This volume is number 14 of the Le dessins sous-jacent et la technologie dans la peinture series, which has been edited and organized biannually since 1975 by the indefatigable team of Hélène Verougstraete and Roger van Schoute. Like the preceding volumes, this book focuses on topical matters pertaining to the scientific examination of underdrawings and painted surfaces in works dating roughly from 1400-1600. It brings together thirty-one essays, written in French and English, presented by thirty-eight international participants in colloquium meetings held at Bruges and Rotterdam in September of 2001. Many of the essays are devoted to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, his followers, and imitators, marking two important exhibitions dedicated to Bosch held in that same year – one in Rotterdam, at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, and the other in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, birthplace of the painter. The book’s organization reflects this emphasis in its division into two nearly equal sections. Part I is devoted to problems in Bosch studies, and Part II concerns various other Netherlandish and Italian painters and workshops. The topics and methodologies explored in both sections are diverse, as are the ways in which the authors apply technical information to the study of art history. It is therefore both appropriate and necessary, given the brevity of this review, to highlight major themes and foci, delineated by representative essays and groups of essays, rather than to deal superficially with each in turn. I hope I will be forgiven the inevitable omissions that result.
Questions of attribution and chronology in paintings from the circle of Hieronymus Bosch are especially difficult, made more so by the lack of documentation concerning the artist and his workshop. The total number of works generally agreed to be by his hand ranges from thirty to forty in the literature. None of these shows a date and only seven bear his name, though the artist’s signature was freely employed by later followers and copyists. The paintings attributed to Bosch also vary significantly in their styles of underdrawing and application of paint; some even display different styles and techniques within the same panel. The best hope for clarification of these inconsistencies seems to lie with scientific analysis.
It is therefore appropriate that Part I of the book, devoted to Bosch and his followers, begins with an essay on dendrochronlogy by Peter Klein, whose tireless application of this process to the study of panel paintings has contributed enormously to the field of art history. Dendrochronology, which can establish the age of wooden panel supports by deducing when the tree in question was felled, has, in recent years, become an important tool for the study of Bosch’s paintings. Klein’s essay carefully and objectively considers the advantages and limits of the process, conceding that the number of years that a panel may have languished in an artist’s workshop before being painted is still impossible to know with certainty. Notable among the other sixteen essays in this section are several that examine the phenomenon of copies after Bosch. Catherine Metzger’s study of Bosch’s so-called Death and the Miser admirably integrates the technical examination of the panel’s pentimenti with iconographical interpretation, and makes intelligent conclusions as to why certain changes may have been made. Susan Urbach’s and Carmen Garrido’s essay on “The Copy of the Garden of Earthly Delights in Budapest” and Peter van den Brink’s “Hieronymus Bosch as Model Provider for a Copyright Free Market” offer probing insights into the ways and means by which Bosch’s paintings were reproduced and transmitted via workshop practices. Also included in this section are the stunning revelations by Friso Lammertse and Annetje Roorda Boersma concerning Bosch’s so-called Peddler in Rotterdam, which now must be viewed as the unified exterior panels of a triptych that once included the Ship of Fools (Paris), Death of the Miser(Washington) and Allegory of Intemperance (New Haven).
Part II of the book consists of fourteen essays, including several on Italian painting, followed by a very useful bibliography compiled by Anne Dubois, which lists publications dating 2000-2002 on the technical examination of paintings. The first essay in this section, by Molly Faries and Maximiliaan P.J. Martens, on “Painting in Antwerp before Iconoclasm” is an expert integration of art historical method with technical studies. It offers a tantalizing taste of the socio-economic approach that will be followed in their research project in progress, supported by the Dutch organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Linda Jansen provides another excellent analysis of the Antwerp scene in her essay on workshop involvement in the production of multiple replicas of Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s famous Last Supper. Most illuminating are several essays in which images provided by infrared reflectography provide the basis for placing undated paintings within an artist’s stylistic development. Among these, Carol Purtle’s and Maryan Ainsworth’s studies are noteworthy, Purtle’s for her finely reasoned examination of Jan van Eyck’s Madonna in a Church, and Ainsworth’s for her revelatory essay on van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with the Canon van der Paele.
There is much to praise about this collection. The strongest essays admirably integrate scientific evidence with art historical methodology. However, as is to be expected in a volume of this breadth, the quality of the contributions is uneven. This is most evident in the essays that attempt iconographical analysis, where the most current scholarship often goes uncited, and limitations of space do not allow proper analysis. Also unfortunate is the paucity of images in some essays, even to the point of not illustrating the main object under discussion. All quibbles aside, however, this book, like the previous volumes in the series, provides an inestimable service to the field. In the past, art historians have been reluctant to take on the technical terminology and processes of scientific analysis. This tendency is clearly reversing itself, as historians outnumber scientists in this collection, and several essays show how rewarding collaboration between the two can be. We are once again grateful to Roger van Schoute and Hélène Verougstraete for continuing to provide us with the most recent research in the field of technical studies, packaged in an attractive, affordable volume.