Marguerite Droz-Emmert, Catharina van Hemessen. Malerin der Renaissance, Basel: Schwabe Verlag 2004. 196 pp, 8 color plates, 29 b&w illus. ISBN: 3-7965-2095-2.
Karolien De Clippel, Catharina van Hemessen (1528 – na 1567). Een monografische studie over een ‘uytnemende wel geschickte vrouwe in de conste der schilderyen’(Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, 11) Brussels: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, 2004. 183 pp, 79 b&w illus. ISBN: 90-6569-921-x.
Not much is known about painting in Antwerp during the 1540s-1550s, and even less about female painters in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. It is therefore both providential and coincidental to have twopublications on the Antwerp painter Catharina van Hemessen (active 1548-1555) appearing in the same year.
During the period spanning the 1530s and 1550s, Italianate or classicizing forms replaced the very successful late-Gothic pictorial idioms in all segments of the Antwerp art market. The change took place in a tightly knit artistic milieu and involved such artists as Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, the Master of the Prodigal Son, the Master of SS Paul and Barnabas (possibly Jan Mandyn), the young Pieter Aertsen, Cornelis Massys, the Brunswick Monogrammist (possibly Jan van Amstel) and finally Frans Floris. This creative environment also nurtured the artistic talent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. At the same time, the expanding role of Antwerp’s print industry provided a decisive impulse for the dissemination of stylistic innovations. But the exact chronology of the stylistic evolution remains fuzzy due to the dearth of dated images and biographical data.
While some names of sixteenth-century Netherlandish female painters are known, works by only two of them have been identified: Catharina van Hemessen and Mechtelt toe Boecop. Catharina was the daughter of the successful history and genre painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen and as such part of Antwerp’s most innovative artistic set. She painted mainly portraits, but also a few sacred histories. Altogether thirteen signed and for the most dated works are known, including her epochal Selfportrait at the Easel of 1548 (Basel), which – not surprisingly – graces the cover of both monographs. However, the quality of her later portraits, such as the subtle Portrait of a Woman with a Lapdog (1551; London, National Gallery), is superior to that of the early selfportrait. In addition, Catharina signed four history paintings, which though artistically less convincing are nevertheless interesting as documents of her stylistic development.
The two books by Marguerite Droz-Emmert and Karolien De Clippel respectively follow different intentions and focusses. Droz-Emmert developed her text from an essay on Van Hemessen’s Basel Selfportrait. Her point of departure apparently is the idea that the earliest known selfportrait of a woman painting may be a key that helps us comprehend the artistic self-understanding of Renaissance women. The book begins with a summary of Catharina’s known biographical data and how they relate to the general history of the upbringing of women, the history of Antwerp and the court of the governor Mary of Hungary (pp. 15-44). Greater consideration is given to the iconographic tradition of the portrayal and self-portrayal of female artists (47-97). The essayistic text then changes to a thematically less focused monographic approach (99-140) and concludes with a list of works (175-181).
Although Droz-Emmert warns in her preface (10) that no attempt is made to characterize Van Hemessen’s oeuvre as a complete entity (“abgeschlossenes Ganzes”), this does not of course protect her publication from being judged according to professional standards. The reader gradually begins to doubt that the Selfportrait provides compelling evidence about the artistic self-understanding of women. The iconographic section lists the usual suspects: a few French manuscript illustrations, selfportraits by Antonis Mor and Isaac van Swanenburg and references to Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, though more promising is her discussion of the 1547Selfportrait by Ludger tom Ring the Younger in Braunschweig (69-71, fig. 6) since Tom Ring was probably in Antwerp during the 1540s.
The reader’s faith in the text’s reliability is eroded by vague formulations, sloppy research and the repeated transformation of pure assumption into hard fact. In the end, the book fails due to an indifference towards that essential art historical tool – connoisseurship. The last monographic section contains portraits that have nothing to do with Catharina van Hemessen but are treated as comparative pieces or examples of her artistic development. The “catalogue” of signed and attributed works is nothing more than an uncritical list, which at the most could have served as a starting point for further research but definitely does not count as an achievement worthy of publication. Though handsomely produced and containing eight color illustrations, the author did not fulfill her own goal of integrating Catharina van Hemessen’s Selfportrait and other works into their contemporary contexts.
De Clippel’s study arose from her licentiaatsverhandeling of 1997 (K.U. Leuven) and was the bases for an article the following year (Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten , Antwerp, 1998). Her book meets the demands of an up-to-date academic degree piece: a clear structure, a balanced discussion of previous research including the numerous gender study contributions and careful archival research. Having discussed the biographical sources relating to Catharina’s life (15-33), De Clippel analyses the artistic sources that informed her portraits and history paintings (35-52), the “patriarchal” treatment of the artist by her contemporaries and art history and the contribution of gender studies (53-70). The classical oeuvre catalogue that forms the second part of De Clippel’s publication provides an exemplary study of Catharina’s secure works, gives a critical and reasoned discussion of attributions and deals with the most important doubtful and erroneously attributed works. Illustrations provide a good visual documentation of the artist’s works and the chief comparative pieces. De Clippel’s judgements are balanced and her evaluations careful, and her discussion of doubtful works is particular welcome as it saves time-consuming searching.
So, does De Clippel’s text leave issues about Catharina van Hemessen’s life and work unanswered? Given the length of time between her initial study and final publication, it would of course have been desirable to have been able to draw on technical studies to support her attributions. She for example provides no technical information about the make-up of the panels or preparatory underdrawing, but does mention Nico van Hout’s restoration of a painting in a private collection (7, cat. B1). In view of the different versions of the Selfportrait at the Easel in Basel, Cape Town, and St. Petersburg, an infra-red examination for possible underdrawings could provide interesting results.
The clear delineation of Catharina van Hemessen’s portraits reveals how little is known about portraiture in Antwerp during the second third of the sixteenth century. An important point of reference is of course Antonis Mor, on whom however no comprehensive, up-to-date monograph exists. He remains the ‘collection bin’ for diverse artistic oeuvres, though one should not overestimate his role as isolated trendsetter. Though both Droz-Emmert and De Clippel see Van Hemessen’s Basel Selfportrait as a source for Mor’s own Selfportrait at the Easel of 1558 (Florence, Uffizi), the reference is more likely to Crispijn van den Broeck’s Selfportrait of 1557 (Old Master Paintings , Netherlandish Office for the Fine Arts, The Hague, 1992, no. 331). Equally, one would like to know more about the important and clearly well-connected Master of the 1540s. More than any other, Willem Key (1515/16-1568) appears to have been a stylistic model for Van Hemessen – or was he her follower? The 1556 Portrait of a Man(Verona, Museo di Castelvecchio), attributed to Key, corresponds more or less to Catharina’s 1549 portrait in Brussels (KMVSK; inv. 4157; Cat. De Klippel A5). Only through clarification of such aspects will it be possible to judge with greater precision the role of French portraiture on Antwerp’s artists. The courtly style of Franois Clouet’s portraits is quite similar to examples found in Antwerp (see also Droz-Emmert, fig. 25).
Equally rewarding for the field of history painting would be an examination of the artistic circles in which Catharina van Hemessen moved. While De Clippel sees an archaising aspect to her Crucifixion(cat. B2), a similar composition exists that has been convincingly attributed to the young Pieter Aertsen (panel, 19.5 x 13.5 cm; Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 1997, lot 128; private collection, Spain; a second version: Courtauld Gallery, London, inv. P.1978.PG.4). Aertsen joined Antwerp’s St Luke’s Guild in 1535, but his earliest dated painting is from 1545/46. According to Van Mander, Aertsen trained under Jan Mandijn. But what kind of works did Mandijn paint? Josua Bruyn temptingly proposed he may be identical with the Master of Saints Paul and Barnabas. Young Aertsen also engaged with the work of Catharina’s father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, as the facial types in the above-mentioned Crucifixion prove (and indeed the entire Passion cycle to which it belongs). Catharina’s works are thus to be placed in the tradition of the early works of her father and his artistic environment.
A final word on the subject of Catharina as a female painter and as such forced to work under particularly difficult circumstances. Judging from the sitters of her portraits, it is illuminating that she appears to have worked for urban/noble elite and the courtly milieu. The only other female Netherlandish artist whose works are known was a noblewoman – Mechtelt van Lichtenberg toe Boecop (c. 1520 – Kampen 1598). Characteristically, Catharina appears to have stopped painting almost completely after her marriage, probably upon the birth of her first child. There is no doubt that – then as now – precious talent and irreplaceable creativity are lost when gender prevents half of the human race from fulfilling its individual possibilities.
(Translated from the Germa by Fiona Healy)