This useful yet curious volume is actually a reprint, updated with new archival findings of a 2005 volume (Antwerp: Plantin-Moretus Museum) with a similar title, Mayken Verhulst. De turkse Manieren van een artistieke Dame. Like that former publication, it focuses on the wife of artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Maria Coecke became, in turn, the wife of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, so the two women presided at the fountainhead of the great Bruegel family dynasty. Both publications also include a chapter devoted to Mayken’s posthumous publication of Coecke’s designs, originally intended for tapestry designs for the Ottoman sultan but issued as a suite of woodcuts, Moeurs et Fachons des Turcz. This publication attempts to reach a broader audience by including a single summary chapter in both French and English, “The Relation between Pieter Bruegel, Mayken Verhulst and Mechelen. Manners and Customs of the Turcz [sic],” plus an addendum in Dutch, French, and English, “The Journey to Constantinople.” The author, Jan Op de Beeck, conservator at the Mechelen musum, Het Zotte Kunstkabinet, is author of a notable exhibition catalogue, De Zotte Schilders (Mechelen-Ghent, 2003), featuring grotesque peasant drolleries by the family Verbeeck of Mechelen.
Obviously, the increasing attention to Netherlandish women as artistic agents in the past fifteen years has only enhanced Mayken Verhulst’s reputation and inspired further archival research. Another study of her (with Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock, Bruegel’s Antwerp print publisher) by Arthur DiFuria has appeared recently in an anthology: Elizabeth Sutton, ed., Women Artists and Patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700 (Amsterdam, 2019), pp. 157-77 (reviewed here in March 2021). But here the focus is exclusively on Mayken.
This study begins by presenting a genealogical overview of its subject (c. 1518-96), her parents and her descendants, based in large part on researches by Adolf Monballieu. She was born in the center of Mechelen as the daughter of an artist, Pieter Verhulst, providing a civic core to this project. Mayken was the second wife of Pieter Coecke, married around 1538/39, and Bruegel’s 1563 marriage to their daughter suggests that he must have had experience in their large workshop. Van Mander claims Pieter Coecke as his painting master. Mayken’s later years were chiefly spent in Brussels, where she might have looked after, even trained, her grandchildren, two of whom became famous painters.
No signed work by Mayken’s own hand survives, and only the woodcut series that she edited bears her name; she is probably the female figure in the double portrait painted by Pieter Coecke (Zurich, Kunsthaus) if that work indeed shows the artist and his wife; if a self-portrait, it might even have been her work rather than his, since his hand rests on a skull. However, Mechelen was celebrated for its production of waterschilderen, often miniature paintings on cloth. Thus Mayken’s own contemporary fame as an artist might have stemmed from that specialty, of which few works survive (Hans Bol, also from Mechelen and Bruegel’s younger contemporary, is one of the few recognized masters). The miniatures featured by Jan Brueghel might well stem from her tutelage.
There are new assertions here too. From Mechelen’s art heritage, the figure of Claude Dorisi, artist and dealer, is introduced (11-13, 19-20) as a possible formative character in Pieter Bruegel’s biography. He may have arranged the first known commission to Bruegel, for the cathedral of St Rombouts in Mechelen in 1551: the side panels of the altarpiece of the Glovemakers, in collaboration with Pieter Baltens. He sold a Caritas in 1559, the same time as Bruegel’s Virtue print design of the same name. Dorisi also had a close documented connection in Mechelen with artist Hans Vredeman de Vries, whose ties to Bruegel are also noted by Van Mander.
A much bolder hypothesis about Mayken Verhulst as an artist is advanced here (21-23), following Simone Bergmans in De eeuw van Bruegel (1963): she is equated with the celebrated but anonymous Brunswick Monogrammist, whose initials have provided a Gordian knot for interpreters. Op de Beeck, however, reads those intertwined letters as “Inventor Mayken Verhulst,” admittedly leaving out several other letters (usually associated with equally obscure Jan van Amstel). Certainly the Master’s prior figural and landscape elements align closely with Bruegel’s own and likely served as an influence. Interested students must also consult the recent monograph on the Master by Matthias Ubl (Petersberg, 2014).
Mayken Verhulst published the remarkable woodcut image series of the Turks in 1553 (see Nadine Orenstein in the New York Coecke exhibition of 2014, Elizabeth Cleland ed.), based (as the inscription notes) on Pieter Coecke’s (d. 1550) visit in 1533 to Constantinople. Seven scenes extend across ten sheets, separated by terms and caryatids, to a length of almost five meters. Op de Beeck itemizes the subjects, extending like a geographical progression, from a military camp at the border in Slavonia to the sultan’s procession in the Hippodrome at the center of his capital, complete with recognizable monuments (some destroyed). Along the way one experiences Turkish soldiers at rest (Thrace), the Feast of the new Moon (Macedonia), a funeral (near Adrianopolis/Edirne), and a Feast of Circumcision outside Constantinople. As a dispassionate ethnography of Muslim customs and costumes, even during a century of heightened religio-political tensions with Christian Europe, the woodcuts are a milestone of representation by Pieter Coecke’s own widow.
A final focus of this study is a single Bruegel drawing (Louvre RF 29478), An Artist at his Easel, which some scholars have seen as a replica of a missing Bruegel (characterized as a “problematic” image in the 1996 catalogue by Hans Mielke, pp. 72-73, as no. Prob. 6a, partly on the basis of faulty perspective of the easel). On the reverse is an address of Mayken’s younger brother, “Merten Verhuls[t]” in Mechelen, Ghulden Pert, Catelijnen Straet, the family home. Because of Maerten’s movements, the drawing must date before 1582, so unlikely to be a work of one of Pieter’s two sons copying their father. Indeed that precise address suggests an authentic work (reinforced by the presence of copies in the Louvre and Bayonne), sent by the artist himself to his brother-in-law in Mechelen, perhaps around the time of his 1563 marriage to Maria Coecke.
Coherence of this volume thus ranges, but it always comes back to Mechelen and Mayken Verhulst and her family, including Bruegel. If some of its claims require re-examination, such as the Bruegel drawing or the identity of the Master of the Brunswick Monogram, they are complemented by close looking at the woodcuts of sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkey and much useful biographical information.
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