Ever since the correspondence between Jan Brueghel the Elder and his benefactor in Milan, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, was brought into circulation the reference by the Velvet Brueghel to Peter Paul Rubens as his secretary has brought bemusement to historians of Netherlandish art. Imagine Bloemen-Brueghel referring to the aristocrat among painters as an epistolary assistant! Comparison between Rubens’s polished epistles and Brueghel’s phonetic rendering of Italian reinforced the assumption that the two painters moved in different spheres: one a man of the world; the other the mass producer of humble pictures. Now read the publicity of an exhibition, which opened at the Getty Museum, now to be seen at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The two painters, it appears, collaborated in the production of nearly two dozen paintings, in which the presence of the one does not minimize the role of the other. They forged a bond; it was a fruitful friendship; their collaboration was a partnership of equals. In the parlance of humanist friendship – sis notarius! – they were, indeed, each other’s secretary.
The Mauritshuis since long owns one of the truly spectacular examples of the two artists’ joint authorship. It is The Garden of Eden, produced in c. 1617, which sparkles with the greenery of a freshly created world, the variegated colorations of creatures and the warm flesh-tones of the first parents (cat. no. 4). The Getty, in its turn, proudly displayed its recent acquisition, the unusually large Return from War: Mars Disarmed by Venus, painted about seven years earlier in c. 1610 (cat. no. 2). It is an early example of the kind of “encyclopedic allegory” that would find its apogee in the famous Madrid allegories of the five senses, one of which, the Allegory of Taste, the Prado generously lent to the exhibition (cat. no. 8). It makes eminent sense that the Getty Museum and the Mauritshuis, both known for technical expertise in the examination of small-format, precious paintings, would enter into a partnership of their own and dedicate an exhibition to the “working friendship” of Antwerp’s premier painters.
A visit to take in the visual experience of the pictures and to admire their installation was not in the cards. This review is based exclusively on the richly illustrated catalogue of the twenty-nine works that form the exhibition. Consisting of three parts, this handsome publication opens with an essay by Anne Woollett, continues with extensive catalogue entries by Woollett and Ariane van Suchtelen, and concludes with a technical essay by conservators, Tiarna Doherty, Mark Leonard, and Jørgen Wadum.
Entitled Two Celebrated Painters: The Collaborative Ventures of Rubens and Brueghel, ca. 1598-1625, Woollet’s essay settles once and for all that the painters were equally eminent and that Brueghel, not Rubens, was the chief impresario of these delectable fantasies. The careers of the two men are outlined in separate sections beginning with Brueghel, who, like his father, traveled to Italy for a visit that lasted from c. 1590 until May 1595. In Rome he studied with the landscape painter Paul Bril and improved his hand through copying drawings by the late Matthijs Bril. The Bril brothers capitalized on the taste in Rome for easel paintings with landscape subjects including not just generic panoramic views, but also coastal scenes, marine paintings, hermitage landscapes, fire and sub-terranean landscapes. In c. 1593, Bril and Brueghel drew the attention of an important ecclesiastical prodigy, Federico Borromeo, who would dedicate his career at the papal curia and in Milan to the institutions of Catholic Reform. The young cardinal likely was drawn to Brueghel by virtue of his association with Paul Bril and the perception of his family name as a marketable brand in the picture market. In any case, he took him into his service and tutored him in the invention of pictorial novelties that were meant to function as doctrine-free visual therapy in the cabinet of a Christian gentleman. Brueghel returned to Antwerp in the fall of 1596, four years before Rubens left for Italy in 1600, affording the painters a brief period to meet and collaborate on the piece that opens the exhibition, The Battle of the Amazons of c. 1597 (cat. no. 1). Rubens returned in 1608 and with cultural revival in sight opted for Antwerp as his permanent base. The Getty Return from War signals the resumption of his friendship with Brueghel, who was already into the second decade of his Antwerp career. In tracing Rubens’s career Woollett discusses other instances of collaboration: his efforts to combine history with imposing still-lifes by Frans Snyders or altering a landscape by Paul Bril to customize a souvenir of Tivoli (figs. 26 and 29). The essay closes with further cultural analysis of a partnership of equals that was based on “mutually held principles” and presents itself as the culmination of a tradition that is rooted in the Ghent altarpiece and the various forms of collaboration that evolved in the production of illuminated manuscripts and the weaving of tapestries. The final essay, entitled Brueghel and Rubens at Work: Technique and Practice of Collaboration, presents the technical evidence of a fluid process of concept, design and execution by which two excellent talents manage to unite their distinctive styles of brushwork and individual visual modes into homogenous pictures that proclaim the fulsomeness of Antwerp painting.
Of the twenty-nine paintings in the show, thirteen are by our eminent duo. These are followed by other partnerships including Jan’s collaborations with Hans Rottenhammer, Hendrick de Clerck, and Hendrick van Balen as well as Rubens’s collaboration with Snyders in the Diana Returning from the Hunt from Dresden and the Vienna Medusa. The catalogue ends with five solo works: two Brueghels in the Getty collection: a preaching scene and an Entry into Noah’s Ark. The latter was a stock-in-trade subject that earned the painter the nick-name Paradise-Brueghel (cat nos. 25-29). Two panels with animal studies reveal Brueghel’s considerable skill as a draughtsman. The final picture, on view in The Hague only, is Rubens’s oil sketch for the second version of his altarpiece for the Oratorians in Rome. With its famous division of iconic image and rhetoric of praise it prepared the way for the highly successful Garland Madonnas and other Garland imagery, which follow the conceit of suspending an iconic image of providential deities within the accumulation of tributes to their beneficence.
The catalogue entries are extensive and richly illustrated. The many figures complete our knowledge of the collaborative works with images of the garlands from Munich and Glasgow and the missing Prado allegories (figs. 1, 54-47, and 83). The catalogue refrains from speculation on collaborative efforts that have left their traces in the artistic literature but cannot be firmly related to existing works. For instance, was there a prototype for the Martha and Mary pictures co-produced by Brueghel’s son and Rubens (a charming example survives in Dublin) and did Rubens and Brueghel produce other types of Madonnas for Albert and Isabella, such as a purported Forest Madonna with Forget-me-nots?
Nor does the catalogue touch upon collaboration as a joining of two poetical modes that create a new kind of allegory. In the Getty Mars and Venus Rubens casts the theme of the end of the war as a fable, whereas Brueghel presents a visual atlas of all possible motifs that can be brought to bear upon the topic. In this sort of production, Rubens is the expert of the mythical allegory, whereas Brueghel excels in the encyclopedic still-life. Together they established a fertile method, rooted in the rhetorical devise of definitio per descriptionem, for creating an endless stream of pictures that treat the abstract themes of a well-ordered universe (the seasons, the months, the elements, the continents, the senses, etc.) through the enumeration of objects that pertain to them. A method, by the way, that was already prefigured in the art of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the Garland pictures, the Paradise Landscapes, and the Allegories of the Senses and the Elements, Brueghel’s encyclopedic genius prevails, whereas in Pan and Syrinx or the scenes from Diana’s Hunts, the Rubensian fable is dominant.
One of the matrices for these joint exercises is court culture as it flowered under the Dukes of Brabant and their Habsburg heirs in the past and was re-energized with the arrival of Albert and Isabella in the present. Achelous’ Feast may have originated as a witty reprise of the theme of the banquet as a satirical genre that by exaggerating the excesses of a banquet at court corrects the behavior of courtiers (cat. no. 3). The Allegory of Taste, now set in an imaginary room near Albert’s favorite hunting lodge, repeats the theme (cat. no 8). The Vision of St. Hubert depicts the conversion of a reputed Habsburg ancestor in the forest of Soignies and underscores the importance of that forest in the spiritual vocation of his modern descendants (cat. no. 7). Gardens filled with flowers form another court theme. In fact, it is not clear whether the riot of flowers in the various allegories and garlands reflects or stimulated the furor hortensis that took early seventeenth-century Europe by storm.
Each picture in this show is a rich summary of a generic tradition or a cultural discourse. The publication of this beautiful catalogue invites the continued exploration of a gamma of cultural poetics that stimulated the origination and reception of pictures that are virtually inexhaustible in their visual riches.
Leopoldine van Hogendorp Prosperetti