Focus exhibitions have emerged to highlight the many pleasures of the Getty Museum (see also the review of the exhibition around Rubens’s Man in Korean Costume in this issue). Often they are accompanied by insightful short monographs, such as the affordable volume analyzing the Getty’s own Jan Brueghel, Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Art, authored by Arianne Faber Kolb (2005). Now a thorough investigation of a visiting artwork, Warsaw’s personalized Ecce Homo triptych in its original frame by Maerten van Heemskerck has been produced by paintings curator Anne Woollett and senior conservator Yvonne Szafran (whose technical investigation occupies fully half of the volume).
Heemskerck has remained relatively neglected in Anglophone scholar-ship, even though Ilja Veldman’s groundbreaking publications on his prints appeared in English translation. The basic paintings catalogue by Rainald Grosshans (1980; where this work is no. 46) is in German, and another major appearance of the Warsaw triptych, Amsterdam’s 1986 exhibition, Kunst voor de Beeldenstorm, discusses the work in Dutch (as no. 135). Thus students will welcome Woollett’s helpful multi-media discussion of Heemskerck through this picture case study.
Along with the life and career of Heemskerck, a brief but useful introduction with fine color illustrations, Woollett also presents the context of this work, produced in 1544 for a wealthy private patron in Dordrecht, Jan van Drenckwaert (d. 1549), who also served as local sheriff (schout) on behalf of Emperor Charles V. Installed in his private chapel in the local Augustinian church, the triptych depicts a central Ecce Homo witnessed by the kneeling donor and his wife on the wings, presented by their patron saints, John the Evangelist and Margaret. The same two saints reappear as imitation stone sculptures en grisailleon the shutters’ reverse. Also noteworthy, this altarpiece still bears its original frame, an illusionistically foreshortened coffered arch that suggests the palace of Pilate and conforms to the emerging classicism in Netherlandish architecture and entry decoration, especially after the 1539 translation of Serlio by Coecke van Aelst.
Woollett notes how the Ecce Homo theme preoccupied Heemskerck across his career, but especially during the 1540s in both paintings and prints. The subject provided an appropriate blend of devotion with classical figural beauty for Christ, vividly contrasted against grotesque, if powerful antagonists. Moreover, the sensitive donor portraits conform to Heemskerck likenesses of the period and show his link to Netherlandish triptych heritage.
The loan from Warsaw to the Getty was occasioned by conservation of the altarpiece, so appropriately half of this monograph is devoted to materials and methods used by Heemskerck. Szafran and Phenix provide a lavishly illustrated, meticulous primer of technical analysis, featuring x-radiographs, infrared reflectograms, and cross sections, with numerous details. They note how the original frame overlaps some painted elements, so it was installed upon the existing painting.
Heemskerck’s confident, direct brushwork on a reflective ground shows little underdrawing, perhaps due to his preparatory use of red chalk, invisible to infrared examination; but the thinly painted grisaille exterior does reveal extensive, loose underdrawing as well as spontaneous brushwork. His pigment choices within a narrow palette range show both expensive and cheap materials, especially the mixture for blues of azurite and smalt (which discolors over time). A digital image (fig. 50) reconstructs the original color and value relationships. One startling note (p. 64) reveals that Heemskerck applied paint so swiftly and directly that several brush hairs remain embedded in the paint surface.
Certainly the painter’s technique reinforces what we know of his wider activity (cf. the giant Alkmaar Passion Altarpiece, 1538-42; fig. 6), namely that of a highly productive designer of prints (then with Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert) and producer of large-scale paintings. As Szafran and Phenix summarize: “This simplified, economical approach was well suited to his brushy, confident style, allowing him to rapidly achieve rich and brilliant effects with a minimum of material.” (p. 78) While Heemskerck remains strangely neglected, given his singular dominance of mid-century Netherlandish visual culture, this careful presentation of a valuable case study of form and content should provide a solid foundation for all future scholarship.
The publication received this year’s Second Barr Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, or Collections, presented by the College Art Association.
University of Pennsylvania