De Vrij 2012
Jheronimus bosch – An Exercise in Common Sense (Marc Rudolf de Vrij) 2012
[M.R.V. publishers, Hilversum, 2012, 732 pages]
It took me four years to learn about the existence of De Vrij’s book on Bosch and another four months to lay hands on it. But when I finally started reading, it soon became clear that this is definitely one of the better monographs on Bosch that have recently been published. In spite of some minor flaws (hardly avoidable when dealing with the massive bulk of Bosch literature), its occasional arrogant tone, and its subjective statements at times, Jheronimus bosch – An Exercise in Common Sense is bound to become a new work of reference in a number of respects complying with high standards of art-historical research and written in almost impeccable, attractive English. For the general reader it may be a hard nut to crack but for every true Bosch scholar it undeniably makes required reading to which he or she should return time and again. It is all the more unfortunate therefore that the book is presented in a very unsatisfactory way, too unsatisfactory at any rate for its (very) high price ($ 350,00!). Its size is minimal (30,5 x 24,8 cm for 732 pages) making the back very fragile and the book unwieldy, the typeface is awfully small, the illustrations are diminutive and of poor quality, there are numerous printing errors, and there is no index. Perhaps the author should not have dedicated his book ‘to my bank’ (the least one can say is that this does not sound very nice at all), but on the other hand, it is crystal clear that this text deserved a devoted publisher and a better layout (instead of being published by its own author).
Introduction [pp. 5-8]
The author does not expect too much from the forthcoming Bosch exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch (2016): everyone is going to have his or her say about Bosch, and new generations of scholars are going to repeat the mistakes of the former. In the past, there have been a lot of worthless publications dealing with Bosch. Examples are the books by Virginia Pitts Rembert, Lynda Harris, Kurt Falk, Wilhelm Fraenger, and Dick Heesen. De Vrij is not going to present controversial new insights, but he wants to bring together what we know for sure about Bosch: ‘Here are the facts plain and simple. And in addition to these there is an illustrated overview of all known Bosch related paintings that aims for completeness, a first, and that will hopefully facilitate comparison and spurn Bosch students to think and judge for themselves rather than following face value the often less than infallible judgements of the so-called authorative sources’ [p. 6].
Chapter 1: The naked Bosch: A life in facts [pp.9-45]
Chapter 1 offers a survey of Bosch’s life starting off with Bosch’s great-grandfather Thomas Thomaszoon van Aken, probably a painter who lived in Nijmegen in the early fifteenth century. Bosch’s grandfather, Jan (Johannes) Thomaszoon van Aken, was a painter as well and moved from Nijmegen to ’s-Hertogenbosch shortly before 1427. He died in 1454. Anthonius Janszoon van Aken was Bosch’s father. He died in 1478. De Vrij then focuses on Bosch’s name, on Bosch’s brothers and sisters, on Bosch’s bourgeois and noble patrons, and on Bosch’s possible absence from ’s-Hertogenbosch between 1498 and 1508. Bosch died in 1516. He was a sworn member of the local Brotherhood of Our Lady.
In this chapter De Vrij relies heavily on Van Dijck 2001a (called an ‘excellent and useful book’ on page 29) , but in spite of his motto ‘here are the facts’, every now and then – although very rarely – he appears to be somewhat inaccurate . Two examples. De Vrij [p. 12] writes that Bosch’s father Anthonius married Aleid van der Mynnen in 1449, but Van Dijck [p. 26] writes that in 1449 Anthonius is mentioned in an archival document as already being married to Aleid van der Mynnen. So, Anthony and Aleid married before 1449. De Vrij dates the document February 2, 1449 [p. 36 (note 21)]; Van Dijck dates February 4, 1449 [p. 155]. Furthermore, De Vrij [p. 13] writes that Bosch’s eldest brother Goessen was born in or around 1444. Obviously, this strongly contradicts the wedding year 1449. Although this example may seem futile, it is not without relevance. If Bosch’s father married in 1449, it would be very unlikely that Bosch, who had an elder brother, would be born in 1450, as is often asserted (although ‘circa 1450’ is more generally accepted). Another example. On page 13 De Vrij writes that Bosch’s eldest sister Katharina died in infancy in 1442 (without any further reference). But according to Van Dijck [p. 29] Katharina was still mentioned in an archival document in 1474…
Chapter 2 : Bosch and his world [pp. 47-93]
A short history of the City of ’s-Hertogenbosch and of the Duchy of Brabant. Some information on the house of Bosch’s father and on the house of Bosch and his wife, both houses situated at the Market Square. The absence of a painters’ guild in ’s-Hertogenbosch during Bosch’s lifetime. The local archives inform us that Bosch had to pay more communal taxes than most of the other artists, but he was far removed from the upper stratum of local society: many paid more taxes than Bosch. Many of Bosch’s relatives were a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, and this was special for painters. Being a ‘sworn brother’ (as was the case with Bosch) was even more special. De Vrij does not believe that Bosch painted the St John on Patmos (Berlin) and the St John the Baptist (Madrid) for the altarpiece of the Brotherhood of our Lady. The David and Abigail and Solomon and Batsheba panels, mentioned in the early 17th century as parts of this altarpiece and now only known in copies, were painted by Gielis Panhedel. Other Bosch paintings in ’s-Hertogenbosch as reported by chroniclers. The renewed interest in Bosch since the 1870s. The issue of Bosch portraits and self-portraits.
Chapter 3 : Collecting Bosch [pp. 95-139]
This chapter will make very dull reading for the general public, but to the Bosch expert it offers a convenient overview of what early archives (1500-1800) in Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Austria, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany tell us about paintings by Bosch’s hand (or supposedly by Bosch’s hand), and of how and when modern museums acquired paintings by Bosch (or supposedly by Bosch) after 1800. On page 115 De Vrij points out that modern scholars consider many of the paintings mentioned in archives as faithfully reproducing now lost originals. It is De Vrij’s belief that in most cases these ‘mythical originals’ never existed and that the so-called ‘copies’ are made by artists cleverly imitating Bosch’s style.
Chapter 4 : Exploring Bosch [pp. 141-187]
Chapter 4 offers the reader an overview of what has been written about Bosch. A first section focuses on the period 1500-1800: Felipe de Guevara, Dominic Lampsonius, Father Jose de Siguenza, Ludovico Guicciardini, Gonzalo Argote de Molina, Ambrosio de Morales, Karel van Mander, Jusepe Martinez, Fray Francisco de los Santos, André Felibien, Isaac Bullart, Gregorio de Mayans, Father Andrés Ximenez, Antonio Ponz, Juan Augustín Ceán Bermudez. A second section deals with modern Bosch scholarship, from 1800 up to now. Again, the list of names is a long one: Johann Fiorillo, Franz Kugler, Gustav Waagen, Joseph Crowe and George Cavalcaselle, George Rathgeber, Heinrich Hotho, Alfred Michiels, Alexandre Pinchart, Johann Passavant, Johannes Hezenmans, Carl Justi, Hermann Dollmayr, Berthold Riehl, Maurice Gossart, Paul Lafond, Kurt Pfister, Walter Schürmeyer, Ludwig von Baldass, Max Friedländer, Charles de Tolnay, Wilhelm Fraenger, C. Wertheim-Aymès, Lynda Harris, Dirk Bax, Jacques Combe, Andrew Pigler, Lotte Brand Philip, Walter Starkie, Charles Cuttler, Anna Boczkowska, Madeleine Bergman, Virginia Pitts, Stefan Fischer, Ester Vink, Lucas van Dijck. A third and final section reviews the historical novels written by Friedrich Huebner, Armand Boni, Peter Dempf, John Vermeulen, and Nelleke van Tuyl.
There is some lack of balance in this chapter. Whereas the first section can only be called profound and highly informative, the second section, although starting off in the same vein, soon peters out and suddenly becomes superficial, boxing quite a number of (unnamed) authors together in one sentence (‘I think I can safely say that Bosch scholarship seems an endless rerun of the same show’). Whereas too many pages are spent on Fraenger’s mumbo jumbo, major Bosch scholars such as Marijnissen, Vandenbroeck, Koldeweij, Silver, Koreny (all of them having published before 2012!) are not even mentioned. And how unfair it is to name Pitts Rembert and Fischer in one breath adding that they both ‘continue on the trodden path like nothing happened’ (unfair to Stefan Fischer that is). There is also some humour in this chapter, though, particularly in the third section in which De Vrij cuts to pieces the historical novels dealing with Bosch. More than once in this monograph De Vrij does not shy away from giving his personal opinions (for which he has to be admired), and at times he does sound a little bit arrogant, but in this last section he regularly sounds so aggravated that it becomes funny. ‘It is a sorry lot the above’, he concludes after having skinned alive all those authors of historical novels. I find that a hilarious little sentence.
Chapter 5 : Copies, Forgeries and Followers [pp. 189-239]
Chapter 5 deals with the copies of Bosch originals and with the imitations. De Vrij divides the imitations into two categories: those that were produced by artists that actually worked for the Bosch workshop, and those that were produced by followers from outside the Bosch sphere. The technique of copy and paste was standard practice in the Bosch workshop and a considerable number of paintings post-dating Bosch’s death follow the same concept. These should be assigned to artists who knew Bosch’s work from firsthand experience. According to De Vrij, the works of the second category are ‘frauds’. The engravings published by Hieronymus Cock, with their fake inscriptions ‘Hieronymus Bos inventor’ are examples of these. If they really were copies after Bosch originals, how come these originals all seem to have been lost, whereas no engravings after Bosch paintings that are still known today have come down to us? Peter Bruegel, Jan van Doetecum, and Peter van der Heyden worked for Hieronymus Cock.
De Vrij seems quite convinced that the ‘Hieronymus Bos inventor’ labels are not to be trusted and should be considered a commercial trick on the part of Cock. Yet, he calls Bruegel’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ series ‘the masterpiece of Bosch epigonism’. Is it not strange then that precisely these engravings do not bear the inscription ‘Hieronymus Bos inventor’? If De Vrij is right, this would mean that Hieronymus Cock missed out on a good chance to make more profit here.
Most of the paintings on canvas that were and are attributed to Bosch (as ‘copies of lost originals’) are probably not copies of lost Bosch originals but of engravings like those published by Cock. Attributions to Bosch in early inventories are anything but reliable. Furthermore, De Vrij discusses (supposed) Bosch imitations representing the following subjects: The Cure of Folly, The Conjurer, The Repairer of Bellows, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, The Battle Elephant, The Last Judgement, and Christ’s Descent into Limbo. Some paragraphs are spent on Jan Mandijn, Peter Huys, and Jan Wellens de Cock. De Vrij is convinced that Alart Du Hameel’s engravings were not influenced by Bosch, and he introduces the Antwerp artist Marcellus Coffermans as the painter of a number of Boschian Last Judgement triptychs. One of these he even considers a faithful copy of a lost Bosch original (see page 229, ill. 143). Why these paintings should be attributed to Coffermans is not explained. In spite of the ‘common sense’ phrase in the title of his book, De Vrij’s statements in this chapter are sometimes highly subjective and debatable. ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, and ‘I am sure’ are not exactly the strongest of arguments…
Chapter 6 : The real thing [pp. 241-310]
After having elaborated (once more) on Bosch’s supposed participation in the altarpiece of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, and after having dismissed the Philadelphia Adoration of the Magi and the Munich Last Judgement fragment as Bosch originals, the author (finally) focuses on the authentic Bosch paintings and their copies. The Frankfurt Ecce Homo comes first, followed by the Brussels Crucifixion, the London Christ Crowned with Thorns, the Bruges Last Judgement triptych, and the Escorial Christ Carrying the Cross. These paintings belong to the earlier stages of Bosch’s career (although De Vrij explicitly mentions that there is no evidence to substantiate this). The Ghent Christ Carrying the Cross is not by Bosch. The Vienna Last Judgement triptych is the triptych that Philip the Fair commissioned in 1504. It was copied by Lucas Cranach. Other paintings follow: the Prado Adoration of the Magi, the Venice Triptych with a Crucified Female Saint, the Rotterdam St Christopher; the Venice Hermits triptych, the Ghent St Hieronymus, the Garden of Delights triptych, the two versions of the Haywain triptych, and the so-called Pedlar triptych of which the centre panel has been lost. To the paintings which are considered ‘late works’ by De Vrij belong The Cure of Folly, the Venice Visions of the Hereafter panels, the Lisbon St Anthony triptych, and the Rotterdam Flood panels.
In this chapter De Vrij often focuses on style and on the borrowing of motifs and details (within and outside the Bosch oeuvre), sometimes in a very subjective and debatable manner. And although in most cases his rendering of the various paintings’ general meaning is correct, it should also be pointed out here that apparently iconography is not De Vrij’s forte. Some examples. On pages 272-273, his interpretation of the Tree Man in the Garden of Delights is very unconvincing: completely out of the blue, the egg-shape of this figure’s body is related to the egg as a symbol of death in Jewish folklore, and the comparison of Bosch’s Tree Man with a giant in a Bruegelian engraving makes little sense. Regarding the Haywain triptych, the hay symbolism is related to Jesaiah 40, 7-8 (and I quote from page 278) where it is stated that ‘the World is a Haywain from which everyone tries to snatch whatever he can’ (unquote). One only has to pick up a Bible to find out that this is not only very inaccurate but also completely untrue. On the same page we read that a lute is a phallic symbol. An erotic symbol referring to the coitus perhaps and definitely a symbol of the vagina, but certainly not a phallic symbol, at least not in late medieval literature and art! Be it also mentioned here that more than once De Vrij seems strangely confused when it comes down to identifying interior panels of triptychs as left or right wings.
Catalogue [pp. 311-661]
The rest of De Vrij’s monograph (comprising more than half of the book) offers a catalogue of Bosch-related works of art and is divided into eight sections. The first two sections deal with the works of Bosch’s precursors and contemporaries (section A) and with Bosch’s autograph paintings and their copies (section B). The remaining six sections focus on the art of Bosch’s followers: copies of lost works (or what De Vrij considers ‘lost works’) (section C), compositions developed in the Bosch workshop after 1516 (section D), paintings by unidentified Bosch followers (section E), paintings by identified Bosch followers (section F), engravings issued as ‘after Bosch’ (section G), and Bosch-related tapestries (section H).
Although the classifying of some works within particular sections may be debatable, sections C-H and the copies mentioned in section B make required reading for whoever is interested in the large corpus of works by Bosch followers. De Vrij offers an elaborate (but perhaps not really handy) overview of the works by early Bosch followers, which is a welcome addition to the catalogue published by Unverfehrt in 1980. ‘Perhaps not really handy’ because it may take some time and skimming through to find a particular work of art (as no index is provided).
[explicit 21st July 2020]