This book is the fourth title to appear in the excellent Pictura Novaseries of studies in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Flemish painting and drawing, which has already brought us one other work devoted solely to drawings, Hans Mielke’s much heralded reassessment of the drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It might, perhaps, seem uncharitable to open by setting Louisa Wood Ruby’s book-of-the-thesis study of Bril’s drawings alongside Mielke’s magnum opus, the product of a life’s work, but the comparison is not in fact invidious, as hers is also a book that makes a very significant contribution to drawings scholarship.
From the outset, the author is at pains to spell out the reasons why such a study was long overdue, and this, together with the list of sometimes rather naïve subheadings to be found in the table of contents (‘Reasons for and Description of Study’, etc.) initially arouses the fear that one is about to be subjected to a simplistic polemic, championing a ‘neglected master’. But despite the considerable amount of text devoted to stressing the importance of Bril’s drawings, the narrative as a whole and the assessment of Bril’s significance are for the most part admirably balanced, clearly reflecting a level of understanding of an extremely broad and complex artistic context that one rarely encounters in a monographic PhD thesis. The fact is, Bril was immensely important as a draughtsman, and there is no shame in saying so. For fully 45 years, from his arrival in Rome in 1582 until his death there in 1626, he worked at the head of one of the city’s most important and productive studios, which received many commissions for decorative paintings from patrons of the highest (even papal) level, and also served as a focal point and melting-pot for several generations of the foreign artists who visited Rome in their droves during this exuberant period of artistic production. Bril’s overall importance has, of course, been acknowledged on many occasions before, and specific relationships between his works and those of various other artists have also been discussed in the context of the careers and oeuvres of those artists, but a careful and systematic analysis of the entire range of relevant artistic contacts and influences has not previously been attempted. Far less a serious and detailed discussion of the role and importance of his drawings – which Wood Ruby convincingly demonstrates to have been in many cases the most important conduit for Bril’s influence on others. In a well-structured series of admirably concise chapters, she identifies and describes the links between Bril’s drawn compositions and drawing style and those of a wide range of artists, not only Dutch and Flemish (from Jan Brueghel, through the Nieulandts to the Italianates), but also German (Elsheimer), French (Claude Lorrain) and Italian (most notably Annibale Carracci, whose approach to landscape ultimately took a rather different route, but from a starting-point that clearly owed much to his knowledge of Bril).
Understandably, the most extensive discussion is devoted to the relationships with other Dutch and Flemish artists, many of whom passed through the Bril studio at some point, and the analysis of Paul Bril’s debt to, and use of, the drawings of his precociously talented brother Matthijs, which he inherited on the latter’s sudden death in 1583, is particularly interesting; Wood Ruby here convincingly rejects the widely accepted theory that Paul made wholesale copies of these drawings. She also wrestles with the question of where to look for the ultimate sources for a number of clearly related, and apparently derivative, Roman views by Tobias Verhaecht and Jan Brueghel, suggesting that these may be based on lost prototypes by Matthijs Bril. In fact, I believe these drawings most probably derive from works by Hendrick de Clerck, an artist who does not figure in Wood Ruby’s discussion. De Clerck was in Rome from 1587 until 1590, and the large group of his drawings in the collection at Schloss Wolfegg contains a fine series of Roman views (which I will discuss more fully in a forthcoming article), which clearly provided the basis for some at least of Verhaecht’s drawings.
Not surprisingly, Bril’s influence on his compatriots endured long after his death, and can be clearly seen in the works of a variety of the Dutch ‘Italianates’, such as Asselijn, Poelenburch and Breenbergh, although I think that it is perhaps going a little too far to suggest, as the author does, that the distinctive ‘overlit’ effect of many of the latter’s drawings also has its origins in Bril. The most intriguing strand in the mesh of influence and counter-influence woven in the pages of this book is, however, the one linking Bril with Claude Lorrain, which Wood Ruby discusses extremely cogently. In his various Claude studies, Roethlisberger gave full credit to the influence of the ‘Bril style’, which was well established by the time of Claude’s arrival in Rome in 1613, but Wood Ruby breaks new ground in her careful analysis of the way in which Bril’s drawings – and in particular the free brush drawings for the Rospigliosi-Pallavicini frescoes of 1611-13 and the various late works executed largely in black chalk – influenced the drawing, rather than painting, style of the French master.
Marginally less satisfactory is the analysis of the sources to which Bril himself looked, and the influences on him. The book’s first chapter, entitled ‘Theory and Practice of Landscape ca.1575’, is an ambitious attempt at a survey of a broad and complex field, and while it is generally well structured and argued, as is the author’s analysis of Bril’s debt to the drawings of Pieter Bruegel, there are, almost inevitably, certain oversights. For example, the assertion that Netherlandish landscape draughtsmanship during the period c.1555-1575 was almost entirely based on ‘the spirited landscapes of Pieter Bruegel and the picturesque ruins of Maarten van Heemskerck and Hieronymous Cock’ ignores the ultimately highly influential drawings and prints of the Master of the Small Landscapes, which may not have been of direct significance to Bril, but which are nonetheless an important aspect of the story that the author seeks to tell. Within the catalogue too, there are one or two minor ‘misses’ in the citing of specific sources; for example, while the four circular drawings of The Seasons in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris (cats.30-33), do indeed seem to draw inspiration from prints after Hans Bol, they are in fact much more similar to the set of the Twelve Months, engraved by Collaert c.1581 (Hollstein, vol.IV (Collaert), no.12), than to the set of six prints of non-specific genre scenes mentioned under cat. 30. But these are really very minor criticisms.
Obviously, a discussion of the relationships and influences between an artist and his contemporaries must be based on a clearly defined corpus of that artist’s works, so it is wholly appropriate that the earlier chapters of this book seek to define and describe Bril’s drawing style at various stages in his career, and that it also contains a catalogue raisonné of his drawings – which constitutes at least as important a contribution as the text chapters. The author wryly mentions that Bril’s first twentieth-century biographer, Anton Mayer, observed that it would be a fruitless exercise to compile a critical catalogue of Bril’s works, given their repetitive nature. Attitudes and thresholds of tolerance in these matters are in any case rather different today, but even if this were not so, the catalogue of drawings provided here would require no apologies. The draughtsman we are presented with is clearly an exceptional master, with a highly inventive attitude to composition, and a style that developed dramatically during the course of his long career, from mannered, sometimes very Bruegelian, beginnings, to the poetic and pastoral late works that so profoundly influenced Claude.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the catalogue is, however, that it only lists 101 fully accepted drawings, plus a further 8 autograph replicas, a very small number of drawings for such a long-lived artist who clearly drew with enthusiasm, and one wonders whether the impressive image of Bril’s draughts-manship that emerges has in fact been achieved by over-rigorous exclusion of less complete or accomplished works (many a draughtsman would appear in a more favourable light if represented only by their best hundred drawings). This corpus provides an immensely valuable view of Bril’s drawing style and its evolution, but does it really give a true picture of the artist’s entire drawn oeuvre? The author clearly states that she feels the image of Bril as a sometimes repetitive and formulaic artist is based on the fact that many mediocre copies and repetitions of his compositions have formerly been attributed to the artist himself, but the uniformly high quality of the drawings that she accepts as autograph, and also the extremely large proportion of them (76 out of 101) which are carefully finished, signed works, suggests that there may nonetheless be grounds for some expansion of this oeuvre. Every artist has his less impressive moments, and even if, as Wood Ruby states, Bril’s drawings were generally made as autonomous works rather than in preparation for other works, this does not preclude the acceptance of slighter and more casual sketches as autograph. In assessing whether or not the author’s rather exclusionist approach is valid, it would have been helpful if some at least of the 11 drawings catalogued as ‘doubtful attributions’, and those cited in the selected list of rejected drawings that follows the main catalogue, could have been illustrated as comparative figures.
As throughout this book, Wood Ruby describes the methodology used in compiling her catalogue with exemplary clarity, and provides a list of the very wide range of museum and private collections and photo archives that she has studied. It is, however, a shame that the photographic archives of the major auction houses do not figure on this list, as these often contain works that are not represented in other archives. Having said this, a review of our own photo files at Sotheby’s does not in fact yield any important drawings by Bril that are omitted from Wood Ruby’s catalogue, but there are a number of other copies and versions that could have been mentioned in the relevant entries, as well as a few drawings that would be good candidates for addition to a slightly more inclusive version of the artist’s oeuvre: amongst these are a rather sketchy village view, sold Sotheby’s, London, 21st March 1974, lot 21, as well as a very loose and sketchy version of Wood Ruby’s catalogue no. 2, sold Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, 3rd April 1978, lot 20, which differs in enough details from the more finished drawing by Paul, and the related painting by Matthijs, to warrant consideration as an autograph, earlier version. Based on the image of Bril’s late drawings that Wood Ruby has so clearly defined for us, I also think that a very loose drawing in chalk and wash, depicting a Roman city gate, which I catalogued as ‘Circle of Paul Bril’ when it was sold in Amsterdam (Sotheby’s), 11th November 1997, lot 29, should be upgraded, and considered an autograph late study; indeed, the inscription towards the lower right corner of this drawing, which has been gone over in pen and rather distorted, may well originally have been the date: 1622. (But this drawing probably emerged on the market too late to be included in Wood Ruby’s study). Lastly, I would propose that at least one drawing on the author’s ‘rejected’ list, the study of Classical Ruins in the Rijksmuseum (inv. 1975: 49), should be reinstated; I think this is an example of a type of naar het leven sketch by Bril – different in conception from his more complete drawings but similar enough in details of handling to be considered autograph – that has here been erroneously excluded from the artist’s oeuvre. There must surely be more drawings that fall into this category, but in the absence of published images of many of them, it is hard to compile a full list. Some other works on which an indication of Wood Ruby’s views would have been welcome are the handful of gouaches that have traditionally been attributed to Bril, and in particular the study of a tree that was sold from the Holkham Hall collection at Christie’s, London, on 2nd July 1991 (lot 63), and the fine gouache landscape (represented in the photo files at the RKD, so presumably known to the author), which was sold at Christie’s Amsterdam on 10th November 1999 (lot 389). But perhaps it was felt that these works were outside the scope of a study of the artist’s drawings; watercolours and gouaches often fall between stools in this way, but their similarity to drawings, at least in terms of scale and support, would seem to warrant their inclusion in the present discussion. (The landscape gouache at least will, however, be discussed by Luuk Pijl in his forthcoming monograph on Bril’s paintings).
None of these comments and criticisms should, however, distract from the fact that this is a fine publication, which makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the drawings and the draughtsmanship of a highly influential artist. The structure of the text is exemplary, and the writing is clear, and wonderfully concise; the author covers a great deal of ground in relatively few words, with the result that the book is not only illuminating, but also highly accessible. The corpus of Bril’s drawings that is set before us here may perhaps be a little too restrictive, but it is nonetheless a rock-like basis for future discussion of the artist’s drawings.