In northern Europe, the early sixteenth-century art world was crowded with artists of extraordinary talent: Jan Gossart, Bernaert van Orley, and Lucas van Leyden in the Low Countries, as well as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein the Younger in the Germanic countries. Yet Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen has too often been missing from that list. In 2014, the Amsterdam Museum and the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar set out to rectify that omission through two related exhibitions that focused on Jacob, his artistic family, and their workshop.
The catalogue that accompanied these shows is sumptuously illustrated, reproducing every work in color, including the prints and drawings selected. Especially noteworthy is how the vivid images of many newly-cleaned works change our perceptions of Jacob as a colorist. His palette now appears brighter and more saturated. The Naples Nativity with the Boelen Family (cat. no. 13), for example, no longer seems murky, but instead has a joyous glow now of crimson, azure, and gold. The result of such riches is to give those uninitiated in his art a chance to understand the beauty of Jacob Cornelisz’s aesthetic.
This intended evangelism on behalf of Jacob, stated in the foreword, is limited by the catalogue’s availability only in Dutch. While specialists in the field will be able to use the volume to familiarize themselves with the state of Jacob scholarship, a vast number of potential readers will be left in the dark. For enlightenment, that group may turn to the twelve pages of English summary at the end of the catalogue.
Between the catalogue’s covers the current research on Jacob Cornelisz is arranged in short – some, exceedingly short – chapters that are, in turn, divided into topics, making the volume easy to negotiate. The content, however, is more summary than scholarly. For those academics who follow Jacob Cornelisz research, much information will be familiar. The catalogue’s greatest contribution is arguably its interweaving of recent archival discoveries within the discussion. Special attention has been paid to the social structures of Amsterdam, especially Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’s connections to the Catholic institutions of that city and its surroundings. The reader is left with a deeper understanding of Amsterdam as a highly religious city with growing trade and a ship-building industry that gave its citizens a wider world view.
The text also builds upon the archival discoveries of I.H. van Eeghen and of S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, placing Jacob within a wider artistic community, which included at least one brother, as well as sons and nephews, and a grandson. The influence of this artistic dynasty was felt well into the sixteenth century. In addition to family, Jacob’s workshop trained several artists, the most famous of whom was Jan van Scorel. This large atelier allows the authors to addresses the question of workshop production and to point out, correctly, that multiple hands should be acknowledged as present in almost all works at this time. New and better technical investigations have increased our understanding of how workshop members collaborated, and with that knowledge has come ambiguity about “authorship.” The problem, I would suggest, is that we have made the term “workshop” a derogatory label that seems to diminish a painting’s artistic importance. Instead, we should use the term to indicate the complexity and collaborative nature of artistic creation. The catalogue is best at opening up discussions about such broader issues.
One outstanding example of a work created by multiple hands under Jacob Cornelisz’s direction is the Last Judgment ceiling in the St. Lawrence church in Alkmaar. That church was the third venue of the exhibition, and the reinstallation of its painted wooden ceiling was a highlight. The work was found in the Rijksmuseum’s storage, but now it has been newly restored, presenting a rare chance to see a Dutch handling of the popular subject in monumental scale across the vast vaults of the apse. Andrea van Leerdam’s informative essay on this ceiling and others known or conjectured to be by Jacob, considers both the teamwork and the aesthetic needed to create such large-scale works.
This beautiful catalogue meets its intended goal and functions as an introduction to the first recorded artist in Amsterdam. May cultural historians and reception theorists find further inspiration in this volume to broaden our understanding of Jacob Cornelisz.