Born in Herentals, near Antwerp, Frans Francken the Elder, pupil of Frans Floris, became a master in Antwerp in 1567/68, acquiring citizenship March 31, 1568. In order to distinguish between the three painters of the Francken dynasty named Frans, convenience has dictated the use of Roman numerals, as in this case Frans I, in contrast to Frans II (1581-1642) and Frans III (1607-1667). Peeters, a former student of Carl Van de Velde’s, presumes that when Floris died in 1579, leaving a mountain of debt, it was Frans Francken I, together with Frans Pourbus and Cripijn van den Broeck, who helped to complete unfinished works left by the older master.
A catalogue of Frans Francken I’s oeuvre (cat. nos. 1-33) is preceded by chapters placing the artist within his historical context after the iconoclastic riots and the accession of Antwerp and the Southern Netherlands by the Spanish Habsburgs, initially under the rule of Archduke Ernest, later of Albert and Isabella. The author succeeds in integrating into the tangled political web of the time the works produced by the Floris offspring in Frans I’s early workshop (1567/68-1577; 51-68], the altarpieces executed by Frans during the Calvinist period (1577-1585; 69-90), the large altarpieces of 1585-ca. 1594 (91-111), or the later ones until ca. 1600 (125-145) up to the last commissions for Sint-Waldetrudiskerk in Herentals until ca. 1610 (147-159). This overview is supported by Peeters’s thorough examination and interpretation of the sources which together with the master’s portrait holding palette and brushes by Frans Pourbus II (Florence, Uffizi; pls. 5, 55) and Anthony van Dyck’s later etching (pls. 1, 19) succeeds in presenting a convincing image of the artist.
The chapters outlined above convey the artistic core of Frans Francken I’s production. It is his altarpieces and triptychs that created his wealth and that of his wife and children after his death (Chapter X discusses the painter’s death in 1616; the inventory of his estate is printed on pp. 285-301). It is only in Chapter VII on the “Blide Intrede” of Archduke Ernest of Austria in 1595 and that of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella in 1599 that we learn about a different aspect of Frans’s artistic endeavours (113-124). For the entry of Archduke Ernest, he travelled to Brussels to portray (“uyt te trecken”) his Majesty, Philip II, the Infanta Isabella, the Prince of Spain (Philip of Asturias, the future King Philip III) and the Archduke (“van zijne Mat, dInfante ende den prince van spagnien met de hoocheyt vanden Eertshertoghe Ernestus”, 245, already in Joz. Van den Branden, Antwerpse Schilderschool, 253). Presumably Francken’s experience with donor portraits which often are parts of altarpieces formed the basis for this commission of independent portraits, such as those listed in the painter’s inventory as “Conterfeytselen vande Princen ende anderssints van cleynder importantie,” as well as no less than “26 tronie paneelen.” The only princely portrait that has survived is the full-length likeness of the young Philip of Asturias of 1594 (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten; cat. 17). From the beginning of 1594 Frans I worked together with his brother Ambrosius Francken on the decorations for the festive entry at the side of the most famous artists of the time, among them Marten de Vos. The subjects presented on the various stages were of mythological or allegorical content (114-121), subjects which previously had interested the artist only during the time immediately following his apprenticeship with Frans Floris.
Although the chapter headings referred to above in the chronologically arranged book inform the reader adequately about the chapters’ contents, it is unfortunate that this complex and informative book does not have an index. For example, we know that among the apprentices in Frans I’s studio besides the important masters Geldorp Gortzius and Herman van der Mast (54) was also a certain Goeyevart Mercelis (Liggeren I, 283, in 1582). An index would make it easier to follow subsequent mention of these important apprentices.
We only have one small-scale, small-figured painting attributed to Frans I: Christ Carrying the Cross with Saint Veronica in Dresden (cat. 20). If Peeters – in consensus with the present writer – denies Frans I’s role as precursor of small-scale cabinet pictures (154ff), the question remains which member of the Francken dynasty introduced this special genre so quickly and enduringly into Antwerp, a genre that was intensively and lastingly supported by Frans I’s son Frans II (1581-1642) and his large studio, as well as his brother Hieronymus II (1578-1623).
One of the most significant and best known works by Frans I is the schoolmasters’ and soap-boilers’ triptych in Onze-Lieve Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerp, for which it was painted in 1587 (cat. 11). The central panel with Christ among the Doctors includes among the scholars surrounding Christ, Martin Luther, Calvin, Erasmus and members of the guilds. Thanks to Peeters’s extensive reading of the surviving documents, we learn that the canon of the cathedral, Reynier van Brakel, conceived the altarpiece (224ff), as well as who paid for what during its execution. In fact, we can inform ourselves of its almost daily progress, discovering in the course that shortly before completion a portrait of the merchant Jacob de Santa Cruz was incorporated into the composition, although we do not know where. Similarly, the catalogue contains works which today are known only through documents.
The most unusual among the – at least partially – surviving works is the triptych with double wings whose central panel with The Crucifixion with Saints Francis and Clare however is lost (cat. 5, fig. 3 a-b-c, reconstruction). What survives are eight curved and 24 relatively small panels, ca. 88 x 62 cm, with the lives of Christ and the Virgin and two larger exterior panels with The Last Supper (all Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten). Opened, the altarpiece would have measured 4 x 6 m, comparable to the Ghent Altarpiece. In the past attributed to Marten de Vos or Frans Pourbus (206), Peeters allocates the work to the early period of Frans Francken I. As with so many of the large panels, we may suspect the participation of other family members, such as Ambrosius I, as well as apprentices and assistants, which however cannot be documented. All in all, Natasja Peeters offers a well-grounded, detailed, informative and even diverting account of altar panel painting, so often treated in a rather dry manner. “I hear the message loud and clear, alas, I still lack …” the index.
Translated by Kristin Belkin