In the early sixteenth century Antwerp was a key center for some of the most significant developments in Netherlandish art, particularly the assimilation of Italian Renaissance style, and the increasing commercialization of art production and sales. In recent years, the main players in this Antwerp art scene have all been the subject of monographs (such as Koch’s book on Patinir, Silver’s on Massys, and Goddard’s on the Master of Frankfurt). All, that is, except for Joos van Cleve, whose paintings have not been the subject of a comprehensive study since Baldass (1925) and Friedländer (1931). This lacuna is now remedied by the publication of John Hand’s Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings. Joos van Cleve has proven a stubbornly elusive artist, both because of the eclecticism and lability of his style and the prolific production of workshop variants of his designs. Hand’s book will do much to help scholars better understand Joos van Cleve’s oeuvre and its place within Antwerp sixteenth century art production.
The book begins with a brief documentary and historiographical study, and then moves into a chronological examination of the works. Regarding Joos’s origins and training, which have been a matter of dispute, Hand argues that Joos was born in Wesel and trained in the studio of Jan Joest. According to Hand, after leaving the Lower Rhine, Joos probably spent time in the Ghent-Bruges area before establishing himself as a free-master in Antwerp in 1511. Without oversimplifying or underestimating Joos’s ability to work in different modes simultaneously, Hand provides a clear and convincing assessment of Joos’s stylistic development in Antwerp, tracing how Joos’s Bruges-influenced style gradually accommodated new currents, particularly Patinir’s landscape style, Antwerp Mannerism, and the art of Dürer. Hand’s analysis of Joos’s early works treats the use of Bruges sources not as archaism, but as evidence of the continuity of the Netherlandish artistic tradition – an approach that has important implications for the study of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art in general. Hand’s treatment of the St. Reinhold altarpiece also has wider significance in grounding the eclecticism of style, at least partially, within the context of workshop collaboration.
Hand devotes significant attention to the crucial issue of the influence of Italian Renaissance style on Joos’s works. This issue first surfaces in Hand’s analysis of the 1524 Lamentation altarpiece in Frankfurt. Here Joos adopts two key Italianate elements: the motif of the closed sarcophagus, and a compositional balance similar to that in the works of Perugino. Italian influence becomes a subject of special focus for Hand’s discussion of Joos’s paintings from 1525 on, which display an increasing ease and assurance in assimilating the art of Leonardo and Raphael. The popularity of Joos’s Italianate paintings on the art market is evidenced by the numerous versions of three compositions – St. Jerome, the Madonna of the Cherries and the Infants Christ and John the Baptist Embracing – which Joos and his shop produced beginning in the 1520s. These compositions all derive from prototypes by Leonardo and display a markedly Leonardesque chiaroscuro. Hand wisely remains agnostic on the question of whether Joos van Cleve actually traveled to Italy. His book does, however, include several examples of specific Italianate motifs and compositions that Joos could have derived from Italian prints circulating in the Netherlands. Hand does consider it likely that Joos van Cleve traveled to France in the early 1530s, though Joos’s activities in his last years before his death in 1540/1541 still remain difficult to pin down.
This monograph is supplemented by a catalogue, arranged chronologically and separated by autograph and doubtful works. In a somewhat confusing arrangement, workshop versions and copies are included in the first (autograph) section when an autograph version exists, and in the second (doubtful) section when one does not. For the most part, the catalogue entries are fairly short, since the author sensibly chose not to repeat, but simply to reference earlier discussions of the works within the main body of the text. The catalogue entries do, however, provide thorough information about dimensions, provenance, exhibitions and literature. The catalogue is followed by transcriptions of the documents (of which there are only six) and by an appendix with a translation of Van Mander’s life of Joos van Cleve. The book is beautifully produced, with excellent reproductions, many in color. At times, though, the text does not always direct the reader to the relevant illustrations, and in some cases, paintings that should have been illustrated are not.
Unquestionably, this book will form the starting point for any future study of Joos van Cleve. I do wish, though, that the author had contextualized this artist’s oeuvre a bit more fully. For example, Hand discusses a number of instances in which Joos produced self-portraits, including one very intriguing moment when – as an assistant working on Joest’s Kalkar altarpiece – he replaced an underdrawn female figure in the Raising of Lazarus scene with his own likeness. Equally intriguing is Joos’s incorporation of his own features into an early image of Lucretia. This sort of intense self-interest, I believe, would merit a closer examination within the context of the new artistic self-consciousness around 1500 – an issue raised most notably in Koerner’s treatment of Dürer’s self-portraits. I also would have liked to see more about Joos’s workshop practices and how they relate to those of other artists engaged in the production of multiples for the open market. This topic has been probed in Goddard’s work on the Master of Frankfurt, Wilson’s work on Isenbrant and my own work on the Brabantine carved altarpiece industry. I wonder whether collaborative workshop practices might account for the combination of Italianate figures and Northern landscape seen in the multiple copies of Joos’s Madonna of the Cherries. And finally, I think that the book did not give enough attention to the relation between Joos’s imagery and the new intellectual and religious currents in Northern Europe at the time of the Reformation. Perhaps Hand’s questions about why Joos produced so few religious paintings in the mid 1530’s could be answered by fuller consideration of the Reformation context.
Still, the traditional monograph format, which this book takes, may not be the best vehicle for these sorts of studies. We are lucky then that John Hand has provided us with a monograph that can serve as a very firm foundation for more specialized and contextualized inquiries into the art of Joos van Cleve.
University of Arkansas