This volume unites ten papers presented at a symposium at Princeton University, October 13-14, 1995, in conjuction with the exhibition ‘Anatomy of a Painting: The Road to Calvary by Herri met de Bles,’ at The Art Museum, Princeton University (October 10 – November 26, 1995). The painting which occasioned both exhibition and conference had been acquired by Robert A. Koch for the Museum in 1950, and represents one of the artist’s largest works (82.6 x 114.4 cm). Apart from an unpublished dissertation by Luc Serck, this collection of essays is the first major body of work on Bles and his úuvre, and was, if not necessarily in this form, long overdue. Until recently, studies on Flemish landscape painting have either depicted the artist as an awkward follower of Joachim Patinir, or omitted him entirely from their art historical narratives. Yet what little information we have indicates that Bles must have been directing one of the most prolific workshops in sixteenth-century Antwerp, whose landscapes were sought after as far as Italy, and esteemed and copied well into the seventeenth century. Though primarily revolving around the Princeton Road to Calvary, the present book succeeds well in presenting Bles and his circle within the broader context of early Netherlandish landscape painting, examining not only other works by Bles, but also those by his immediate predecessors and contemporaries Joachim Patinir, Pieter Aertsen, Lucas (van) Gassel and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, among others. The emphasis of the contributions is on technical investigation and workshop procedures, with much attention being paid to the study of underdrawings, which has become possible through detailed infrared reflectographical analysis; only three essays deal with iconographical and historical issues.
The papers are divided into four thematic units, each of which is followed by records of the general symposium discussion. The ten conference papers proper are preceded by a brief preface by Betsy Rosasco and Norman Muller an essayistic ‘appreciation’ of the Princeton image by Betsy Rosasco, and the reprint of an article on the panel by Robert A. Koch, which had first been published in the Record of The Art Museum, Princeton University, in 1955. Koch here relates Bles’s Road to Calvary to three drawings in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (one on a single leaf, the other a two-part drawing on two separate pages of a sketchbook), which he identifies as preparatory designs, and proposes a still-valid dating of the panel to c.1535 on stylistic and chronological grounds.
The first section of symposium papers comprises three detailed studies concerned with the scientific analysis, composition and creation history of the Princeton painting. Norman Muller concentrates on the panel’s support, ground layer and painting technique, while Holm Bevers takes a closer look at the Berlin album, singling out other drawings which can be related to paintings by Bles. Both scholars come to different conclusions regarding the function of the Berlin drawings: whereas Muller confirms Koch’s opinion in view of their preparatory nature for the Princeton picture, Bevers argues that all three sketches were executed after a Bles composition (a standpoint which is also taken by Christopher Wood in part three of the volume). This section is concluded by a paper by Luc Serck (published in French), in which he focuses on the compositional make-up of the Princeton panel, and compares his findings to other images of the same iconography, either by Bles and his circle, or by some of his contemporaries; a catalogue of eighteen examples accompanies his remarks.
The next unit is dedicated to other ‘world landscapes’ by Bles, in particular the Landscape with the Offering of Isaac in the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Landscape with John the Baptist in the Cleveland Museum of Art. While Molly Faries and Stephen Bonadies consider the materials and techniques of this panel in the light of recent technical investigations, ending with a comparative discussion of Bles’s working methods and those of Jan van Scorel. Alan Chong looks at the way in which underdrawings can indicate not only the sequence in which an image was painted, but also how important particular elements of the design ranked in the mind of the artist; such information, so the author argues, provides additional clues on the overall meanings of images.
The working methods of some of Bles’s contemporaries are illuminated in the two essays of section three. Christopher Wood examines a series of Flemish landscape drawings on coloured ground, exemplified most prominently by the so-called Errara Sketchbook in the Cabinet des Dessins in Brussels (second quarter of the sixteenth century). Arguing against earlier opinion that these drawings were direct studies from nature, he regards the designs as either copies of existing compositions, or as rehearsal pieces for the future painting of foliage in particular; artistic exchange with German and Swiss masters, who had long experimented with this technique and even replicated it in chiaroscuro woodcut, may have contributed to the promotion of coloured grounds within Netherlandish workshops. The second piece, by Maryan W. Ainsworth, investigates the production procedures of mid-sixteenth-century Flemish landscape painting, especially those of the anonymous Master LC and Lucas (van) Gassel.
In the last three papers, the úuvre of Bles is contextualized iconographically, historically and culturally. Walter S. Gibson discovers that despite the fact that Bles received relatively little acclaim in contemporary and later historiographical literature, his pictures elicited quite a different response from both the art-buying public and artists in the sixteenth century and long thereafter. Attracting the attention of collectors such as Emperor Rudolf II, his paintings became popular to such an extent that during the seventeenth century Bles’s name was commonly used to designate almost any old Flemish landscape, even by his rival Patinir. Bles’s compositions were also avidly copied and adapted by painters working in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, such as Aegidius Sadeler, Jan Breughel the Elder and Paul Bril. The following paper by Akira Kofuku begins with an intriguing comparison between the mountainous landscapes of sixteenth-century Flemish artists (including Bles) and those of contemporary Japanese painters, Sesshû in particular, and proceeds with a discussion of what the author calls ‘simultaneous representation’ in Netherlandish art, that is the inclusion of multiple narratives into a single picture. Bles’s Landscape with John the Baptistin the Cleveland Museum of Art, which unites three scenes from the Baptist’s life in a single landscape, is exemplary of this trend (see also the contribution by Chong). In a final essay, Reindert L. Falkenburg examines the relevance of marginal figures and scenes in sixteenth-century landscape painting, such as the peasant who sits back to front on his horse in Pieter Aertsen’s Road to Calvary (formerly Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; destroyed). Tracing both function and subject matter of these motifs back to the marginal illustrations of medieval manuscripts, Falkenburg considers such details as ‘pictorial antipodes,’ or ‘parodic image rhymes,’ which through their inversive nature provide a moralizing gloss on the central theme of the image.
This volume being a collection of essays essentially structured around a single painting, a systematic coverage of all the aspects of Bles’s work can of course not be expected. However, the publication’s positivistic stress on issues such as authorship and artistic working procedures has left little room for a broader discussion of the intellectual and cultural framework within which an image such as the Road to Calvary was conceived, used and appreciated. The essays by Gibson, Kofuku and Falkenburg have addressed some of these problems, but many other questions are left unanswered. How were such paintings used, and who were their likely audiences? In what ways might the use of Bles’s Road to Calvary have differed from that of one of his ‘industrial’ landscapes, showing ironworks or a forge? How exactly did Bles and his contemporaries use landscape elements to underpin the symbolic content of their narratives (in the Princeton painting, for example, a tall tree appears to grow from the patibulum of Christ’s cross)? What was Bles’s contribution to the iconography of the Calvary theme? Does this image relate to other visual and devotional experiences, such as the experience of landscape Bles and the audience of his pictures might have had while walking along open-air Stations of the Cross? As far as the term ‘world landscape’ is concerned, one could have wished for at least one essay to deal more consistently with this phenomenon, especially as it is explicitly referred to in the subtitle of this book (only Falkenburg’s article contains a brief discussion of this genre). This is all the more unfortunate since one of the contributors to this volume, Walter Gibson, is the author of a seminal study on world landscape painting. Philine Helas has recently demonstrated that the idea of ‘Weltenlandschaft’ is by no means relegated to sixteenth-century northern art, an impression one might get from reading the present book _ but can equally be found in works by earlier painters such as Jan van Eyck, Jacopo Bellini and Piero della Francesca (Philine Helas, “Porträt und Weltenlandschaft,” in Christiane Kruse and Felix Thürlemann (eds), Jan van Eycks Rolin-Madonna im ästhetischen Kontext, Tübingen: Narr, 1999, pp. 31-49).
Finally, a note about the illustrations. Editors and publisher have undoubtedly aimed for a quantitatively well-illustrated, but affordable publication. But given the fact that one of the appeals and challenges of these landscapes lies in their complexity and richness of detail, many of the reproductions, often smaller in size than the surface of a matchbox. are absolutely insufficient. A study of the papers by Serck, Gibson, Kofuku and Falkenburg in particular promises to be a great challenge for anybody’s optical nerves. These criticisms should however not obscure the fact that this volume is likely to become a standard work on Bles and, more generally, sixteenth-century northern landscape painting for years to come, broadening the art historical canon and updating antiquated scholarly narratives. The reviewer, himself a medievalist, will certainly approach these fascinating images better informed, and with a much greater sense of what exactly to look for.
Getty Postdoctoral Fellow
A note from the editor:
Since the publication of the Princeton volume, a comprehensive exhibition on Herri met de Bles took place in Namur (May 13 – November 1, 2000), with a catalogue edited by Jacques Toussaint:Autour de Henri Bles (see below under New Titles), as well as a symposium, also in Namur, of which the proceedings will be published (see above).