At long last, the Flemish painters whose gaze turned towards Renaissance Italy are receiving their scholarly (and public) due. Sparking this “Northern Ren” turn, Maryan Ainsworth’s seminal Jan Gossart exhibition at the Met in New York (2010) was followed last year at Leuven’s M Museum with a remarkable (and even more urgently needed) exhibition on Michael Coxcie, organized by the indefatigable Koenraad Jonckheere. Next year the Metropolitan will mount another critical exhibition in this vein, on Pieter Coecke van Aelst, featuring drawing designs and executed tapestries as well as major paintings. Into this mix, the Primitifs Flamands series, now published in English and concentrated on the rich collections of Brussels, has issued a new volume focused on Bernard [sic] van Orley, arguably after Gossart the fons et origo of the “Romanist” turn in Flemish painting.
We still have no modern monograph on Van Orley, despite his unrivaled eminence, during a period of activity from around 1515 to 1541, not only in Brussels painting but also stained glass (also in Brussels) and tapestry designs (examined in Ainsworth’s 1982 dissertation and in scattered catalogues). This volume, however, goes far towards establishing the foundations of that eventual corpus, covering fifteen panels by the artist and his circle, augmented by two early panels in the National Gallery, Washington, contributed by Carol Christensen and John Hand. Here that work is redated earlier, to the early teens. And of course the central panel of the Legends of St. Thomas and St. Matthias in Vienna is incorporated into that discussion of the Joiners’ and Coopers’ Altarpiece (146-171).
HNA readers will surely be familiar with the Primitifs Flamandsvolumes. But it should be noted that this Brepols production not only appears in English but with heightened production values, including numerous comparison photos (including tapestries), most of them in color. The discussion of the works, always a hallmark of the earlier reference volumes, retains its main outlines: physical description; provenance; exhibitions; restorations and condition; iconography; technical examination, including IRR and x-radiography, extended commentary, and bibliography. Artists are still studied as “Groupe Orley,” a pioneering approach of the Primitifs Flamands from the outset but all the more welcome in our day of considering such paintings often to have workshop involvement and no longer the sole province of “the master” or some lesser epigone.
But because the Van Orley volume concentrates on a single artist, it thus expands its focus to important additional areas, starting with critical reception and historiography, including a (brief) consideration of the debated proposition of a trip to Italy, concluding somewhat ambiguously (32): “If the idea of van Orley having learned from the great Italian master [Raphael] is more fable than fact, nothing can prove or disprove these trips to Rome.” A thorough biography follows, setting the stage for any future discussion of Van Orley and his artist family (led by father Valentin) but also his larger social networks (on p. 50 the Dürer portrait drawing in the Louvre, associated with Van Orley through the Lampsonius engraving – by Cornelis Cort? – is dismissed as misidentified: too young and dated 1521, rather than the year 1520, when it appears in Dürer’s diary).
A very helpful section on Van Orley patrons starts with the Church but of course also attends to the court support of Habsburg regents Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary as well as Mencia de Mendoza, wife of Count Henry III of Nassau. Here the latest scholarship by Dagmar Eichberger and others joins the meticulous archival work of Alphonse Wauters over a century ago to provide indispensible documentation for Van Orley’s career. The stained glass and tapestry activities are not slighted but remain documented with references to further scholarship. A key turning-point hinges on the 1527 trial for Lutheran heresy (67-70), which surely curtailed religious altarpiece commissions and led Van Orley thereafter into courtly assignments in newer media of stained glass (after 1536-37) and tapestry design. Documents remain mute for the period 1527-32.
The core analysis by Galand discusses questions of style and technique, with special attention given to Italian influence as well as Dürer. Here Galand insists (89-96) more strongly than received wisdom on basic continuities with earlier Flemish precedent. He also insists on the importance of Dürer as an influence along with Italy itself. And in terms of technique, he emphasizes the “copy/paste” principle as a kind of eclecticism with quotations from various pictorial sources. Discussion of painting technique examines the dendrochronology of panels (most with barbes) and the development of underdrawing, including increased use of various transfer techniques, building upon but expanding upon earlier insights by Ainsworth (109-19). Galand draws the logical conclusion about the increasing role of the “rigorously controlled” workshop in absorbing prior designs for paintings: “the creative process now too place upstream of the physical production of the artwork.” (112) Portraits, by contrast, show “scant underdrawing.”
We are still not in a position to encompass the entirety of Van Orley’s oeuvre, especially across media, nor is there any documentation of his own pupils, despite claims in the scholarship that both Coecke and Coxcie were his apprentices. No firm evidence places him in Italy or links him to the weaving of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestries in Brusssels, though the influence of that cycle on his art is beyond question. Yet Galand notes that the artist also displays remarkable learning in his obscure religious themes and diverse tapestry commissions for courtly clients. His quotation from other artists and his attention to Italianate architecture further reveal an omnivorous, sophisticated eye. This insightful and thorough examination of Bernard van Orley as a painter through his Brussels works reminds us anew of his pivotal place in sixteenth-century Flemish religious and court artistic culture.
University of Pennsylvania