Apparently they do make artist monographs the way they used to do. This massive tome, dedicated to one of the great yet neglected Netherlandish artists of the sixteenth century, fills a massive lacuna, only previously treated fifty years ago by Carl Van de Velde in his definitive dissertation, which, however, was published only in Dutch with all black-and-white images by the Belgian Royal Academy (1974). At last, Frans Floris, a truly ambitious Renaissance artist in Antwerp and a major model for Rubens in the next century, gets his due from the distinguished Senior Lecturer at Manchester, Edward Wouk. Following on Wouk’s 2011 New Hollstein volume about Floris’s print designs, this long-awaited, deeply contextual, book is lavishly illustrated with meticulous color reproductions by Brill within the excellent series edited by Walter Melion. We are all beneficiaries of this important analysis.
Floris usually appears only as a foil to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his exact contemporary; both artists began their careers at mid-century and worked for two decades in Antwerp. Like Bruegel, Floris created designs for prints and left behind drawings as well as paintings. But Floris turned deliberately toward the Renaissance in Italy and adopted the ideal, beautiful human figure as the center of his art-making. Yet Wouk also insists on his “hybridity,” visibly adhering to Netherlandish conventions for altarpieces and major history subjects as Floris fashioned his brand, marked by both ideality of bodies and erudition that stems from Italy but also from a regional tradition exemplified by Gossart and Scorel before him. Despite losses of some religious works during iconoclasm, which compromise our full appreciation of Floris, Wouk analyzes a large corpus, inflected toward mythology and print designs during the same religious crisis. He also sets out to redress the biases conditioned by the definition of national schools and the defining “vernacular” art of Bruegel, which obscures that very hybridity of achievement attained by Frans Floris.
After an Introduction that surveys early responses to the artist, including both Vasari and Lomazzo, Wouk establishes the Frans Floris biography within a family of artists, including his brother, sculptor-architect Cornelis. If Van Mander’s account of his virtuosity admixes professional diligence with drinking, Floris’s own signatures celebrate invention along with facture. Wouk endorses Van de Velde’s suggestion about early training with Pieter Coecke. From Liège Floris’s documented, formative teacher Lambert Lombard preceded him to Rome in 1538 (emulating Scorel), as did Cornelis Floris; Frans was there in the mid-1540s (Chapter Three), then he made his splashy public debut back in Antwerp with an arch decoration in the 1549 civic entry of Philip II for the Genoese “nation” (beautifully analyzed in Chapter Four). That major commission featured monumental mythologies, suited for the Habsburgs but also derived from Perino del Vaga’s program for Charles V’s prior entry of 1533 into Genoa.
The rich Lombard-Floris connection is a major contribution by Wouk, anticipated by his prize-winning Simiolus article (2012) about Lombard’s emphasis on drawing and invention as well as learning, especially from antiquity. Building on Morton Hansen’s Michelangelo insights, Wouk also asserts the importance of selective artistic imitation of the antijcse stijl (including Roman contemporaries, even Vasari, and Raphael’s followers, such as Perino) as a response brought back from Italy. He also contrasts Floris to Heemskerck, using Basel Sketchbook compositions, usually neglected.
The bulk of the study is organized thematically, beginning with the all-important workshop (Chapter Five) and the related tronies (Chapter Six, paired with the significant rare portraits), both practices also formative for Rubens. A major chapter (Eight) engages with the patronage of Niclaes Jongelinck for the series of Hercules Labors (1555) as well as the Liberal Arts (1557), several of which were relocated by Van de Velde (2006), and also including the Ponce Awakening of the Arts (ca. 1559). Anticipating Rubens’s practice in the next century, Floris’s cycles for Jongelinck also emerged as prints by Cornelis Cort from Hieronymus Cock’s presses. For Jongelinck’s entire patronage, classical ideals of the villa suburbana (tied also to Bruegel’s rural Months) shaped the art, which Wouk also links to Lucas d’Heere’s poetry anthology, Hof en boomgaerd der Poësien, and which he sees as inclusive and based on appropriate decorum of style rather than binary opposites, as earlier interpretations of d’Heere about Bruegel have insisted. Both painters reshaped Netherlandish painting here within a pictorial dialectic of modes but also within a common framework.
Chapter Nine focuses on a single work, Allegory of the Trinity (1562; Louvre), already discussed by Wouk in Art History (2015) as a reconsideration of religion, a “loss of faith” by Floris in the religious contests of the 1560s: “a church without Mary on an altarpiece painted for no altar” (p. 414). Instead of altarpieces, in this final decade of his output Floris increasingly shifted his focus on ideal figures (Chapter Ten) to allegories and mythologies, neutralizing and detaching aesthetics from the earlier functionality of his works. During that decade Floris turned even more toward print series designs for Cort, as if in address back to Fontainebleau, Italy, and a wider audience. His move toward independent cabinet pictures and drawing collections altered the very nature of Netherlandish pictorial address toward the private and mobile. Wouk also notes the later influence of Titian’s poesie for female types but especially for novel facture, detached brushwork and impasto. Moreover, in allegories made to decorate his famous house façade in Antwerp (destroyed 1816; Chapter Eleven) Floris used personifications to lay out a program for the sister arts, attuned to an independent artist with a personal studio. Wouk calls it “intellectualization of the artist’s practice and elevation of his manual work” (472). These major individual shifts by Floris need to be incorporated into all wider assessments of the status of the image during the period of iconoclasm and the early Dutch Revolt (Coda).
This brief review remains inadequate to convey the riches of Wouk’s book. Additionally, a full Appendix apparatus – with documents, checklist of paintings, drawings, and prints – rounds out this comprehensive study, one of the finest life-and-works monographs ever published on an early modern Netherlandish artist. Wouk has steeped himself in the midcentury Antwerp art world and in the prints as well as the paintings of Floris since his dissertation, and he has taken the fullness of time to bring this magnificent study to completion. Here, too, “ripeness is all.”
University of Pennsylvania