Studying artists in Rubens’s shadow is notoriously difficult for it takes time, empathy and a thorough understanding of Northern Baroque to distinguish between the inventions of the omnivorous Rubens and the talented artists in his sphere. In many cases, the artists under scrutiny end up to be described as decent craftsmen, intellectually unable to compete with the famous master himself. Somehow Rubens seems to always take the credits in the end. Moreover, it is a phenomenon in art history in general to sympathize with the genius and to confirm their iconic status in the work of their competitors. The fact that the lesser known were in many cases smart, creative, and fascinating thinkers in their own right is too often neglected and sometimes dismissed. No one will ever doubt the mesmerizing creativity and intellectual impact of for instance Rubens, but studying early seventeenth-century Flemish art from a Rubenist perspective is highly problematic as it places other artists a priori in a subordinate position.
Blaise Ducos’s pioneering study is different, in that it examines the oeuvre of Frans Pourbus the Younger for its own merits. Following the traditional setup of a monograph, Ducos starts with an introduction, followed by a catalogue raisonné. Both sections are exceptionally elaborate and will no doubt serve as a point of reference in the years to come. The extensive introduction to the oeuvre of Pourbus, written in a very enjoyable French, consists of 5 chapters, all subdivided in several paragraphs, more or less following the master’s life and times. Frans Pourbus the Younger grew up in Antwerp as the son of Frans Pourbus the Elder and the grandson of Pieter Pourbus of Bruges. Orphaned at the age of 12 and after a misty period of training – probably in diverse workshops – Pourbus became an independent Antwerp master in 1591 and set out for an impressive international career first in Mantua and later in France, working at both courts.
The catalogue raisonné is well structured (chronologically) and, just like the introduction, superbly illustrated. It consists of two parts (paintings and drawings) which both are subdivided into specific categories. As for the paintings, Ducos distinguishes between autograph, workshop (‘en collaboration avec des assistants’) and rejected. The drawings are simply catalogued as accepted or not. This, of course, is a rigid approach to connoisseurship for in some cases it is hard to distinguish between autograph, workshop, copy, etc. Such a severe division tends to result in the recurrent use of the word ‘quality’ as a clincher, leaving no room for the fallibility of the artist – and the art historian. In my opinion, a section of problematic attributions (such as the interesting painted copy made at the age of 10 after one of his fathers prints – not included in the catalogue) would have been preferable.
The biggest achievement of Blaise Ducos’s award winning (Prix Richtenberger) and comprehensive monograph on Frans Pourbus the Elder is to sketch the portrait of an accomplished painter. It was a daunting task accomplished con brio. Frans Pourbus’s life and oeuvre are described with the skill and precision of an Eyckian portrait. The strength of this monograph however is also its Achilles heel, for Ducos uses ‘la logique interne’ or the internal logic of the oeuvre as a concept (e.g. p. 33) to explain the coherency and independency of Pourbus’s work as compared to for instance the work of Rubens. Occasionally making abstraction of the historical circumstances such as his training, changing patronage, changing entourages, different sojourns at the Italian and French courts Ducos implicitly argues for a Hegelian reading of the artist’s’s oeuvre. In the case of Pourbus it seems hard to argue though that there is indeed a ‘logique interne’, in particular because his early work with its Adriaen Thomasz. Key-ish strive for physiognomic precision and made for the Antwerp bourgeois elite contrasts sharply with the idealist portraits he subsequently made at the Italian and French courts. Idealization in portraiture was a highly problematic issue in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century portraiture (as one can read in plenty of contemporary art theories and theologies such as Gabriele Paleotti’s Discorso intorno alle imagine sacri et profane). It is therefore dangerous to explain shifts in naturalism, as striking and dramatic as in the oeuvre of Pourbus, with such a concept in mind. While Ducos addresses the problem of naturalism and idealization directly in some paragraphs in chapter 4, it is discussed from a stylistic perspective. A broader approach partially based on contemporary art-theoretical and art-theological discussions would have been more desirable here, I believe.
However, this small conceptual note is not to diminish the qualities of this volume, but rather to open up the discussion on the interference of art theory, art theology and portraiture in the early modern era. Ducos’s milestone monograph on one of Europe’s most distinguished Baroque portrait painters can serve as an excellent point of departure since the oeuvre of this particular master shifted so dramatically between two contrasting approaches. Joanna Woodall’s diverging and challenging arguments on this matter in her monograph on Anthonis Mor – a painter who made a similar career half a century earlier – and Ann Jenson Adams’s stimulating ideas on civic portraiture in the Dutch Republic can also serve as points of departure to address this vital topic.
In sum, Ducos’s monograph on Frans Pourbus is an important addition to the many monographs on Early Modern Dutch and Flemish painters, appearing at a steady pace over the last two decades.
University of Ghent