Peter van den Brink, in collaboration with Alice Taatgen and Heinrich Becker, Joos van Cleve: Leonardo des Nordens. Cat. exh. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, March 17 – June 26, 2011. Stuttgart: Belser, 2011. 200 pp, fully illustrated; ISBN 978-3-7630-2596-1.
Christiaan Vogelaar, Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Huigen Leeflang, Lucas van Leyden en de renaissance. Cat. exh. Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, in co-operation with the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, March 20 – June 26, 2011. Antwerp: Ludion, 2011, 367 pp, fully illustrated; ISBN 978-90-5544-855-5.
During the last eighteen months, no fewer than six major exhibitions were devoted to northern artists of the first half of the sixteenth century. Together with shows about Jan Gossart (New York and London), Cranach (Cranach et son temps, Brussels and Paris; Cranach: l’altro Rinascimento, Rome), and Jan van Scorel’s French altarpieces (Paris and Douai), the two monographic exhibitions featuring the work of Joos van Cleve and Lucas van Leyden reveal the broad range of artistic practices north of the Alps in the first decades of the sixteenth century as well as the diversity of current scholarship concerning an important moment in what is commonly termed the “Northern Renaissance.”
Joos van Cleve: Leonardo des Nordens is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work, although important, smaller shows were held in Paris (Joos van Cleve au Louvre, Musée du Lovure, 1996) and Genoa (Joos van Cleve e Genova: intorno al Ritratto di Stefano Raggio, Palazzo Spinola, 2003). The attractive and affordable catalogue published in German offers an occasion to reconsider the work of one of the most successful Antwerp painters of the early sixteenth century whose accomplishments have often been overshadowed by those of his contemporaries.
Almost a quarter century after Van Cleve’s death, the Florentine expatriate Lodovico Guicciardini recorded the artist’s reputation as a master “most outstanding in color and so excellent at making portraits after life… that he was chosen [by François Ier] and brought to France to portray the king and the queen and other princes with greatest praise and reward.” Van Mander, who is vague about the facts surrounding Van Cleve’s work, praises his art but condemns his “excessive arrogance and inflated conceit.” Both he and Dominicus Lampsonius describe Joos van Cleve as a madman, although they appear to have conflated him with his son Cornelis, also an artist, who went insane toward the end of his life. In the Aachen catalogue, however, the question of the artist’s identity is largely set aside in favor of a powerful leitmotif first articulated by Ludwig Baldass (Joos van Cleve, der Meister des Todes Mariä, Vienna 1925) that Van Cleve’s consummate skill and dynamic working methods enabled him to absorb a wide range of styles and motifs and to deploy these for commercial advantage.
Seven essays, each treating a different aspect of the artist’s life or work, precede a catalogue of the sixty-two exhibited paintings, arranged by genre. With a few exceptions, objects have a short entry and useful cross-references to relevant passages in the text. Following an overview of the exhibition’s scope by Pieter van den Brink, the two leading experts on Van Cleve, John Oliver Hand and Micha Leeflang, reconstruct, with the aid of the few available documents, the life of Joos van der Beke, alias van Cleve, exploring the artist’s “rediscovery” in the nineteenth century as the “Master of the Death of the Virgin” (after the 1515 altarpiece now in Cologne) and his place in early twentieth-century historiography.
In the next chapter, Hand, the author of a doctoral thesis (Princeton, 1978) and the most recent monograph on the artist (2004), plots the development of Van Cleve’s art through his major altarpieces, from his beginnings with Jan Joest of Kalkar, whom he assisted in painting the Nikolai altar (Saint Nicolai, Kalkar) through his late response to Italian influences. While exploring the ways in which Van Cleve negotiated local and international demand for his pictures, Hand also acknowledges the difficulties in establishing a clear stylistic progression in a somewhat protean oeuvre. Even documented altarpieces can be hard to date, and global conclusions about Van Cleve’s treatment of landscape or his ongoing experimentation with figure-to-space relationships are largely avoided.
In two separate essays, joined under the title “Joos van Cleve und Genua,” Maria Clelia Galassi and Gianluca Zanelli paint a rich picture of Van Cleve’s Genoese patrons, all of whom were firmly established in the commercial and, often, socio-political life of the Low Countries, generally first in Bruges and later in Antwerp. Their analysis not only obviates any need to posit a trip by the artist to Genoa; it also helps to explain why this Italian expatriate community was so attracted to Van Cleve’s work and how his portraits and religious pictures functioned as “status symbols” in the Netherlandish and Ligurian cultures they straddled. The authors convincingly ascribe Van Cleve’s popularity over an array of contemporary artists, including Metsys, Gossart, and also Pietro Francesco Sacci (Lombard, active in Genoa), to his flexibility and willingness to accommodate a client’s stylistic and iconographic predilections in a timely manner. Galassi and Zanelli argue that Van Cleve’s agility explains, at least partially, the disparate appearance of his Genoese paintings and, in turn, the rapid decline of his popularity following the arrival of Perino del Vaga and his introduction of a central Italian mode of painting in Genoa. Their research opens the way for further investigation into the artist’s connection to Genoese statesmen attached to the court in Mechelen, which might yield new discoveries about some distinguished but unidentified sitters (cat. nos. 52-60).
In a discerning overview of Joos van Cleve’s treatment of portraits, Cécile Scailliérez weighs the artist’s innovations against conventions of the time and the achievements of other painters, in particular Metsys and Gossart, but also Jean Clouet, Barthel Bruyn, Jan Vermeyen, and Willem Key, whose treatment of the portrait continues, arguably, where Van Cleve’s experiment leaves off. Van Cleve’s portraits parallel, but do not appear to lead, a general trend in German and Netherlandish portraiture toward increasing dynamism. Accordingly, his depictions of burghers become more active, and he also formulates a response to the conventions of humanist portraiture propagated in images of Erasmus. One unusual feature of Van Cleve’s portraits that Scailliérez notes is his sitter’s hands, one bare, the other holding a glove. This rhetorical gesture enlivens Van Cleve’s subjects with a sense of sprezzatura, as is most evident in the important group of royal portraits. Scailliérez examines these in light of recent documentary discoveries, historical circumstance, and the artistic milieu of the French court. She convincingly interprets Van Cleve’s famous portraits of François Ier(cat. 61) and Henry VIII of England (fig. 82) as commemorations of an important meeting in October 1532 at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Comparison with other representations of members of the French court suggests a dialogue between Van Cleve’s atmospheric realism and the official, stylized approach of Clouet.
Like Hand, Scailliérez discusses Van Cleve’s self-portraits, which the artist often inserted into his religious works, such as the St. Reinhold altarpiece (cat. 1). She posits that these function as an affirmation of Van Cleve’s own religious beliefs and his pride as an artist, and may also serve as a form of signature to enhance his fame abroad. His likeness in the predella of the Santa Maria della Pace altarpiece (cat. 11), a composition based on an engraving after Leonardo’s Last Supper, supports all three contentions. However, Hand’s claim that Van Cleve painted his own face on a shockingly erotic depiction of Lucretia (classified under “Andachtsbilder,” cat. 25) is a provocative assertion that requires further investigation. The suggestion that the artist would make such a bold statement simply for want of another model is problematic.
Thanks to Micha Leeflang’s research for her doctoral thesis on Van Cleve (Groningen, 2006), a wealth of technical data is marshaled to clarify Van Cleve’s oeuvre and his workshop practices. An examination of his use of cartoons and underdrawing explains how Van Cleve’s workshop produced pictures serially. In addition, infrared analysis is used to support newer attributions, such as the Triptych of Saints Peter, Paul and Andreas (cat. no. 2), although this attribution has been questioned (see the review of Mark Evans, Burlington Magazine, vol. 153, June 2011, pp. 429-431). Rich illustrations and informative text boxes about specific techniques explain Van Cleve’s working methods to a broad audience and demonstrate the ways in which he planned different parts of his compositions to ensure consistency. The problematic relationship between Van Cleve’s underdrawings and the small and contested body of independent drawings associated with his name points to larger questions about northern painters’ drawing practices in this period.
The title of the exhibition, which provoked a critical response in earlier reviews, directs our attention to an important subset of late works, studied in detail by Dan Ewing, that depict Leonardesque themes. For Ewing, the soft chiaroscuro and graceful treatment of figures in Van Cleve’s many interpretations of the Madonna of the Cherries and the Infants Christ and Saint John the Baptist Embracing may account for their popularity, although, as the author suggests, these paintings were probably also valued as devotional images. The sheer number of Van Cleve’s Leonardesque paintings, owned by merchants as well as Margaret of Austria and François Ier, certainly validates the success of the Northerner’s variations on a few Leonardo models. However, as Suzanne Sulzberger noted as early as 1955 (Arte Lombarda I, pp. 105-111), quantity alone does not necessarily explain the significance of Leonardo da Vinci for Van Cleve and his northern audience. A broader reexamination of textual as well as visual sources might foster a more nuanced understanding of why Van Cleve gravitated to Leonardo’s sfumato treatment of holy figures when his contemporaries, especially Metsys, pursued a deeper engagement with physiognomic studies. By suggesting new avenues of research, this insightful and richly-illustrated catalogue will surely serve as the basis for any future study of Joos van Cleve.
Lucas van Leyden en de renaissance was the culmination of years of research by a team of scholars. The exhibition catalogue, available exclusively in Dutch, is an outstanding contribution that surpasses earlier studies of the artist, including the seminal Lucas van Leyden: Studies (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 29, 1978). This substantial publication includes eight essays, biographies of the six chief artists discussed, and 157 main entries that present paintings, prints, drawings, painted glass roundels, and book illustrations by Van Leyden and after his designs, as well as a broad range of comparative material.
In a probing introductory essay, Christaan Vogelaar places Lucas van Leyden in the context of the bustling artistic climate of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Leiden, where, as Jeremy Bangs has shown, the artist’s teacher Cornelis Engebrechtsz negotiated complex structures of patronage and consumption (Cornelis Engebrechtsz.’s Leiden: Studies in Cultural History, Assen 1979). Van Leyden’s heritage and his sources are given new attention in Ilja Veldman’s ground-breaking study, which reveals an abundance of visual material at the artist’s disposal, much of it previously overlooked devotional woodcuts and scenes from religious plays, as well as the classical vocabulary of triumphal entries and rhetoricians’ performances. Parisian devotional books, in particular, offered motifs that the artist rapidly translated into his personal style and adapted to his refined burin work. One striking example is an image of “April” from Guillaume Le Rouge’s Horae Virginis Beatae Mariae of 1509, which served as a point of departure for the Two Couples in a Wood, generally dated to the same year (cat. 43; B. 146). Quotations from popular prints also occur frequently in paintings, especially to support religious typologies (cf. figs. 2.25, 2.27) or to invoke well-known moralizing adages and proverbs (cf. pp. 68-77). Veldman persuasively relates these themes to the larger question of Van Leyden’s awareness of Erasmian humanism. This line of inquiry invites further research that might yield yet more discoveries, especially concerning elusive images such as the Young Couple Walking at Night with a Fool (cat. 42; B. 147).
The exhibition’s installation and the beautiful plates in the catalogue underscore the importance of the artist’s small but highly accomplished painted oeuvre and his brilliant use of color. “The Leiden Painters at Work” summarizes the findings of a team of conservators and art historians who investigated paintings by Lucas van Leyden and other artists. Their research complements Elise Lawton Smith’s catalogue raisonné (1992) by offering new information about Van Leyden’s painting technique, including his “wet in wet” approach, which permitted the buildup of overlapping paint layers to create vibrant coloristic effects. Infrared reflectography has revealed that he was also tremendously innovative beneath the surface, planning compositions with fluid underdrawings that had no precedent in North Netherlandish art. Together, these techniques demonstrate a decisive advance beyond the schematic approach seen in the work of his contemporaries and predecessors, most especially Cornelis Engebrechtsz and Aertgen van Leyden. A convincing reconstruction is offered for the damaged Christ Healing the Blind Man of Jericho (1531, cat. 117a), although surprisingly little attention is given to the artist’s tempera paintings on canvas support.
One of the most pressing questions in Lucas van Leyden scholarship remains the nature of his relationship to Antwerp, the unrivaled center of artistic production and innovation in the region. In his essay entitled “Leiden and Antwerp around 1520: The Meeting of Albrecht Dürer and the Introduction of Landscape,” Jan Piet Filedt Kok proposes that a Master J. Kock, possibly together with the Master of the Vienna Lamentation, was responsible for bringing to Leiden an Antwerp conception of landscape painting inspired by Patinir. The identity of Master J. Kock (apparently not to be confused with the well-documented Jan Wellensz de Cock) is constructed around a painting of Saint Christopher and the Christ Child, dated to 1520-25 (cat. 20), which was later treated in a print of ca. 1560 signed “J. Kock Pictum” (unfortunately not illustrated). Compelling comparisons notwithstanding, the argumentation is difficult to follow. Moreover, such a complex and specific genealogy may actually cloud our understanding of what must have been a lively, if occasionally unbalanced, exchange of artistic motifs and techniques between two centers of production where innovations of all sorts were eagerly pursued, particularly in the treatment of landscape.
Lucas van Leyden’s extraordinary prints made him an international figure and assured his lasting reputation. In a chronological overview of Van Leyden’s prints and their reception, Huigen Leeflang underscores the artist’s tremendous ingenuity, precociousness, and versatility. Vasari, who paid careful attention to Van Leyden’s prints, described the relationship between his graphic work and that of Albrecht Dürer in terms of a paragone. Leeflang elucidates that comparison as it pertains to Van Leyden’s knowledge of Dürer before they met in 1521 and after their famous encounter. Leeflang’s entries address iconographic nuances (eg. cat. 40; B. 126), while his essay provides new insight into the reverberations of Van Leyden’s inventions in Italian prints, especially those of Marcantonio Raimondi, who famously quoted his landscapes. In turn, Van Leyden later studied Raimondi’s prints as he gave increasing attention to Raphaelesque representations of the nude, possibly encouraged by his encounter with Gossart.
In sharp contrast to Joos van Cleve, Lucas van Leyden has left a substantial drawn oeuvre that most likely represents only a fraction of what once existed. The exhibition featured many of his well known drawings and exciting new discoveries, including the Angel Gabriel, a pendant to Mary Annunciate of ca. 1525 (cats. 85a, b). Wouter Kloek revisits conclusions of his earlier study (Lucas van Leyden: Studies, op. cit, pp. 425-458) in an essay that examines the development of Lucas’s drawing technique by function. According to Kloek, Van Leyden resisted contemporary notions of disegno, in which the artist’s intellectual invention was increasingly separated from manual execution. Instead, Van Leyden used a variety of drawing techniques to record details or figures, or to work out compositions that he would later execute in other media.
The final two essays in the catalogue round out the discussion of Lucas van Leyden’s immediate impact by addressing domains in which his designs were influential: painted glass and illustrated books. According to Van Mander, Van Leyden painted glass, but no works are extant. Timothy Husband notes that nearly every northern painter was involved in this art. Unfortunately, only small, domestic pieces survive. Iconoclasm and neglect destroyed larger, public works in Leiden and elsewhere. We know that these objects were prized, however. A painted glass Entry of David into Jerusalem (possibly Milan, Ambrosiana) belonged to Goltzius, a great admirer of Van Leyden’s work, and was engraved by Jan Saenredam (B.III, 109). Elegant glass panels were also made after Van Leyden’s prints, although the extent to which he was involved in this production is not clear. Marieke van Delft and Ed van der Vlist show that the use of Van Leyden’s designs for book illustrations is an important facet of his legacy. But the magnitude of his impact could perhaps best be seen in a small, concurrent exhibition at the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam (March 11– June 19, 2011), where Lucas van Leyden’s prints were hung alongside Rembrandt etchings. The comparisons, familiar or not, were reminders of the homage one great Leiden artist offered to his Renaissance forebear.
Metropolitan Museum of Art