All those fortunate enough to have visited the wonderful Jordaens exhibition at the Petit Palais, Paris, will agree that its impressive design formed an important statement in the ongoing reappraisal of Jordaens as an extraordinarily gifted artist. A good selection of paintings and even more so of drawings from French museums were complemented by well chosen works from abroad that adequately made up for some of Jordaens’s masterpieces in French public collections that could not travel because of their fragile condition, such as the Lille Temptation of the Magdalene and the Rennes Crucifixion. It is all the more commendable that this setback caused Alexis Merle du Bourg, the curator of the exhibition and editor of its catalogue, to publish simultaneously a small but instructive catalogue regarding the Rennes painting.
What better way to set the tone for this show than to make the artist welcome the visitor by way of the splendid Portrait of the Artist with His Family from the Prado (cat. I-03): judiciously placed in the perspective beyond the doorway through a full scale rendering of the façade of Jordaens’s house, the painting’s luscious colors contrasted beautifully with the black and white wall portioning off the start to the show. Upon entering the first room dominated by the Prado portrait, one felt as if having arrived in the artist’s home, aptly rendered by way of a floor to ceiling stenciled motif, reminiscent of the wall hangings seen in some of Jordaens’s indoor scenes. The second room, a long corridor entirely clad in white panels suggesting side chapels to a church nave, led up to the seldom seen large Crucifixion from Antwerp’s Terninck Foundation (cat. II-10), specially restored for this exhibition and effectively sitting in for the Rennes version.
Jordaens’s participation in large-scale decorative projects was conspicuously visualized by a monumental printout of the engraving of one of the triumphal archways for the entry into Antwerp of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand in 1635 through which the visitor entered to confront one of the rare and sadly not well preserved survivals of these ephemeral decorations: The Wedding of Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy, owned today by the little known French town of Sainte-Savine (cat. III-06).
Workshop practice was yet another theme that received a suggestive setting in the form of a studio complete with wood floor, painter’s easels, a series of study heads in oils and the tell-tale juxtaposition of an autograph and a studio version of The Satyr and the Peasant, respectively from Brussels and from the Petit Palais’ own holdings (cats. V-04, 05). The second half of the show, dealing with large-scale paintings of proverbs, subjects from antiquity and portraits, reverted to a more traditional, happily uncluttered display that showed great sensitivity for the at times overpowering effect of some of these imposing paintings.
One aim of the exhibition was to raise Jordaens’s profile to that of an artist on a par with Rubens, and certainly a number of works passed the test. A direct juxtaposition between paintings by both masters created during Jordaens’s formative years would have helped to visualize the comparison but unfortunately one of the only two paintings by Rubens in the exhibition, The Adoration of the Shepherdsfrom Marseilles (cat II-04), in my view is a work from Rubens’s studio while two of the three early study heads in oils given to Jordaens – the double study of an old lady, Nancy (cat. V-01; already doubted by Gregory Martin in his contribution to the forthcoming Corpus Rubenianum volume on Mythology A-G), and the double study of an elderly man with a beard (cat. V-03) from the La Caze collection, now in Besançon (cat. V-03) – remain highly questionable in attribution.
Jordaens shared Rubens’s inventiveness in transforming and adding to his existing compositions, at times taking it to extremes. Many paintings in the show illustrated this abundantly but the otherwise very detailed catalogue entries seldom remarked upon this highly characteristic feature of Jordaens’s work, leading in a few cases to an only partly correct dating. For example, the wonderful Sacrifice of Isaac from the Brera (cat. II-20) is dated to 1625-30 in the catalogue where no mention is made of the extensive transformations done by Jordaens in the 1640s, when he extended the canvas along the bottom and right side, adding an incense burner and fire wood as well as repainting most of the figure of Abraham and part of the angel. Another such omission concerns The Adoration of the Shepherds from Cherbourg-Otteville (cat. II-24), dated to the 1660s, the date of the additions, while the core of the composition actually dates from ca. 1630-35.
What better model for reading the mind of the artist than the two interrelated series of paintings of “The King Drinks” and “As the Old Sang, so Pipe the Young,” all of which were completed by Jordaens within a relatively short time span of approximately ten years, in most cases undergoing important changes. The show had the good fortune to include two examples of the former (Brussels, cat. IV-05 and Jerusalem, cat IV-06, although this latter version should be considered as done by a highly qualified studio hand) and one of the latter themes (Valenciennes IV-07). In addition to the very different and at times contradictory interpretations offered in the catalogue one should consider that the overriding connection of the three paintings is their function as exempla contraria. The theme of “The King Drinks” traditionally is an obvious example of the topsy-turvy world and Jordaens had no other intentions when choosing this subject. Careful observation of the transformations in the Brussels and Valenciennes paintings, as well as most of the other autograph versions of “The King Drinks” and “As the Old Sang” in European museums would have allowed the identification in each case of a gradual and deliberate staggering of emblematic meaning, with the intention of exacerbating the obvious. The reasons for this have to do with both political and religious unrest in the ten years before the Peace of Münster, turning the two themes into allegories respectively on the condition of the State and the Church (an article by the present author detailing this process of confessionalization within a subgroup of “As the Old Sang” will be published in this year’s fall-issue of De Zeventiende Eeuw). The use of the highly instructive method of exempla contraria had its heyday with Erasmus but the many misunderstandings it led to caused it to fall into disgrace by the time Jordaens revived this technique. It is precisely this by then unfamiliarity to seventeenth-century audiences that most likely enticed the artist to reapply this outdated method of instruction.
The catalogue’s three essays by Alexis Merle du Bourg, Joost Vander Auwera and Irene Schaudies, deal with the reception of the artist throughout history, in France and in Flanders. All three authors specify the nineteenth century as the source for much of the artist’s misinterpretation. However, this should be expanded to take account of Jordaens’s own contribution and above all of the impact of the French eighteenth century. Diderot’s definition of painting as a window on reality ensured the ensuing blindness to the ironic worldview of one of the baroque’s most personal exponents till more or less to the present day. The irony that the country that has been most influential in creating this misguided view of Jordaens has brought with the present exhibition a truly major contribution to his reappraisal by way of a careful selection of works, beautiful display and stimulating catalogue, is most befitting the spirit of Jacob Jordaens.