and the completion of the festivités, Alsloot frequently added to his signature the addendum S.A. or S.S. (Son Altesse, Serviteur des Souverains, Service attaché Archiducum). No painting is dated or can be attributed to Alsloot before 1608; smaller commissions for cartoons for tapisseries de sayette (silk) with flower decorations for the Brussels court can be documented between July 1603 and February 1604.
Alsloot registered four apprentices: Francois de Sainctsaule (1599/1600), Sennyn van Eeyck, Willem Moye, and Pieter van der Borcht (1604). The latter’s city views of Stuttgart from 1614 (Karlsruhe, Kunsthalle,) and of Augsburg from 1615 (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, figs. 15, 16) do not lag behind the finely drawn oevre of his master. Alsloot’s most productive period is between 1615 and 1621/22. After Archduke Albert’s death in 1621, commissions from Isabella became less frequent.
Alsloot’s landscape paintings are characterized by minute details and meticulously executed foliage; his palette changes from light blue to icy grey in winter pictures, to ochre and brownish green in views of deep forests. His cabinet-size images are intended to be seen from close-up; their production must have been very time consuming. Van Sprang compares his early technique and quality to works by Jan Brueghel the Elder before he becomes more “impressionistic.“ Paintings and drawings at times have been attributed to Gillis van Coninxloo, Roelandt Savery, Tobias Verhaecht or Jan Brueghel. Compositionally, his views of one or two forest passages recall those by the approximately contemporaneous forest painter Abraham Govaerts (1589-1626), some of whose drawings have been attributed to Alsloot. There are large-format (dobbeldoeken) canvases with deer hunts, presumably commissioned by aristocratic patrons. The artist also painted topographies of Ostende, the castle of Tervuren, the Groenendael Priory, the castle and park of Mariemont, and the Forest of Soignes, presumably for the court. The last such commission by the archdukes consisted of two paintings of the territorio de Tervuren of 1619/20.
We know that the Marquis de Leganés owned a large-format canvas with Orpheus Enchanting the Animals, signed D.ab Alsloot S. AR. Pic: 1610, whose figure painter remains unidentified (cat. 18; whereabouts unknown) although it is possible that it is the same artist from the studio of Hendrik de Clerck who painted the animals. Besides De Clerck or his studio, other well-known figure painters, among them Otto van Veen, (1556-1629) and Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573-1647), either single-handedly or with the help of their respective workshops contributed the biblical, mythological or contemporary figural episodes to Alsloot’s landscapes.
Vol. II deals with the Festivités du Papegai of 1615. On Mai 15, 1615, Archduchess Isabella, familiar with the use of a crossbow since her childhood, shot down the parrot (papegai) of the renowned Brussels Guild of Arquebusiers, whereupon she was crowned queen of the guild. The subsequent ommegang on 31 May, the procession to Notre-Dame du Sablon, was held in celebration of this heroic shot. There are spectacular triumphal carriages with dromedars and horses, crowds of clerics, citizens, children, peasants, men carrying weapons, banners and standards, giants, and the mythical horse Bayard – the scene is teeming with animated groups of colorfully dressed people, sometimes in orderly groups on Brussels’ streets, sometimes around carriages at a pond together with the archducal couple. Denijs van Alsloot was commissioned to paint the high points of these events and processions in eight canvases, the first time such civic celebration was documented in a series of paintings of such large format, measuring of 130 x 380 or 125 x 500 cm. The collaborator in the execution of the figures was notably David Noveliers (1580/90-after 1640) but above all the gifted draughtsman and painter Antoon Sallaert (1594-1650), who actually signed their works in the series. After the first series, for which Alsloot received 10,000 livres Artois, the archdukes commissioned a replica, also of eight pieces. The city of Brussels commissioned two paintings of the subject.
In conclusion, some comments about the system of classification might be welcome for the user of these volumes. Vol. I lists 44 signed or securely attributed works (1-44), three not securely attributed (PA 1-3), twelve lost landscapes (PP1-PP11/12) and eleven drawings (D1-D11). The abbreviations before the numbers, possibly confusing at first sight, should be read as PA = paysages attributions incertaines, PP = paysages présumés perdus, and D = dessins.
Vol. II, pp. 269-705, deals with the paintings of the festivités, executed between 1615 and 1616, followed by a replica of the first series. The abbreviations to the catalogue numbers of the eight paintings of the “Festivités du Papegai“ can be deciphered as F = Festivité (F1-F8), FP = Festivité sur papier (FP 1-30), FM = modèles sur bois = FM1-FM2, R = Répliques (FR1-FR10), C = Copies (FC1). These are followed by three paintings of similar subject matter. The charts (pp. 648, 649) illustrate the present locations of these works.
Overall, I can only say: Chapeau! for this meticulously researched, informative and enlightening publication.
(Translated by Kristin Belkin)