Yvette Bruijnen’s book culminates more than a decade of research in a neglected field: painting in sixteenth-century Leuven (Louvain). Notwithstanding Edward van Even’s magisterial L’ancienne école de peinture de Louvain of 1870, with its extensive archival documentation for the sixteenth century, art historical attention in the past has focused almost entirely upon Aelbrecht Bouts and other followers of Dieric Bouts, resulting in a view of sixteenth-century Leuven painting as essentially conservative. Bruijnen set out to change this perception in her 1999 dissertation and in subsequent publications. She identified a small group of sixteenth-century Leuven artists whose manner was modern and influenced by Brussels, particularly the art of Bernard van Orley. The best of these artists (first identified by Van Even) was Jan van Rillaer, a name known only to a few specialists, probably because Friedländer omitted him from his Altniederländische Malerei. But as this book chronicles in fascinating detail, Bruijnen’s ideas about Van Rillaer ended up at an entirely different point from where they started.
Based on her archival research and documentary reinterpretations, she gradually became convinced that the artist formerly identified – even by herself – as Van Rillaer was, instead, almost certainly Jan Rombouts the Elder (1475/85-1535). Six engravings and three paintings are signed with the monogram, IANR. Van Even and scholars following him interpreted the monogram as signifying JAN (van) R(illaer), but it can be read equally as referring to JAN R(ombouts). When combined with the array of archival arguments against the sign being Van Rillaer (he is not even documented as a painter), compared with the strong evidence in favor of Jan Rombouts the Elder, the conclusion was inescapable. One glitch, though, was the fact that his oeuvre is dominated by glass painting. Whereas in the documents Rombouts the Elder is identified only as a painter (scildere, pictor), his son, Jan Rombouts the Younger (c.1505-59), is explicitly named as both a painter and a glass painter. However, all other evidence tilts overwhelmingly in favor of the artist being Rombouts the Elder, an identification that Bruijnen puts forward with the appropriate caveats.
Jan Rombouts the Elder was a prominent figure in Leuven. Between 1519 and his death in 1535 he was elected guild dean eight times, and he also served on the board of governors of an Antonite chapel. He is documented as receiving two commissions for altarpieces for St. Peter’s in Leuven, and also for carrying out private work. One of the St. Peter’s works is almost certainly the large wings from a dismembered Sts. Peter and Paul Altarpiece (Leuven, Museum M), the masterpiece among his handful of surviving paintings.
After laying out the archival evidence for the discovery of this new artistic personality, Bruijnen proceeds to assemble and evaluate his oeuvre systematically. As she reconstructs it, his oeuvre comprises: four paintings, in the form of three double-sided altarpiece wings and a single panel; seven engravings; a gorgeous drawing on wood panel of The Judgment of Solomon (1528, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie); a no less impressive vidimus drawing for a four-light church window (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum); and more than two dozen painted glass windows, some of them believed to be after Rombouts’s design rather than by the master himself. Bruijnen prudently includes several other works as tentative attributions, since she has been unable to study them in person.
Not surprisingly, the engravings show significant dependence upon the prints of Dürer and Lucas van Leyden. The early prints are weak technically and aesthetically, so the mastery evident in the artist’s mature Virgin and Child and Pyramus and Thisbe suggests, to this observer, that we lack several “bridge” engravings in which Rombouts developed his proficiency. Bruijnen’s study of the paintings includes analyses of their infrared reflectograms, as available. Her discussion of the wings of the Sts. Peter and Paul Altarpiece, the artist’s most monumental and classicizing paintings, rightly notes their debts to the antiek manner of Bernard van Orley. Bruijnen’s biography of Rombouts the Elder also uncovers several links between Van Orley and members of the wider Rombouts family.
The limited evidence of Rombouts’s work as a draftsman suggests an artist of great skill and sensitivity. However, the lion’s share of his surviving oeuvre consists of his work as a glass window designer and painter. In addition to several individual windows and roundels, plus a group of workshop windows from the Leuven convent attached to St. Peter’s Hospital, Bruijnen attributes sixteen stained glass panels that originally formed part of a very large ensemble from the demolished Great Cloister of the Carthusian Monastery in Leuven. Today, most of these panels are divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Riverside Church in New York City.
The book does not include a catalogue or checklist of the artist’s oeuvre, but sizes, provenances, and literature citations for individual works are provided in the endnotes, along with a useful list of Rombouts’s works by location. As part of an extensive Appendix, the author has transcribed the key documents for Jan van Rillaer, Jan Rombouts the Elder, and Jan Rombouts the Younger (references to additional documents are cited in Chapter One, note 36). The Appendix includes unpublished documents and full transcriptions of what Van Even often published only in part. Beyond that, it helpfully transcribes another two dozen documents concerning sixteenth-century Leuven commissions and artistic practices, which are fully analyzed in Chapter Six.
By introducing a completely new artist to the history of early Netherlandish painting, Yvette Bruijnen has made an enduring contribution to Northern scholarship. Beyond that, her book demonstrates just how wrong received wisdom can be, and serves as a reminder that wonderful surprises still happen in research. In the end, however, her book remains a cautionary tale about the bedrock imperative of archival research, without which we will never know when our historical claims are wide of the mark, or manage to correct them if they are.
Note: For further on the artist, the current (April 2013) HNA website Bibliography lists a general-interest article on Rombouts: Matthias Depoorter, “Jan (I) Rombouts: De optstanding van een zestiende-eeuwse schilder,” Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen 50 (2012), no. 6: 16-22.