Jordaens and the Antique, organized twenty years after the last large scale monographic exhibition on the artist, then held in Antwerp, is a co-operation between the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, and Museumslandschaft Hessen, Kassel, both owning important holdings of paintings by Jordaens. In times of rapidly dwindling financial support for museums worldwide, it is a tribute to both institutions to have devoted considerable effort in studying and bringing to the fore an artist and a theme that are not self evident blockbusters.
The introduction to the catalogue vividly sketches the bias that has forced Jacob Jordaens into second place since the first monographic studies a little over a century ago. In the nineteenth century nationalistic sentiments reduced the artist to a painter who simply captured the essence of Flemish life in his genre as well as religious and mythological scenes. This was followed by a period in which he was viewed, admittedly unfairly, through the lens of Rubens scholarship. Such prejudices fortunately are being overcome by a new generation of art historians able to bring nuance to a lopsided vision of the artist, as the exhibition curators Joost Vander Auwera, Irene Schaudies (both Brussels) and Justus Lange (Kassel) demonstrate. The result is a well illustrated catalogue with a series of insightful essays that reveal an artist who mastered a more than substantial notion of classical, art-theoretical and rhetorical thought and the ability to adapt antique imagery to suit his personal beliefs and to engage in purposeful competition with fellow artists.
To demonstrate this, the exhibition brings together a selection of dazzling highlights, from the recently cleaned, relatively youthful Brussels Allegory of Fruitfulness (cat. 64) to Madrid’s late Love of Cupid and Psyche (cat. 62) and numerous other paintings, distinguished by vibrant colors, masterful versatility in rendering bodies and animals, expressive countenances, and beautiful still lifes and landscapes painted with vivid brushstrokes uniquely the master’s own. Consequently, it is all the more disappointing that a few works fail to meet the expectations thus raised (see cats. 40, 49, 51, and 87); others, in my view, are not by Jordaens (cats. 38 and 80) or show the master in collaboration with his studio (cat. 45).
Judiciously chosen examples of antique sculpture, supplemented by later casts, illustrate Jordaens’s knowledge and intelligent processing of classical statuary despite the artist’s unfathomable decision not to undertake the conventional journey to Italy. How Jordaens managed to gain such insight is hinted at by pointing out a number of contemporary engravings of antique models. The reference to Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise as possible source for a bacchante in The Triumph of Bacchus (Brussels, cat. 81) overlooks the fact that both are in essence based on the Medici Venus pudica model, for which the date of discovery is unknown. It remains a subject of much debate whether Jordaens worked for a time in Rubens’s studio, thus having had access to the older master’s collection of drawings, sketches and antiquities. A number of paintings by fellow Antwerp artists in the show or illustrated in the catalogue exemplify his close observation of Rubens and other successful artists that had made the journey to Italy, notably Abraham Janssens. The curators rightly conclude that this is specific to the onset of his career as a self-employed master, soon followed by ways of expressing his own identity in a keen pictorial debate with fellow artists, attested by a flurry of classical subjects of which fascinating, comparative examples are included in the show. The “almost archaeological density of literary and visual references to antiquity” recognized by the authors in Jordaens’s paintings of circa 1620-30 is plausibly triggered by his desire to prove his excellence in matters of antiquity and contemporary art theory, in spite of his privation of an Italian first-hand experience.
Rather than drawing from the more obvious sources, the young artist mined lesser known material, endowing it with a more personal interpretation, supplemented eloquently (in the manner of ut pictura poesis) with emblematic and comic undertones. Such language would have been intended for those viewers who dabbled in rhetorician activities or attended the plays performed by rhetorician chambers. Regretfully, the authors of the catalogue did not investigate this any further despite the interesting fact that one of the leading Antwerp rhetorician chambers shared rooms with the city’s painters’ guild. It would have been worth exploring whether the interest in pastoral plays, as had been made popular by Italian tragicomedies (Il Pastor Fido, G.B. Guarini, 1590), soon translated and performed all over Europe, was instrumental in Jordaens’s turning from antique to more naturalistic ‘genre’ scenes, such as the Scenes from Country Life fromafter 1630. At the same time however the preference for bucolic scenery ensured a continuation of bacchic triumphs after 1640 albeit with a lessened archaeological interest due to a change in market taste.
Two paintings of classical subject matter that carry deeper, possibly more personal meanings are Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man(Dresden, not exhibited but illustrated in the catalogue) and Prometheus Bound (Cologne, cat. 42). In the former, the ancient cynic has been likened to Jordaens himself, walking with his lantern held high through the crowd of jolly Flemish peasants displaying their market produce, while well-to-do merchants and pundits at his left sneer and a military commander looks on. Irony and human folly were popularly celebrated in Dutch and Flemish culture, from the inversion of social order on Shrove Tuesday to the literary excellence of Erasmus. Much of the irony in the rhetoricians’ performances on both sides of the religious divide was intended as protest or ridicule, simultaneously reviled or emblazoned by dogmatists and liberals. At face value, such paintings as The King Drinks or As the Old Sing, so the Young Twitter, seem to be no more than illustrations of popular proverbs, but an enlightened viewer would have recognized that they went deeper than mere representations of boisterous Flemish life. In the light of Jordaens’s reformatory sympathies and his thorough knowledge of ancient art and thought, it is tempting to identify concurrent biblical and classical roots in these compositions.
As the exhibition makes clear, the young Jordaens defined himself in his use of antique subject matters in a highly individualistic way, no doubt in spirited response to Rubens’s compositions, frequently of the same subjects. In view of this artistic rivalry, would it be too far-fetched to extend the dialogue to a philosophical level with Jordaens playing the part of the cynic and Rubens the stoic? Jordaens’s Prometheus Bound (cat. 42) of circa 1640 could embody exactly such endeavor when comparing it to Rubens’s treatment of the same subject of circa 1612-14, which has the same measurements (Rubens’s canvas originally also measured 243 x 176 cm). In this case, Frans Snyders also enters the artistic exchange since the eagle in Jordaens’s painting is a faithful copy of Snyders’s fierce bird.
At last the image of the anecdotal, realist painter who plainly rendered Flemish joie de vivre has been set aside thanks to the findings of this exhibition and catalogue that clearly demonstrate Jordaens’s versatility in classical iconography. However, the artist might have benefited from a closer investigation into the motivations behind the production of paintings with subjects from mythology and ancient history, motivations driven by ambition, rivalry and shrewd business acumen, interwoven with a sense of irony and a somewhat problematic religious faith (the artist was interrogated in 1649 and later condemned to a hefty fine for blasphemy). These factors introduce a sense of ambiguity into Jordaens’s oeuvre, leading – not surprisingly – to misunderstandings, even among his contemporaries. The present exhibition and its curators went a long way to correct this image.