In 2007, Koenraad Jonckheere published a study of the Antwerp painter, Adriaen Thomasz. Key, under Brepols’s “Pictura Nova” imprint (Adriaen Thomasz. Key (ca. 1545 – ca. 1589): Portrait of a Calvinist Painter, Turnhout 2007; reviewed in this journal November 2007). The present book complements his earlier study and presents the first monograph devoted to Thomasz.’s Antwerp teacher, Willem Key, an undertaking for which Jonckheere is singularly qualified.
Despite the shared surname, Willem Key and Adriaen Thomasz. Key are unrelated. An unpublished Amsterdam document, discovered by Piet Bakker, transcribed and discussed (p. 47), records that Adriaen Thomasz. took the name “Key” because he had lived and worked for so long with Willem Key. Jonckheere argues that this occurred upon Willem’s death in 1568, when Thomasz. took over his master’s artistic trademark, which was partly identified with the surname brand. This is one of many important revelations in this book, along with other indications of the prominence Willem Key enjoyed in Antwerp at mid-century: his wealth and elevated social position, his inclusion in Dominicus Lampsonius’s 1572 Netherlandish canon ( Pictorum aliquot celebrium…effigies), and a 1565 sonnet by Lucas de Heere extolling his skill in portraying the female nude. These praises stand in contrast with the artist’s typically minimized position in the modern art historical literature, where, as Jonckheere stresses, his portraits are usually seen as lesser in comparison to Anthonis Mor’s, and his history paintings as inferior to those from Frans Floris’s studio. By contrast, Jonckheere constructs a nuanced profile of Key’s achievements, as he shows that the painter was an Antwerp pioneer who endowed Italianate compositions with a Netherlandish rhetoric (thereby anticipating Rubens) and also transformed older, authoritative Netherlandish images using classical, Renaissance idioms.
The book consists of a concise overview of the artist’s life and work, followed by a detailed, five-part catalogue raisonné, the core of the study, which accounts for three-quarters of the text. The majority of Key’s output is portraiture, followed by religious subjects and just over a dozen mythological paintings. In Jonckheere’s formulation, the oeuvre, including reassignments from existing attributions to Mor, Pieter Pourbus and others, comes to 110 autograph paintings and workshop copies, plus 100 works that are problematic or untraceable from the early literature and collection inventories. There are no certain drawings, though Jonckheere leans strongly toward accepting one beautiful chalk portrait of a bearded man in Berlin (cat. B27).
bThe artist’s earliest known portraits, pendants of a wealthy, middle-aged couple, painted a year after his 1542 admission to the Antwerp guild (cats. A1, A2), evoke several conundrums. Shown seated in nearly three-quarter length, each figure is situated within a generously broad space, filled with soft, atmospheric lighting and juxtaposed to the monumental base of an imposing classical column, which ennobles their personal presence and social status. This is a convention associated with Titian and, later, Anthonis Mor, yet Titian did not employ this portrait type until five years after Key. Jonckheere credits Key with introducing this highly influential type (it extended to Rubens) into Netherlandish painting, arguing that his knowledge of classical architecture originated in his training with both Pieter Coecke and Lambert Lombard, as well as Coecke’s illustrations of Serlio’s architectural treatise. The other part of the puzzle is that, with the single exception of a later portrait of Cardinal Granvelle (cat. A41), Key abandoned this portrait invention; nearly all of his subsequent portraits revert to a sober, unadorned schema placing the sitter before a flat, neutral background.
Jonckheere connects this typology, even the paintings’ facture, to the example of Joos van Cleve’s portraits from the 1530s, speculating that Key might have studied with Joos between the time of Coecke’s departure from Antwerp in 1533/34 and Key’s own move to Liège around 1538/39, to enter Lombard’s studio for advanced training. But what motivated this shift to an utterly matter-of-fact style? Jonckheere locates the answer in the image debates then raging in the Low Countries. To avoid even the hint of idolatry, many, like the Catholic author Martinus Duncanus, demanded that painters totally exclude any display of their own artistry. Images should solely reflect God’s creation: a straightforward mimesis of the natural world and nothing else.
Key’s earliest foray into history painting – a large, 1546 classical representation of Susanna and the Elders (cat. A74) – offers another instance of an innovative iconography at the start of his career. In this case Key fashions a monumental, Italianate nude, the genre that Floris is usually credited with introducing into Antwerp art. In his Pommersfelden picture, Key introduced this full-frontal nude type earlier and more boldly than Floris. Here, Jonckheere proposes a provocative theory that the shift toward conspicuously large-scale, erotic art in Antwerp in the 1540s may have been facilitated by the decline of the older, church-controlled public art market at Our Lady’s Pand and the resulting opening, during that decade, of the city-owned, artist-operated Painters’ Pand at the New Bourse. In the latter setting – secular and purely commercial – there likely would have been neither religious nor moral impediments to the display and sale of large paintings of female nudes.
Jonckheere mounts multiple arguments to support his conviction that Willem Key never traveled to Italy. He believes that Key’s knowledge of classical mythology, humanist themes and theory, and Italian imagery came from his teachers, peers, and the original works, copies, and prints available in the Low Countries. Yet he also suggests that by the 1550s Key’s more limited knowledge of Italian art became inadequate in comparison to the first-hand knowledge of his contemporaries like Floris and Mor. At this point, Key turned his Italianizing lens upon older, iconic Flemish images, most memorably a series of Pietás (cats. A85, A86, A87), based upon a Metsys prototype, in which the artist turned the dead Christ into a muscular classical nude and unified the lighting tonalities of figures and landscape in a way that suggests Venetian influence. Jonckheere is also aware, though in my view he underplays it, that the new interest during the fifties in the work of the great earlier Flemish masters coincides with the decades when a Netherlandish canon was being formulated, in the writings of De Heere, Guicciardini, Vasari, Marcus van Vaernewyck, and Lampsonius.
Jonckheere has produced an authoritative, thoughtful study of Willem Key that will likely remain the essential book on the artist. He has restored Key to the status he enjoyed in his lifetime and has identified multiple dimensions of his historical significance. The book includes an appendix of contemporary literary sources and an addendum cataloguing nearly two dozen new Adriaen Thomasz. paintings that have surfaced since 2007.