Modern scholarship on the Antwerp painter Joos van Cleve has been in high gear since Cécile Scailliérez first devoted an in-house exhibition to the artist at the Louvre in 1991. Important exhibitions on the artist followed in 2003 (Genoa) and 2011 (Aachen), and John Hand’s monograph on Joos appeared in 2004. With the initial help of Molly Faries, Micha Leeflang began her infrared reflectography (IRR) research into the artist’s underdrawings in 2000, which now culminates in this superb book.
Joos is the perfect case study for Leeflang’s interests, since in the course of three decades (1511-1540/41) the artist and his workshop produced over 300 extant paintings. This is the largest output by far from a workshop in the Southern Netherlands, so the question of production methods and marketing strategies is naturally central to an understanding of his art. Leeflang expertly reads the evidence from the underdrawings of over 100 paintings to help reconstruct, and speculate upon, the specific methods employed by the artist.
After an opening chapter on the artist’s career and his historical rediscovery in the nineteenth century, the author embarks upon this task in Chapter II, which she aptly titles “Something for Everyone,” referencing Joos’s approach towards artistic creation. Her centerpiece is an extensive analysis of the artist’s 1516 St. Reinhold Altarpiece in Gdansk, one of the largest and most complex altarpieces created by the shop, and a perfect demonstration of how a collaborative enterprise was managed by the artist-as-coordinator. Both the painting execution and the underdrawings differ markedly between the narrative panels on the inner wings and the monumental, single-figure exterior wings. The eight interior scenes were relegated to assistants, apparently journeymen, since by this date the artist had only just taken on his first apprentice. The underdrawings for assistants needed to be detailed and explicit, so the “woodcut convention” was used, since it provided explicit guidance. The interior panels contain 44 individual color notations, in order to steer the painting process efficiently (almost “painting by numbers,” Leeflang observes , though she notes that in several cases the color notations were not followed in the finished painting). These notations also made it possible for the master to estimate pigment costs at an early stage. The parts of the Reinhold triptych to be painted by the master, the exterior wings, by contrast, have minimal underdrawings and no notations. In single religious panels with a landscape background, figures are typically underdrawn but not the landscape, suggesting that it would be based on a model drawing and painted by a sub-contracted landscape specialist.
For the several series of devotional subjects, repeated in large numbers of copies after 1525, when an economic downturn hit Antwerp and the studio ceased receiving large altarpiece commissions, evidence reveals transferring standardized patterns by pricking and also by tracing. Variations in size, formats, details of content, even directional orientation, furnished these spec images with a range of options for prospective buyers.
Chapter III addresses the commissions and distribution of Joos’s paintings. Although the important foreign destinations – including repeated commissions for Cologne and Genoa, the Reinhold Altarpiecefor Gdansk and an altarpiece for Gran Canaria – have often been the focus of special study, it is very useful to have all the known information about them brought together systematically and analyzed anew in relation to information yielded from the study of the underdrawings. The enormous Madeira Triptych, not recognized as part of Joos’s oeuvre until the author’s 2008 publication of it and then shown to great acclaim in the 2011 exhibition in Aachen, is deservedly given special prominence. Especially useful, too, are Leeflang’s many suggestive proposals about the likelihood of other commissions. In the Low Countries, she identifies altarpieces and panels probably intended for Antwerp, Mechelen, and Amsterdam patrons. Another fascinating finding, not surprising in light of the complexities of the shop’s large outputs, is the occurrence of outright mistakes. In the case of an Edinburgh triptych (130), the incorrect coat of arms was discovered and corrected while the triptych was still in the shop; but for the San Donato Altarpiece (137), the armorial errors remained undetected and uncorrected.
Chapter IV consists of two parts: analysis of panel sizes used in the big series of copies, and a report on dendrochronological findings. For a studio which sought to rationalize the production process, while also insuring that buyers had a range of choices in market paintings, the findings are predictable. Standardized sizes were often used, but also a range of sizes. Specific standard sizes tend to cluster within a single series of copies, to enhance efficiency and speed of production. Tabulated dendrochronological findings for 69 paintings confirm the known dating or proposed dating of Joos’s paintings in several instances.
Yet a mystery remains at the heart of Joos’s corpus. Leeflang’s deconstruction of the artist’s working methods clearly reveals the evidence that the artist and his shop depended upon many different types of drawings to enable its huge productions. These would have included preliminary drawings, finished model drawings, contract drawings (vidimuses) for patron approval, cartoons for pricking and pouncing and for tracing, and copy drawings (ricordi) as records of compositions. For Joos’s shop, hundreds of drawings would have been necessary, yet only a single drawing survives today (fig. 3.56). The puzzling loss of essentially all of these highly-valued studio assets, however, is at least now balanced by the revelation of so many of the underdrawings.
Building upon the earlier IRR research and findings of Molly Faries, Maryan Ainsworth, and Peter van den Brink, Micha Leeflang offers many new discoveries and interpretations, synthesizing and integrating a vast amount of technical material into a comprehensive picture of how Joos’s workshop achieved its huge outputs, and how widely dispersed was the interest in the shop’s products. This exemplary study makes an enormous contribution to the scholarship of early sixteenth-century Netherlandish workshops and to the sophisticated use of IRR research and its interpretation. In combination with John Hand’s 2004 monograph and catalogue raisonné, it comprehensively covers the artist’s entire career with full photographic documentation, Leeflang’s impressive study of the artist’s workshop procedures and his underdrawings provides scholars with new tools for taking a more complete measure of Joos van Cleve’s achievements.