Dirk De Vos, Rogier van der Weyden. The Complete Works.Antwerp:Ê Mercatorfonds; New York: Abrams, 1999. 445 pp, 500 illus., 350 in col. ISBN 0-8109-6390-6.
Albert Châtelet, Rogier van der Weyden (Rogier de le Pasture). Paris: Gallimard, 1999. 147 pp, 101 col., 54 b&w illus. ISBN 2-07-011613-1.
Albert Châtelet, Rogier van der Weyden. Problèmes de la vie et de l’ouevre.Ê Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1999. 302 pp, no illus. ISBN 2-86820-076-1.
Elisabeth Dhanens and Jellie Dijkstra, Rogier de le Pasture van der Weyden. Introduction à l’oeuvre. Relecture des sources. Tournai: La Renaissance du Livre, 1999. 208 pp, 49 col., 14 b&w illus. ISBN 2-8046-0306-7.
1999 marked the 600th anniversary of the birth of Rogier van der Weyden, prompting a series of publications devoted to the great master. The four books reviewed here form part of this celebration and reflect the continued admiration for and fascination with the creations of this marvelous painter.
Dirk De Vos’s massive Rogier van der Weyden is the most lavish of these tributes. Intended as a new catalogue raisonneé, it is opulently illustrated with superb colour photographs that do justice to the exquisite beauty and technical mastery of Rogier’s work. It updates Martin Davies’s magisterial Rogier van der Weyden: An Essay, with a Critical Catalogue of Paintings Assigned to him and to Robert Campin(London 1972) and permits the study of paintings in all their glory. Part I, ‘Prologue,’ opens with an essay on the Prado Descent which eloquently demonstrates the superlative artistic achievements that assured the painter renown for over half a millennium. De Vos then considers the historical facts of Rogier’s life and career. He concludes this section with an overview of the state of painting in Tournai between 1400 and 1435-1440, the time of Rogier’s residence, training, and first professional experience in his native city. De Vos grapples with the question of which works might have been produced by Robert Campin and which by his assistants, including Rogier. A dendrochronological table of panels associated with the Campin workshop closes this discussion.
Part II, ‘The Oeuvre’, takes into account the outpouring of Early Netherlandish Painting and Rogier van der Weyden studies in the last decades of the twentieth century. De Vos addresses the discovery that Rogier retained his workshop in Tournai until 1435, working there as a full-fledged professional for three years before moving to Brussels; that theMiraflores Triptych is an original work rather than a copy, and the Crucifixion from the Abbey at Scheut (Escorial since 1574) – a gift from Rogier himself – which broadens the corpus on which to build his oeuvre; he also notes the advances in technical studies that have aided scholars in dating individual works. Despite these strides in knowledge and methodologies, however, De Vos’s evaluation of Rogier’s production is rooted profoundly in stylistic judgements, and his construction of the chronology of the master’s works appears to reside in highly subjective assessments of the qualities of individual paintings. The chapter entitled ‘Abstraction and Style in Devotional Paintings and Portraits’ in particular suffers from stylistic teleology and abstract reasoning. The chapter devoted to painting techniques employed by Rogier and his contemporaries, on the other hand, offers a very useful overview that would be beneficial to students. De Vos concludes this section with an exposition on Rogier’s workshop assistants, more involved in the master’s output than has been previously believed, which accounts for variations in the style and quality of works associated with him (and potentially undermines De Vos’s stylistic arguments for chronology).
Part III, ‘Catalogue’, streamlines Rogier’s oeuvre to 36 paintings. The well-written and clearly laid out entries, illustrated with colour reproductions and comparanda, constitute an excellent resource for studying individual creations, their fortunes, and critical histories. ‘Appendices’ treat ‘Problematic Attributions’, ‘Lost Works and Drawings’, and ‘Recent Misattributions’. The book closes with a collection of documents; an extensive bibliography, a list of exhibitions, and a topographical index of works by Rogier and his followers.
Albert Châtelet’s two publications are intended to complement one another. Rogier van der Weyden (Rogier de le Pasture) is essentially a picture book. It begins with a general introduction to the artist, his career, production, and esthetic achievements, and is followed by a set of fine colour illustrations of his works arranged chronologically and accompanied by brief discussion of the subject and visual elements of each painting. The book’s chief aim is to serve as a series of pictorial essays. Larger panels, for example, are first shown in a general view, then ‘elaborated’ through close-ups. Many details are reproduced true-to-size, and are denoted as such by occupying the entire page without any borders. The reader and viewer is thus presented with an opportunity to scrutinize and appreciate not only the overall composition, colour choices, and emotional and intellectual qualities of the pictures, but also their impact in a one-to-one encounter.
Rogier van der Weyden. Problèmes de la vie et de l’oeuvre, provides a thorough scholarly apparatus. In the introduction, entitled ‘Pour un centenaire . . . ‘, Châtelet passionately laments the dearth of a more public celebration of Rogier’s life and art, particularly the failure to organize an exhibition of the master’s work on what he sees as the flimsy excuse of the fragility of the painted panels. He then presents his two volumes, as well as acknowledges De Vos’s catalogue, as the next best way to honour the Walloon painter (nationalist sentiments clearly continue to animate the study of Early Netherlandish art). Châtelet’s stated aim is to do so by offering his re-assessment of the master alongside the full apparatus necessary for this task.
Châtelet addresses the critical fortune of the artist, presents and evaluates documents pertaining to him (noting, where appropriate, key arguments put forth by other scholars), and adds known facts about Rogier’s family. Châtelet’s discussion of historiography of the painter from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century includes rarely cited contemporary praise of the master in the Burgundian milieu: Vasque de Lucène mentions him, alongside Jan van Eyck, as an artist equal in renown in his own day to Lysippus at the time of Alexander the Great. Châtelet also considers problematic aspects of Rogier’s career – his early years and apprenticeship, the chronology of his works and his working methods. The rest of the book is devoted to the catalogue of paintings (the reader is referred to specific illustrations in Châtelet’s pictorial volume as well as Friedländer’s Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flémalle (1967)). The catalogue offers standard information on the imagery, critical fortune, provenance, and exhibition history of each work, its technical properties, and its bibliography. An extensive bibliography for the whole study closes the book.
Finally, Rogier de le Pasture van der Weyden, is a two-part volume in the ‘Collection Référence’ series: it is comprised of two sets of essays composed by two scholars working independently of each other. Part I, ‘Introduction à l’Oeuvre’, by Jellie Dijkstra consists of nine brief summaries of Rogier’s career, documented works, new themes and compositions he introduced into the repertory of contemporary art, the role of the atelier in his production, contacts with Italian art, Rogier as a city painter, and Rogier’s influence on other artists. The text presents an extremely cursory overview of these topics and is illustrated with colour reproductions of rather indifferent quality; indeed, several photographs are out of focus.Ê
Dijkstra’s contribution provides the background for Part II, ‘Relecture des Sources’, written by Elisabeth Dhanens, whose essays constitute a translation of the author’s 1995 volume Rogier van der Weyden, Revisie van de documenten. (A few more documents illuminating Rogier’s Tournai period have been added to the French translation, as has chronological list of attributions of his paintings.) Based on the complete set of published documents relating to Rogier, included at the end of her contribution, Dhanens re-considers the nature of these sources, their errors, and probabilities. She treats such issues as Rogier’s name and relationship with the Van Eycks (suggesting Rogier’s training in the workshop of Hubert van Eyck in Ghent), his documented activities in Tournai and Brussels, the nature of the Justice panels produced for the Brussels town hall and other recorded commissions, the painter’s social attainments at home and reception abroad, and his posthumous his-toriography. In many cases Dhanens’s analysis does not differ significantly from that of other scholars who have pondered the same ‘facts’, and while she re-reads the documents, she does not necessarily re-think them in particularly novel ways.
It is somewhat puzzling as to what audience this book seeks to reach. Dijkstra’s essays are too brief and superficial to be of use to specialists; Dhanens’s text too involved for the general reader. The photographs are too few and unsatisfactory as an attraction in themselves. Perhaps the book is intended for those who are unable to read Dutch but wish to follow Dhanens’s arguments in French. De Vos’s volume, meanwhile, is undoubtedly a worthwhile investment for scholars in the field and well-heeled art lovers, but its cost, well over $100, might be prohibitive to students and the general public. Châtelet’s picture book is a more affordable alternative, but not readily available in the United States. His other volume, however, is a must for students of Rogier van der Weyden, as his collection and discussion of documents offers a complete set of available data and its thoughtful analysis.
The four volumes discussed above demonstrate the liveliness of Rogier van der Weyden and Early Netherlandish Painting studies, and variations in approaches to the same body of material. All these scholars seek to define the painter’s oeuvre and establish its chronology; the divergencies in their conclusions are dictated less by the ‘facts’ than by their personal interests and hobby-horses. Indeed, for all the advances in methodologies and documentary research, their readings of Rogier’s work remains somewhat subjective enterprises, and in that sense, the personal tribute of each scholar to the great master.
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