In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, private individuals acquired many of the Netherlandish paintings presently housed in Budapest’s Szépművészeti Múzeum, though collectors generally prized Spanish and Italian masters over their northern European counterparts. Nevertheless, any great connoisseur would seek leading lights of early German and Netherlandish schools, especially marquee names, such as Lucas van Leyden, Lucas Cranach, and Albrecht Dürer, as Ágota Varga describes in her essay on Hungarian collecting in this latest addition to the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) of Budapest’s Old Masters’ Gallery series. Although many attributions have since been revised, the Budapest collection retains its fair share of masterpieces, including works by Hans Memling, Bernard van Orley, and Petrus Christus. Moreover, many copies hold a special interest.
This two-volume catalogue documents forty-nine Netherlandish works produced between roughly 1450 and 1540. It follows two other critical catalogues in the series: Dutch and Flemish Portraits 1600-1800 (Rudi Ekkart, 2011) and Dutch and Flemish Still Lifes 1600-1800 (Ildikó Ember, 2011; both reviewed in this journal April 2014). A planned future publication will address Netherlandish paintings from 1540 to 1600. Susan (Zsuzsa) Urbach helmed the project and wrote entries on each work. As Urbach explains in her introduction, techniques for the technical study of artworks have opened up new topics, especially in Netherlandish painting. The Museum previously released a complete collection catalogue (1991, Vol. I; 2000, Vol. II), a valuable annotated visual checklist; however, Urbach and her co-contributors here serve more extensive scholarship on these Budapest works in an erudite, user-friendly format.
Each entry documents provenance, references, exhibitions, iconography, and the history of attribution. Entries also provide technical notes that include available infrared reflectography mosaics plus Peter Klein’s dendrochronological examination. High-quality reproductions permit viewers to examine compositions front and back and relevant details in normal light and infrared. Seals and other panel features are included as detail shots. Catalogue entries are organized alphabetically by artist; in the case of copies or questionable attributions, entries are listed under the most closely associated artist.
Christ Carrying the Cross (Cat. 11), now recognized as a copy after Jan van Eyck, exemplifies Urbach’s fine entries. Color plates present both front and back of the panel. Important underdrawing details are juxtaposed with their full-color images, allowing productive comparison. Urbach has compiled over a century of scholarly references on this much-discussed picture – each reference entry with a parenthetical summary of proposed attribution and date; within this list, she includes valuable communication with scholars drawn from curatorial records. Technical examination of the underdrawing reveals that the painter closely followed a preliminary sketch in a liquid medium and focused on the outlines of figures with little interior modeling. These factors suggest the artist copied a preexisting composition. Dating of the wooden panel further affirms that the painting is a copy, produced no earlier than 1508, well after Van Eyck’s death in 1441. Urbach highlights productive paths for future research, such as the still cryptic inscriptions on the clothing and horse tack of two of Christ’s tormentors. Several hypotheses have been put forth regarding the identity of these figures, as none can easily be recognized as Pilate or the centurion. Andor Pigler associated them with famous public figures of Van Eyck’s age, including King Sigismund of Hungary, Sigismund’s advisor Filippo Scolari (known as Pippo Spano), and John III, Duke of Bavaria. As Urbach notes, however, one cannot even be certain that these are portraits, nor can one easily imagine that these Christian men would want to be associated with Christ’s persecutors.
One of the most fascinating works in the Budapest collection is a 1:1 scale copy of the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (Prado, Madrid). The Spanish royal collection famously included several early Netherlandish paintings on linen – lienzos but these were disposed of when their condition deteriorated. The Budapest copy (Cat. 3), intriguingly, has a linen canvas support and matches the Prado panel remarkably well. Despite its ruined state, including evidence of rolling and folding, the painting still bears a strong likeness to the original. Figures not only match their Madrid counterparts in scale and placement, but also in color, suggesting that the Budapest work was completed in front of the Prado triptych or its preparatory design. Pigments and painting technique show that the artist of the copy worked in a similar manner and with the same materials as Bosch. Though no underdrawing has been found, making it difficult to pinpoint copying method, Urbach convincingly argues that it came from Bosch’s workshop shortly after the artist’s death in 1516. These stimulating findings would have been underlined by pairing a detail of the Budapest painting with the same portion of the Prado panel, thus bringing forth their similarities visually and not just textually. However, the numerous recent publications on Bosch celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death make such images readily available.
Familiar motifs and wholesale compositions from early Netherlandish painters, such as Rogier van der Weyden, remained popular in the decades after their creation. Several Budapest works permit study of how these compositions were modified and recycled. Some examples include a copy of the popular Hugo van der Goes Lamentation (Cat. 15; original in Vienna), painted on the same scale as the original but on copper, a support especially popular in the early seventeenth century; and a copy after Quentin Massys’s Ecce Homo (Palazzo Ducale in Venice; Cat. 26), notable for the quality of execution but also for a tiny portrait on the nail of Christ’s right index finger.
Technical study has allowed better understanding of art-making within the workshops of early Netherlandish masters. Recent scholarship makes workshop production a key element in the study of an artist’s oeuvre. Examples include the culminating website and publication of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project or the thoughtful essays on the role of drawings in Van Eyck’s workshop prompted by the rediscovery of an Eyckian Crucifixion drawing (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2015). Such discussions will undoubtedly profit from the information in the Szépművészeti Múzeum’s latest catalogue. Urbach has produced a publication that will long serve as a valuable reference work for scholars of both Netherlandish painting and the history of collecting of European Old Masters.
University of Pennsylvania