Considering that Jacob Jordaens was the most prolific designer for tapestry in the Southern Netherlands in the seventeenth century, it is remarkable that up until now we have had to rely on Max Rooses’s monograph of 1906, supplemented by valuable input from Roger d’Hulst’s catalogue of the artist’s drawings dating from 1974. With the publication of Kristi Nelson’s Jacob Jordaens: Design for Tapestries,that lacuna in our knowledge of the artist has been most satisfactorily filled. Based on her doctoral thesis, lost, the author implies, in the mists of time, three generations of ‘nearest and dearest’ are acknowledged, the text has been fully updated, and probably extensively revised. The result is a glorified catalogue raisonné in the manner of the best volumes in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard series. The book is generously illustrated in black and while, but one does wish for occasional splash of colour, not only to reveal the qualities of the tapestry, but also to illuminate the artist’s changing attitude to colour.
Compared to Rubens’s four series of tapestries, Jordaens was responsible for seven, plus additions to the former’s History of Achilles,amounting in total to 61 subjects accepted by Nelson. But, as the latter makes clear in her comprehensive introductory overview of tapestry making, the older artist led the field in his approach to the medium. Yet Jordaens had his own contribution to make and his own way of working; not for nothing was he enrolled in the guild as awaterschilder, the significance of which is analysed here. He probably started by working for the older artist, and, as Nelson argues, only began making his own tapestry designs about 1630, which is a decade later than usually supposed. Compared with the high intellectualism of Rubens’s approach to iconography, Jordaens took a more casual and relaxed attitude to his subjects. Nelson, for example, describes his very popular series of Scenes from Country Life as ‘innovative and unique’, consisting of ‘rustic subjects derived from a variety of traditions that had never been grouped together previously’. Overall his choice of themes, whether determined by himself or others, was wide; it represented both the humanist culture of Antwerp (series devoted to Alexander the Great, Odysseus, Charlemagne and to Famous Women of Antiquity) as well as the more popular taste for contemporary subjects, illustrating a selection of Proverbs, exercises connected with the Riding School, and, just mentioned, Scenes from Country Life.
Given that creating tapestry is an expensive and slow industry involving a number of different people, including a wealthy or princely patron, it is remarkable how little is known about the commissioning of individual series. Contractual details are recorded for only two. (The same can be said for only two of Rubens’s series.) For the rest it is a question of putting together the visual and historical evidence. In the case of Famous Women, the designs were only attributed to Jordaens as recently as 1938; moreover, only three very partially complete series can be tracked down, and the present whereabouts of individual tapestries, probably in private collections, in each case remains unknown.
The introduction is followed by eight short chapters devoted to each of the series, which examine the history, iconography, means of preparation, style and fortuna critica of each. Although not a serious matter, they might better have been placed at the head of the relevant section of the catalogue. The cataloguing of tapestries is a complex affair, and has here necessiated two sets of entries for each series; first a listing of all sets of two or more tapestries in a particular series, followed by separate entries devoted to each subject, examining its development and iconography, as well as more general discussion of such matters as prototypes. Given the different kinds of working cartoons made for the weaver, only a proportion of which exists, as well as the varied use of both paintings and drawings in the preparation, the charting of the various stages of creation, often the subject of dispute, calls for elaborate piecemeal work. The very detailed information gathered together in the entries is set out with admirable clarity.
The volume concludes with a transcription and translation into English of all the relevant documents. Unless new works or new evidence come to light, it is doubtful if there is much more to be said on this attractive subject.