Two important publications have appeared on the art of tapestry maker, painter, printer, publisher, and stained glass designer, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aelst, 1502 – Brussels, 1550). The main work is the catalog of a spectacular exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Elizabeth Cleland. The other is a long article in Master Drawings by the Met’s Curator of Drawings, Stijn Alsteens. By itself, the catalogue is a boon to Coecke studies. But Alsteens’s article is also a major contribution.
We have long known that Coecke was an artist of consequence. He trained under Bernard van Orley, enriched Netherlandish visual culture with knowledge gained on his sojourns to both Italy and Turkey, enjoyed appointments to Mary of Hungary and Charles V, and received effusive praise from Guicciardini, Lampsonius, and van Mander. His Last Supper is perhaps the most important post-Leonardo Netherlandish interpretation of the subject, prototype for several mid-century variations. Coecke also figured prominently in Antwerp’s Blidje Incompst of Charles V and Prince Philip (1549). The triumph featured his colossal sculpture, the Giant of Antwerp (destroyed), and the prints he designed to commemorate the occasion are an indispensable record of Netherlandish antiquarianism at mid-century.
Since Coecke’s time, however, he has proven difficult to encapsulate. Lampsonius’s panegyric focuses almost exclusively on his translations into French and Dutch of Serlio’s architectural treatises, suggesting not only that this was Coecke’s achievement that he valued most, but also that it was Coecke’s only work that he knew well. Van Mander’s biography suggests a broader awareness of Coecke’s artistic range. But he offers little detail on the tapestries, paintings, or treatises, and devotes most of his descriptions to one work he surely had seen: Coecke’s posthumously published printed frieze, The Customs and Fashions of the Turks (1553). The slight substance in these early proclamations of Coecke’s importance is doubtless due in part to a lack of signature works across multiple media, which obscured formulations of his “signature manner.”
These conditions have also plagued modern Coecke scholarship. His painted oeuvre presents a morass of attribution problems. Wary of works perhaps by lesser lights from Coecke’s bustling workshop, Max Friedländer (1935/1975) only gave Coecke 22 paintings. Georges Marlier (1966) insisted that only three works belonged irrefutably to Coecke, but credited fully 278 panels and 72 drawings to his extended circle and large workshop. No catalogues raisonnés have appeared since Marlier. Meanwhile, scholars, including Josua Bruyn, Nicole Dacos, Iain Buchanan, Krista de Jonge, and more recently Annick Born and Stijn Bussels, have deepened our understanding of Coecke with studies of specific tapestries, treatises, or prints. Thus, the time has ripened for a holistic account of Coecke’s artistry.
The two publications under review validate Marlier’s suggestion that Coecke’s mind facilitated far more work than his hand executed. Aiming to present the whole Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Grand Design’sElizabeth Cleland has put Coecke’s tapestry production at the center of his artistic universe, drawing into its orbit associated works in other media. “The key to Coecke’s artistry,” according to Cleland, tapestry increasingly occupied his time and artistry. Thus, she submits, it resonates in his remaining oeuvre, especially in his paintings and even in his prints. This cross-media approach has precedent. Since Friedländer, the Turkish prints – originally intended as tapestry designs themselves – have served as the definitive stylistic standard-bearer in attempts to answer Coecke-related attribution questions in all media.
Still, across the catalogue, Cleland’s tapestry-centered approach yields fresh insights. Maryan Ainsworth’s unprecedented detailed study of Coecke’s painting technique reveals a closer relation than previously suspected between his painted and woven figures; as his engagement with tapestry deepened from the 1520s on, Coecke’s underdrawings came to resemble his tapestry cartoons. This major discovery yields concrete results. For example, Ainsworth convincingly re-attributes Hester Diamond’s Adoration of the Magi triptych (1520–25) to Coecke, a work long ascribed to his earliest master, Jan Mertens van Dornicke. After a short essay by Sarah Mallory that walks us through the early modern tapestry production process, Stijn Alsteens parses Coecke’s tapestry cartoons, locating them at the heart of his practice.
These synthetic analyses give way to shorter essays introducing Coecke’s major works. Nadine Orenstein traces the production and reception of The Customs and Fashions of the Turks. Incisive essays by Buchanan, Guy Delmacel, Katja Schmitz-von Ledebur, Lorraine Karafel, Concha Herrero Carretero, Cecilia Paredes, Lucia Meoni, and Nello Forti Grazzini introduce specific tapestry sets, most notably The Seven Deadly Sins, The Story of Julius Caesar, Vertumnus and Pomona, and Coecke’s famous collaboration with Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen, The Conquest of Tunis. Readers may find navigating Grand Design difficult; entries for individual works do not appear together at the end of the catalogue, but after each introductory essay, seemingly scattered throughout the book.
Stijn Alsteens’s preparation for the exhibition led him to extend his study of Coecke’s drawings to a miniature catalogue, published separately in Master Drawings. Alsteens’s article is the first to assemble all 71 sheets now associated with Coecke. Aiming to clarify attributions, he presents drawings in three groups: 41 drawings accepted as autograph; 17 cartoons and cartoon fragments, perhaps by Coecke or his workshop; and 13 copies of drawings from Coecke’s workshop. Alsteens has added a handful of sheets to Coecke’s oeuvre, most notably a subtly shaded preparatory sketch for the Fall of the Giants print and a stunning watercolor of a Cellinesque nautilus cup. Readers wanting more thorough explanations for these attributions must turn to Grand Design. In general, one wishes this article were longer, so that Alsteens’s apparently nuanced vision of Coecke’s manner could receive fuller elaboration.
Together, these publications offer ample testimony that tapestry, not painting, was indeed Coecke’s central artistic concern. Moreover, they more fullly indicate the primacy of drawing for his entire practice. This process remained especially pertinent across the profusion of collaborative scenarios in which Coecke engaged, where a host of specialists executed his designs. Given Raphael’s influence on Coecke’s practice, his mastery of collaboration through drawings is hardly surprising; transforming Raphael’s cartoons into tapestries doubtless became a formative experience for him. Thus, future work on Coecke, which could expand our thinking on his Italian experience, will benefit greatly from these landmark studies, both of which provide a compelling foundation for such pursuits.
Savannah College of Art