This is the third in a projected series of five catalogues on the Royal Museums’ collection of early Netherlandish painting. It follows Cyriel Stroo and Pascale Syfer-d’Olne’s volume o n The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden Groups (1996) and Cyriel Stroo, Pascale Syfer-d’Olne, Anne Dubois and Roel Slachmuylders’s volume on The Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes Groups (1999). The four authors of the 1999 volume have been joined here by Nathalie Toussaint as collaborators on seventeen catalogue entries on the museum’s Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Bouts, Gerard David, Colijn de Coter and Goossen van der Weyden Groups. The seventeen works span a period from about 1480 (Bouts’s Penitence of Saint Jerome) to the second half of the sixteenth century (the Nativity after Bosch); though most of them – thirteen – were painted between 1490 and 1530.
Each entry is structured according to roughly the same format used in the first two volumes of the series. Following a general physical description, provenance, a list of exhibitions in which the work has appeared, and a detailed account of past restorations and copious technical notes, the authors review the literature on the painting in a section called ‘Status Quaestionis.’ This amounts to a chronological summary of the work’s critical history, devoid for the most part of the authors’ opinion – except in ‘exceptional instances.’ Then comes a discussion of ‘Iconography,’ which offers broad explication of the work’s subject and interpretation. The authors finally tip their hand in the ‘Comments’ section, drawing conclusions based on the technical, stylistic and iconographic information previously introduced. Full-page color plates and details of each painting are complemented by a range of black-and-white illustrations and comparative images, as well as by useful supporting technical material. Each catalogue entry features illustrations of the construction of the frame and panels, a photograph of the reverse of the painting, infrared photographs and reflectogram assemblies, and, in certain cases, X-radiographs that are consulted in discussions of paint application and condition. Dendrochronological analysis is used to help date the works, while a very few paint samples have been taken to support comments about technique.
The care and sensitivity with which the authors have looked, analyzed, and described these seventeen paintings is admirable, and represents one of the great achievements and benefits of the catalogue. Detailed description of paint application and technique in the ‘Technical Notes’ is fascinating in and of itself, providing the reader with a remarkably vivid sense of the paintings’ color and appearance and of the painters’ respective working methods. But they are also practical and powerful tools with which the authors assess attribution and even draw conclusions about meaning. Particular insights are gained in connection with the group of eight paintings associated with Albrecht Bouts (ca. 1451/55-1549), making up almost half of the catalogue’s offerings. Anne Dubois and Roel Slachmuylders effectively define some of the essential characteristics of Bouts’s technique in his monumental Assumption of the Virgin Triptych (c.1495-1500), used in turn to establish the authorship – or degree of authorship – in the remainder of the group. The facial features, color application, drawings style, and technical idiosyncrasies of Bouts’s Penitence of Saint Jerome (c.1480), for instance, provide convincing support for linking it to the Assumption and the core of the group. Bouts also comes off as a significantly more intuitive and sensitive painter than has been assumed previously. While this might be in part a natural result of studying Albrecht’s paintings on their own terms, and not in disadvantageous association with his more famous and talented father’s work, the entries do make a valid case for considering the son as an independent, coherent, and intelligent artistic personality. Though perhaps more because of the sheer number of entries than because of anything else, Bouts emerges as the unofficial star of this catalogue.
The thoroughness of approach has also allowed the authors to make discoveries about provenance and new suggestions about attribution, dating, and interpretation, which can be cited only partially here. An inventory of monasteries from 1798-80 by G.J.J. Bosschaert is used to suggest that Bouts’s later Assumption of the Virgin (c.1500-1510) may have originally been commissioned for the abbey church of Cistercian nuns at Florival, just south of Louvain – a suggestion that helps broaden our understanding of the close ties the family of painters maintained with nearby religious institutions. Archival research has also allowed for a convincing provenance to be established for Colijn de Coter’s Johanna van Maerke Triptych (1522); it is linked to the abbey of Benedictine nuns at Vorst, near Brussels, where presumably the four female donors dressed in religious habits in the wings were based. Detailed examination of Gerard David’s Adoration of the Magi and consideration of its motifs encourage Cyriel Stroo and Pascale Syfer-d’Olne to date the work around 1500, a decade or so later than has been common. Throughout the catalogue, close, careful reading of content makes the entries potent resources for understanding and assessing the costume, religious iconography, and broad social context of the works.
A catalogue offering such detailed analysis of individual works cannot be expected to maintain a coherent thematic thread. Nor should it be judged according to the same standards applied to historical accounts of the period. But there are ways in which the organizers of this valuable catalogue have lost a chance to give richer definition to the works and to the period as a whole. Some of this has to do with the structure chosen for the catalogue entries. As opposed to the National Gallery’s catalogue of The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools by Lorne Campbell (1998), for instance, which organizes entries according to the key issues of individual works (e.g. for Gerard David’s Canon Bernardijn Salviati and Three Saints: ‘Identity of the Donor,’ ‘Attribution,’ ‘Original Function,’ ‘Original Location,’ and ‘Date’), giving appropriate weight to each, this catalogue imposes an unwavering organizational scheme that does not distinguish between the respective problems of different works. Thus, the Temptation of Saint Anthony Triptych (c.1520-1530) by Bosch’s workshop – a work whose motifs and iconography receive the bulk of the authors’ attention – and Goossen van der Weyden’s Portraits of François Colibrant and Lysbeth Biers – for which attribution and the relationship between the donors and artist are key – both follow the same format. A more streamlined and discriminating approach might make the authors’ focus on significant issues more apparent. In a broad sense, the catalogue could also have placed more emphasis on the artistic trends shared by the works. As Eliane De Wilde justifiably emphasizes in the Foreword, the era represented here (i.e. 1490-1530) is a ‘period of transition’ in which ‘[a]rtistic production … was still rooted in late medieval thought, yet increasingly influenced by new Renaissance developments and reflecting the changing religious and social context.’ One wishes the authors had made more effort to define or draw attention to the newness of artistic practices and social customs represented by this group of paintings.
Certain awkward English phrases produce short-term confusion about the authors’ meaning. Does the ‘material history of the paintings,’ for instance, refer to the works’ provenance or to their state of preservation and/or restoration? While meaning usually becomes clear in context within a few sentences, all confusion could have been eliminated through more sensitive translation and careful editing. This reader would also like to quibble with the use of the phrase Status Quaestionis, partially because it is not English and does not have common usage in any current language; but also because it strikes an unnecessarily pedantic and dated note. If ‘Historiography’ seems too limited, and ‘State of the Question’ is considered awkward, what about ‘Critical History?’ Perhaps the organizers of subsequent volumes might consider the latter, a phrase that is clear, telling, and even somewhat dramatic – qualities that this thorough, accessible, indispensable catalogue possesses in spades.