A Dutch museum features a fascinating painting of the art of painting itself, in the guise of a woman artist at the easel. The museum ignores overwhelming evidence for its origins in a collaboration between Jan Brueghel I and Frans Francken II and wrongheadedly gives it to Jan Brueghel II.
The Noordbrabants Museum is holding an enjoyable if somewhat incoherent exhibition bringing together work by five generations of members of the Brueghel clan of Antwerp in what it hyperbolically calls a reunion, “for the first time in history […], of the most famous family in the history of Western art.”
To my great pleasure, it singles out for the cover of the catalogue, the poster and frequent quotation in the exhibition, a painting I love, to which thirty years ago I devoted a long article.
After Jan Brueghel I and Frans Francken II, Lady Pictura painting flowers, original painted between 1618 and 1621
Oil on copper, 49 x 77 cm
Den Bosch, Noordbrabants Museum, on loan from the JK Art Foundation
In a foreground room whose walls are covered with paintings and whose floor is covered with drawings, studio paraphernalia and more paintings, the allegorical figure of Pictura – the art of painting itself – is painting a flower still-life. This space plays on the motif of the kunstkamer painting – a collector’s gallery in action. The action is mostly provided by visitors interacting with the owner, with each other and with objects in the collection. In this room the only figure is a woman artist, clearly intended to be a personification of the art of painting. In my article, I dubbed her Lady Pictura.
In the space behind, painters seated beside six tall windows are working on big canvases, one a portrait of a woman sitter, while studio assistants at the back wall grind pigments and three little boys make paintings of their own at the feet of the foremost artist. Pictures of painters’ studios are not uncommon in Dutch and Flemish art, but they tend to show one man at work, with or without apprentices, plaster models, books, musical instruments or other tools of the trade, in artistic disarray – like the lady in the front room. Here we see something like industrial production, stripped of all distracting features, a setup irreverently called “working on the galley.” The painting projects competing images of the artist at work. The archway separating the two spaces is crowned by the coat of arms of the Antwerp painters’ guild, suggesting that the membership included lone creators as well as entrepreneurial manufacturers of art, which was indeed the case.
To my great displeasure, the exhibition and its catalogue ignore my article and what I have to say about the origins of the painting. It is mentioned only thus, in a note:
My article and Buijsen’s are posted at https://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/lady-pictura-painting-flowers/.
What is not said about the attribution, to which I limit these remarks, is that Klaus Ertz and I assign the invention of the composition to two different Brueghels. I see in it the mind of Jan Brueghel the Elder and his collaborator Frans Francken the Younger, and the hand, copying a lost original of 1618-21, by a lesser master than they – perhaps, though I doubt it, Jan Brueghel the Younger. Ertz assigns conception and execution to Jan Brueghel the Younger, dating it ca. 1630. (For convenience I will follow convention and give the Elders and Youngers Roman numerals I and II.) Rather than judging our competing claims, the catalogue simply adopts that of Ertz, and throughout labels the painting as by Jan Brueghel II.
Because there is more at stake in this difference of opinion than just whether to put a I or II after the name, I feel called upon to conduct the discussion that the museum does not.
In defense of his attribution, Ertz downgrades the inventiveness and historical significance of Lady Pictura, as I will call the painting.
The concept of the painting is by no means so original that only the genius of a father, together with Frans Francken, come into consideration as makers. It reveals itself to be a compilation of motifs from the Madrid cycle of the senses. Add to these the pendants of the senses in Madrid, and nothing is left that demands the participation of Jan I.
This is pretty remarkable. The Madrid paintings of the senses are grand inventions in which Jan I collaborated, as the main pusher and mover, with Peter Paul Rubens and a choice group of top Antwerp artists. What Ertz is saying, then, is that the fact that some motifs in Lady Pictura correspond to motifs in paintings by Jan I is evidence in support of its having been painted by Jan II. A close look reveals how defective this reasoning is, as well as being illogical.
Here are the two paintings in Madrid with motifs corresponding to some in Lady Pictura.
Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel I, Allegory of Sight, 1617, from a five-part series of the senses
Oil on panel, 64.7 x 109.5 cm
Madrid, Museo del Prado (P001394)
Jan Brueghel I, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen and Sebastiaan Vrancx, Allegory of Sight and Smell, ca. 1618, from a two-part pair of the senses
Oil on canvas, 176 x 264 cm
Madrid, Museo del Prado (P001403)
Below I illustrate corresponding details from the Madrid paintings of the senses with those from Lady Pictura. The photos, like those above, can be enlarged by clicking on them, after which you have to click on the arrow for the previous screen to get back to the column.
Let me start with a particularly strong example.
Peter Paul Rubens, Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, before 1618 (on the right)
Oil on panel, 118.5 x 102 cm
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum (704)
Prominently displayed on the floor in Lady Pictura (right, as in the following comparisons as well) is a portrait by Rubens of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1433-77). The painting itself, which must have been made before 1618, was passed down the Habsburg lines to its present location in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In the Madrid painting that Ertz says provided the source for the motifs in Lady Pictura, we see only a fragment. In order to have put it into Lady Pictura in 1630, Jan Brueghel II would not have had enough to go by if he were merely compiling motifs from the Sense of Sight. In varying measure, the same can be said of the following.
In the upper right of Lady Pictura is an interesting painting, as yet unidentified, showing a woman looking into the contents of a casket, seemingly containing jewelry, being held open for her by a man. A small crowd of curious bystanders behind them look over their shoulders. This composition is found as a detail in both of the Madrid paintings illustrated above.
Here too the version in Lady Pictura is more complete than in the paintings Ertz considers to be its sources.
The opposite is the case of a painting of a woman, looking like a work by Pieter Aertsen or Joachim Beuckelaer, who in the Madrid Allegory of Sight is holding a fish. In Lady Pictura that part of the painting is cut off by another leaning against it.
Nor is the St. Cecilia to the left of Pictura, in a copy after Raphael’s Ecstasy of St. Cecilia (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), simply taken over from the painting of her in the Allegory of Sight. The latter, like the Raphael, is rectangular in composition, while in Lady Pictura it is arched.
There is one more corresponding motif.
The Deposition of Christ on the receding wall on the right of the Allegory of Sight, the tones of which are dampened by distance, recurs in full color in Lady Pictura.
These correspondences are not discoveries of mine. They were published and illustrated in 1955 in one of the best books on painting in Antwerp, Marcel De Maeyer, Albrecht en Isabella en de schilderkunst. De Maeyer added another telltale correspondence. Immediately above Pictura’s head is a view of Mariemont, the country palace of Archdukes Albert and Isabella, the rulers of the Habsburg Netherlands.
It looks pretty exactly like the view (left) of the palace painted by Jan Brueghel I not in one of the Senses allegories of 1617-1618 but in the background of Rubens’s 1615 portrait of the lady of the manor, Archduchess Isabella, in the Prado (P001684). As De Maeyer notes, this implies a latest date for the origins of Lady Pictura. After the death of her husband Albert in 1621, Isabella discontinued the highly cultured pleasure-dome life at Mariemont to which she had been attached. She even asked her nephew, Philip IV, to be allowed to return to Madrid and become a Discalced Carmelite. When the sixteen-year-old newly crowned king refused to relieve her of her political responsibility for the Spanish Netherlands, she took vows in the Franciscan order of the Poor Clares. For a painter with ties to the court, as all of them had, it would have been utterly insensitive to feature Mariemont in this way after 1621.
This applies with even greater force to the other painting by Rubens – in collaboration with and conveying honor to Jan Brueghel I – in the right foreground. The largest detail in Lady Pictura, it is the only other painting depicted, beside the portrait of Charles the Bold, that is known today:
Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel I, The feast of Achelous, ca. 1615
Oil on panel, 108 x 163.8 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (45.141)
To link this image, with its pagan nudity, to Isabella’s country palace, at a time when all she wanted from life was to be a nun, would not have occurred to any Antwerp artist with a modicum of good sense and human feeling. What in 1620 would have been a compliment to Isabella’s sophistication, would in 1630 have been a cruel reminder that her gracious life with Albert was no more, and an insult to her impassioned vocation.
To sum up. Unless Jan Brueghel II disposed over copies of works depicted in the senses paintings in 1617-18, as well as the view of Mariemont in the background of a portrait belonging to Isabella, for him to have painted Lady Pictura in 1630 he would have had to scout around looking for the originals. His father, on the other hand, had all the necessary elements at hand. He will have made the painting between 1618, when the long series of the Senses is dated, and 1621, before the death of Albert. No paintings later than 1618 are depicted.
As for Pictura herself, she is found in a form like this only in the works of the main founding father of Antwerp kunstkamer painting, Frans Francken II. In the same years as Jan Brueghel painted the Senses (some in collaboration with Francken) he created this stunning religious image.
Frans Francken II, Christ in the painter’s studio (Pictura sacra), ca. 1615-20
Oil on panel, 112 x 148 cm
Budapest, Szémüveszeti Múzeum (53.481)
Is he not the most likely artist to have shown her making a secular one? The comparison is revealing in another important sense. The wielder of the brush to Lady Pictura painting flowers was not as good a painter as Frans Francken II. Surely not as good as Jan Brueghel I – or, if you ask me, as Jan Brueghel II either. There is a disparity between the quality of the concept and of the execution, leading me to conclude that it is a copy, by one artist, after a lost original made by two.
In further testing of Ertz’s attribution, it must be said that only one kunstkamer painting has ever been attached to the name of Jan Brueghel II. It is a work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, dated by the museum ca. 1660, thirty years later than Ertz’s dating of Lady Pictura. But did Jan II indeed paint it? It is not signed, and in the exhibition a twin painting was displayed, attributed not to him but to Jan van Kessel the Elder in collaboration with Victor Wolfvoet II. Have a look, with the captions of the exhibition in Den Bosch and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, respectively.
Jan van Kessel the Elder and Victor Wolfvoet II, Allegory of Sight, with a view on the Schelde in Antwerp, ca. 1650
Oil on copper, 60 x 80 cm
Antwerp, KBC Bank NV, Museum Snijders&Rockoxhuis, 2018.1
Jan Brueghel the Younger, Allegory of Sight (Venus and Cupid in an art gallery), ca. 1660
Oil on copper, 58.1 x 89.7 cm
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art (John G. Johnson Collection, 1917; 656)
The curator of the Noordbrabants Museum who signed for the exhibition and therefore for the attribution of that painting, Nadia Baadj, took her Ph.D with a monograph on Jan van Kessel. Can she think that the painting in Philadelphia – which has none of the overlapping motifs with Lady Pictura that the latter has with the oeuvres of Jan I and Francken – was really painted by Jan Brueghel II? If not, how can she endorse Klaus Ertz’s attribution of Lady Pictura to an artist not known ever to have practiced the genre?
To the crunch: if the composition of Lady Pictura was a collaboration between Jan Brueghel I and Frans Francken II, it was in the hands of two masters with between them nearly forty firmly attributed kunstkamer paintings from 1610 on. In it, salient reflections are found of well-known creations by the two. If, as Klaus Ertz and the Noordbrabants Museum label it, it was made by Jan Brueghel II, it stands in isolation. (Ertz does cite some affinities, but none comes close to the specificities illustrated here.)
Why is this more important than just the name on the label? Placed in the expansive Antwerp environment of the late 1610s, the painting rises far above the role assigned to it by Klaus Ertz, as a random assemblage made around 1630 of motifs from the 1610s. The original, as I see it, was a worthy accompaniment to Jan Brueghel I’s other collaborations of the period, with the cream of the Antwerp world of art and patronage. Featuring the archducal palace of Mariemont, the Rubens portrait of a previous ruler of Burgundy (Charles the Bold was Isabella’s great-great-great grandfather, through his wife, Isabella of Bourbon), and the arms of the guild of St. Luke, the painting becomes a statement concerning the role of art in Burgundian rule. Not to shy away from a conclusion – the Noordbrabants Museum, by labeling Lady Pictura as by Jan Brueghel II, misses the point of its own poster baby.
An unpublished, amateur echo of Lady Pictura of which I took a picture in the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu some twenty-two years ago, awaiting further study.
© 2023 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 27 December 2023. To see other postings on kunstkamer painting, enter that word in the search window in the upper right.
In the past month I seem to have been in Belgium three times, two of which visits were marked with tension. On 29 November Loekie and I went with the Contact Group for Early Netherlandish Art to see the Dieric Bouts exhibition in the museum in Leuven that foolishly calls itself M. The tension attached to the exhibition had to do with the decision of the curators to call Bouts not an artist, a designation they consider anachronistic, but an “image-maker.” This allowed them to build an air bridge to “image-makers” of 2023, in service of “a radical confrontation with today’s visual culture.”
This move was not appreciated by all and has led to some polemic vituperation. I did not allow the resultant interventions or arguments to spoil my Early Netherlandish delight in Bouts. In Den Bosch too, there were trans-historical hurdles to be taken, as when the director, in the second paragraph of her foreword to the catalogue, links the “Brueghel empire” to institutional racism in the French banlieus. The kind of thing that drives a lot of socially sensitive people, let alone anti-woke bigots, up the wall. I took it in stride.
On 3 December I was at the perfectly presented Sunday morning concert of the Antwerp Philharmonic, to hear the first cellist, Raphael Bell, solo in Edouard Lalo’s cello concerto and to play a wonderfully moving encore with the second cellist, an intimate duet by Jacques Offenbach. The impetus to drive to Antwerp that morning came from the presence at the concert of Rafe’s parents, Mac and Ruthie Bell. Mac and I were fellow trenchmasters at Aphrodisias in 1963 and have been friends since. I followed up my hour with Mac and Ruthie at the good-vibes post-concert reception with a look at the exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Turning heads. Here too, as in Leuven, the present day was pushed onto the attention of visitors, but in a way that I liked – little games you can play with your own and others’ faces, and extra, live attractions.
Our big outing of the winter were our three days in Middelburg, 19-21 December. The immediate occasion was our desire to dive into the Adriaen van de Venne exhibition, which we indeed relished. In this case, the poster image linked in a deeply positive way with my own history. The painting thus honored
is the same one that in 1976 was chosen by my book designer and dear, departed friend Alje Olthof, to adorn the cover of my edition of All the paintings of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The departure of a dignitary from Middelburg.
It was so cold and rainy in Middelburg that we ourselves departed on day 2, postponing our plan to take a walking tour, and went instead to Ghent, an hour’s drive away. The incentive was an invitation we had received a few days before to attend a press conference with the provocative title “The disastrous restoration of Phase 2 of the Ghent Altarpiece.”
We owed the invitation to a chat we had in Leuven with Hélène Verougstraete, a grande dame of the scientific study of early Netherlandish painting. She is incensed at the way the upper section of the center panel has been restored, in the ongoing restoration project. Above is the pair of images accompanying the announcement of the press conference, in which irreversible interventions were performed, such as scraping out a castle that Verougstraete’s partner in outrage, Jean-Pierre Coppens, says belonged to the family of Jodocus Vijdt, who commissioned the altarpiece, and was therefore integral to the conception of the altarpiece.
Verougstraete’s criticism of the administrative as well as technical conduct of the restoration was tied into a theory about the relative roles of Hubert and Jan van Eyck in painting the altarpiece, a theory I found implausible. Some of her slides, however, did look shocking, and this impression was reinforced when Loekie and I went straight from the congress center to St. Bavo’s Cathedral and entered the presence of the highly polished altarpiece. [For a correction to this statement, see below.] The response on Facebook by Maximiliaan Martens, a member of the international supervisory committee of the restoration, to the brouhaha ignited by the press conference, says that all of Verougstraete’s objections have long been dealt with and were found to be baseless. A 600-page report seems to have been written, which I can only hope contains information sufficiently convincing to explain the radical changes brought about in the composition. An amazing website, Closer to Van Eyck, enables you to see it all in hi-res , before, during and after restoration .
10 January 2024. In the text as posted, I drew too direct a connection between the presentation of Hélène Verougstraete and my impression of the Ghent Altarpiece in the cathedral. Hélène’s slides and arguments indeed shook me, putting me on edge as I went to look at the Altarpiece. My personal history of contact with that great work played a more important role. When I first saw it, in 1966, it was located in the Vijd Chapel, for which it had been created. I believe that it stood behind an altar, which was the idea. It was manned by a guardian who was responsible for protecting it from careless visitors, and for opening and shutting the wings to allow us to see it in both phases. This was as authentic an experience of the Altarpiece as could be imagined, short of a liturgical function, which I do not think has been conducted in my lifetime.
In the 1980s the cathedral began charging separate admission to see the Altarpiece, which ironically cheapened the quality of the encounter. It was moved to the Villa Chapel, next to the east entrance, where it lost its locational integrity and took on the air of a tourist attraction. It was here too, in the 2010’s, that the presentation changed character once more, as the restored panels were featured independently. You lost contact with the ensemble, but gained precious close contact to the surface of the newly cleaned and restored sections and were struck by the brightness of the local tones, with the old, discolored varnish removed.
Last month I saw it for the first time in the Sacrament Chapel, in which it had been installed in 2021. Now it is something else yet. For one thing, the payment charged for a viewing now encompasses the entire choir of the cathedral. The Ghent Altarpiece has cannibalized a third of its church.
In an architectural setting I find pompously inappropriate, it offers neither a sense of worship nor the opportunity of close inspection, but a kind of Wizard of Oz overbearingness. The bright colors now seemed too brilliant, somehow hokey. With Verougstraete’s charges ringing in my ears, the distanced presentation seemed to be saying “Don’t get too close, you might not like what you see.” The effect of the cleaning and the professional, stage-designed lighting makes the painting space look flat and less convincing. Whether you can ever, as a visitor, see the Altarpiece closed, as for centuries it looked all the time except during services, I do not know. You can walk around the sides and see the outside of the wings close up, and, at an angle, greet Jodocus Vijd, now separated some ten meters from his wife.
This is what hit me, and in linking my distress to Hélène Verougstraete’s accusations of restoration wrongdoing, I barged unknowingly into a big Flemish battlefield of which I was unaware. A response from the leader of the restoration team, for which I am grateful, led me to consult the text materials concerning the restoration on Closer to Van Eyck. There, a summary explanation is offered on the decision-making behind the removal of old overpainting, which took place before those overpaintings were copied in a replica of the Altarpiece made before 1557 for King Philip II of Spain by Michiel Coxie. One can argue the wisdom of this, but knowing and respecting the colleagues behind it, I have no doubt that it was taken conscientiously.
Dear subscribers to the Schwartzlist, I find it difficult to wish you a happy new year, in view of the devastations, irreparable to many of those affected, that 2023 has bequeathed us. All I can hope for is a diminution of the pace of the ongoing damage being done to the planet and to life in so many parts of it. Hardly an uplifting thought. Does it help to apologize for continuing to enjoy my own life so intensely? If it does, please join me and savor the pleasurable and gratifying feelings and experiences of yours and your loved ones.
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