J. Koldeweij, B. Vermet, P. Vandenbroeck, Hieronymus Bosch. The Complete Paintings and Drawings [Cat. exh. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, September 1 – November 11, 2001]. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, NAi Publishers; Ghent: Ludion, 2001. 240 pp, ca. 200 col. and ca. 70 b&w illus. ISBN 90-5544-358-1
J. Koldeweij, B. Vermet with B. van Kooij, eds., Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights Into His Life and Work. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, NAi Publishers; Ghent: Ludion, 2001. 216 pp. ca. 200 b&w illus. ISBN 90-5662-214-5.
The two books accompanying the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition recently held at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, contain important contributions that expand our knowledge of the art of this world famous, but still enigmatic artist from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The literature on Bosch is enormous, having led cultural and art historians to the wildest speculations in which aspects of heresy, drugs or sodomy are often mentioned. This appeals to the larger public and any show devoted to this artist would likely attract tens of thousands of visitors. For them the exhibition in Rotterdam needed to be made extensive. There are over four hundred loans, ranging from paintings and drawings by Bosch himself to works by his followers. Also included are many examples illustrating the cultural sphere of the late Middle Ages, such as jugs and pilgrim’s badges found in the grounds of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The works by Bosch – only some fifteen undisputed smaller paintings and the seven drawings were on show – were a bit lost in the overwhelming mass of exhibits. Moreover, the works of art and objects were displayed in a rather chaotic way, and there were many complaints about the educational support. The inclusion of contemporary art scattered throughout the exhibition was perceived as distracting – and not only to this reviewer.
The main publication is Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings, which consists of three essays by J. Koldeweij, B. Vermet and P. Vandenbroeck, and a summary catalogue. Surprisingly, the authors opted for not using footnotes which to this reviewer makes it difficult to accept unquestioningly the new insights here presented as established facts. In this review I want to focus on the problem of connoisseurship as it is presented in the catalogue.
The major problem in studying Bosch is the lack of a clear view of his oeuvre. It is of course unfortunate (though entirely understandable) that the large triptychs from the Prado in Madrid or the museums in Lisbon and Vienna, could not be lent to the exhibition. However, almost all of the smaller paintings, some of which are fragments from larger altarpieces were there. Also interesting was the inclusion of paintings once attributed to Bosch or copies after his works. Seeing next to each other so many paintings, one was struck by the varying degrees in quality and artistic vision. This has led the compilers of the catalogue to the conclusion that there must have been something of a family studio, founded by Bosch’s father, Anthonius van Aken, in which Bosch himself and his uncles and brothers were active. They are all mentioned in documents as painters, although no secure works are known by them. Thus the elegant solution that they were all profiting from the success of their relative, the creative genius Hieronymus Bosch, by assisting him in producing Bosch-like paintings, could explain the large numbers and the uneven qualities. No real proof is put forward to corroborate this proposition. In support, however, one can refer to a statement made by the Spanish art lover and collector Felipe de Guevara (c.1560). He writes that Bosch had had a ‘discipulo’, who after the death of his master in 1516 continued to paint in his style – and even better than his master – and who also forged his signature. Of course these paintings were conceived as by Bosch, painted as by Bosch and subsequently sold as by Bosch, whose art was extremely popular throughout the sixteenth century.
Against this speculation, however interesting and creative, the results of the dendrochronological research, which has been conducted over the years by Peter Klein from the University of Hamburg, are as hard as a rock. They are published in Hieronymus Bosch, New Insights Into his Life and Work. By measuring the tree-rings of the panels it is possible to determine the exact year in which a tree was felled. This means that a painting on a panel from a tree that was felled after 1516 cannot be by Bosch. Furthermore, one must consider a larger gap in time, because the wood of a tree cannot be used immediately. The sapwood has to be removed and the wood has to dry. Although he states that a shorter period cannot be ruled out, Peter Klein uses an average period of seventeen years between the felling of the tree and the use of the panel for a painting. This means that any panel dating from after 1499 is suspect. The Hay Wain in the Prado is on a panel from a tree felled in 1508. It is thus published in the book as by Hieronymus Bosch and/or workshop, c.1516 or later. Other paintings are now also given this unfortunate qualification – unfortunate because it means that these paintings are now considered either by Bosch and/or his studio; theTabletop with the Seven Deadly Sins (Prado, Madrid) has been assigned the label Bosch or follower. Altogether this looks like some kind of smoke screen; the result of the unease and indecisiveness of the writers of the catalogue. Since there are no specific accounts for the attributions in the form of footnotes, any art historian is free to use them to his liking.
The list published by Peter Klein of all the panels from trees that were felled during the lifetime of Hieronymus Bosch is without doubt the most important and also spectacular contribution. Not surprisingly, there are on this list paintings that have been rejected as Bosch in the literature but that were for a long time considered to be by him. Thus it is interesting to discover that the Adoration of the Magi (New York, Metropolitan Museum) is on panels from a tree felled in the 1450s. This could well be an early work by Bosch himself – it certainly has high artistic qualitities – and in the past it has been published several times as an original. It is now labelled circle of Hieronymus Bosch and/or workshop, c.1475 or later. Again the label is long but we are at least forced to reconsider the attribution. Peter Klein’s list will undoubtedly form the backbone for any future research on Bosch.
The age-old tradition of connoisseurship should not be abandoned hastily. The copy of the Hay Wain in the Escorial is on a panel from a tree felled in 1496, and this means that it could have been painted by Bosch, starting in 1513. The mediocre quality of the execution, however, rightly has led the compilers of the catalogue to the conclusion that it must be ‘After Hieronymus Bosch,’ c.1516 or later. This feeling for quality, however, seems to be missing in the re-attribution of a painting representing the Seven Deadly Sins. This work was formerly in the collection of the Bob Jones University in Greenville (South Carolina), but is now on the art-market. Clearly a pastiche, it is presented and published as Hieronymus Bosch (signed). Where in other cases the compilers have been scrupulous in their attributions, sometimes to the point of dispute, in this case they have reversed the process. If accepted as genuine, surely the Escorial Hay Wain too is by Hieronymus Bosch since it too carries his signature.
These two publications on Hieronymus Bosch offer many new ideas and insights. However, caution is warranted, for the suggestions or attributions that are put forth, especially in the catalogue, are in many instances controversial. Be that as it may, they will certainly stimulate further discussion.
Paul Huys Janssen
Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch