Heironymous Bosch, The Tree Man, pen and ink, The Albertina, Vienna
My last post of 2017 shows why ART is a better form of escapism than Star Wars. Bosch’s Tree Man has body of a crab held up by tree trunk legs riding in boats. The world is not as it expected. The many who made this fantasy portrait more than 500 years ago still gets more viewers than nearly any other other artist of any time period. Why? Because he is so much fun.
Two exhibitions last year celebrated the 500th anniversary of Heironymus Bosch’s death. One million people were expected to visit two different exhibits, first in the Netherlands, then in Spain. The Prado exhibition was so popular that the museum extended it an extra two weeks and kept the doors open until 10 p.m. The other exhibition had been held earlier that year in Bosch’s birthplace, s-Hergotenbosch.
Currently, The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a show of “Dutch Drawings from Bosch to Bloemaert.” They come from the Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen in Rotterdam. There are superb drawings by Pieter Bruegel, followers of Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, Lucas van Leyden and lesser known artists such as Roelant Savery. An examination of the two drawings by Bosch shows how well he was attune to the realism in nature. The Owl’s Nest puts Bosch close to the same category as Leonardo and Albrecht Durer, when to his keen understanding and observation of nature.
The Owl’s Nest, pen and ink, 1500-1505, Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam
Bosch repeated most of the Tree Man, top, in his most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The metamorphosing figure is generally considered to be a self-portrait. The Owl’s Nest is not an idea or a study for any of Bosch’s surviving paintings. The faces, wings and nest are realistic. There’s a lightness and delicacy that goes with Bosch’s style, without falling into his usual diversion — fantasy. Strokes are very precise of various sizes and lengths.
Fox and Rooster, pen and ink
The Owl’s Nest was probably always planned to be a finished drawing. Bosch painted owls in nearly all his paintings. According to dailyartdaily, “There’s a lot of speculation about what his owls mean, and how they should be read.” Multiple and contradictory meanings are associated with owls. Sometimes they might signify wisdom. “But it seems around 1500, the owls were generally associated with menace and death and had an emblematic, moralistic significance.”
Two Women, pen and ink,
The other drawing by Bosch from the Boijmans Van Beuningen has two scenes. The scene that is Fox and Rooster. Presumably, the Fox is ready to pounce upon the rooster, but you really need a magnifying glass to see it. Once again, it’s a dark side of nature, with something ominous as in The Owl’s Nest. However, the Fox and Rooster have a rich folklore tradition, as part of Aesop’s Fables, and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Of the two drawings on the same piece of paper, this one is considered to be of a later date. It is tentative and sketchy compared to The Owl’s Nest and Tree Man, drawings meant to appear finished.
A picture on the drawing on the other side of the paper, also a pen and ink, is believed to be the very first drawing by Bosch. Two Women, has an elderly woman on the right and a woman holding a spindle on the left. These figures variously interpreted as old women, or witches. They could relate to Netherlandish proverbs or folktales. Was there some significance attached to the spinning, as if spinning some devious fate?
Although one drawing is early from his career, and one from a later period, both have the type of reference to proverbs and/or folk life we come to expect with Bosch. When I say Bosch’s figures are frail, I mean it in two ways. They convey human weakness (or foolishness), and they lack the monumentality and weight that contemporary Italian artists gave their figures. One might argue that Italians were humanists, while the Dutch painters were still medieval in outlook. Even the Italian that is superficially most like Bosch, Piero di Cosimo, portrays monsters who are satyrs who seem to be descended from antiquity.
Grotesque Walking head and small toad monster
Grotesque walking head and small toad monster, a drawing from the Prado exhibition that is permanently in Berlin, presents what we expect from Bosch and why he fascinates. As one website says, “He externalizes the ugliness within, so that his misshapen demons have an effect beyond curiosity. We feel a kinship with them.” This is the essence of the Bosch fascination.
Bosch’s dates (c.1450-1516) are roughly the same as Leonardo da Vinci’s, who was born in 1452 and died in 1519. Da Vinci paintings have science, nature, perfection and a noble humanity while Bosch, painted a fantastical mixture of a frail humanity, along with demons and monsters. However, closer examinations shows that Bosch an equally gifted draftsman and a keen observer of both the nature world and human nature.
The wood has ears, the field has eyes, pen and ink.
While Leonardo also saw the greatest meaning in the extremes of beauty and ugliness in humans, we always remember him by the portrayal of perfection. He himself seems to gaze down on us humans as an all-knowing power. But if we think about it, so did Hieronymus Bosch. One of his drawings (not in the drawings exhibit) give us much insight into his way of thinking. It’s an ominous finished drawing called The wood has ears, the field eyes. Many eyes lie in a field and two ears are listening by the trees.There’s the owl, again, right in the center. It makes me wonder, is the world really as it always seems? Or is he just reminding us that God is always watching? We could imagine Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte interpreting a landscape this way, perhaps without the owl.
Bosch reveals hidden truths from a mind much deeper than our own. He’s just as wise as Leonardo, and he’s looking forward to the Surrealist artists of the 20th century.
The best artists of any time period speak to future generations nearly as well as they reflect the collective mindset of their time and place. So Bosch continues to be so popular today.
Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506 brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria. Across the street in the museum’s west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. The French drawings are spectacular, but it’s hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist’s curiosity for understanding nature.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484 silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm (10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints. Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I’m drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.
Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith’s guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point. Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer’s self-portrait, there’s no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.
Albrecht Dürer, “Mein Agnes”, 1494 pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.) (framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas. Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. I personally find all his drawings and prints more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.
Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection. He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works. She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519 brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?) overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Also on view are Durer’s investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings. We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery. There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.
Albrecht Dürer, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521 brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.) Albertina, Vienna
My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional. To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878 charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996
In the other exhibition, there’s a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light. Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school. He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century. What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color. I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity. Lhermitte’s woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance. We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist’s reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.
Jean-François Millet Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845 pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet’s Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet’s Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.
Camille Pissarro’s The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail. She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head. She’s a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character. The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself. He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist. He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art. Berthe Morisot‘s watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter’s infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888 charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.) Dyke Collection
Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I’m left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand. The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be. In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879 watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece. The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career. The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They’re on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.
Since 1993, Martin Schongauer’s 10″ x 13″ drawing of Peonies has been in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles..
A painting of peonies came up for auction in 1990 under the vague label of Northern Italian. However, a museum curator at the Albertina in Vienna recognized it as an important drawing from about 1472-73 by Martin Schongauer, an artist who lived in Alsace on the French-German border. The drawing, now in the Getty Museum, is a study for the flowers in Madonna of the Rosary, 1473, painted by Schongauer for a church in Colmar (now in France). Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar to visit Schongauer in 1491, but the great Alsatian master had died by the time 21-year old Durer arrived. Martin’s brothers met with him and gave him some of the master’s drawings. This drawing may have been one of the drawings owned by Durer; the same Viennese curator recognized a flower similar to one of the peonies in a Durer painting of 1501.
In 2007, a pastel drawing came up on the auction market and it was labeled as 19th century German. An astute Canadian collector who bought it had other ideas and sought expert opinion. Most experts now attribute this drawing to Leonardo da Vinci, and it is called La Bella Principessa. The sitter may be the 13-year old daughter of the Duke of Milan, Bianca Sforza. Interestingly, a fingerprint on the paper matches a fingerprint in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St. Jerome. The technique is ink with black, white and red chalk on yellow vellum to give the flesh tones. Leonardo is said to have learned the pastel technique from a French artist.
A badly damaged painting supposedly by a student of Leonardo sold for 45 British pounds in 1958. Only in the past year has it been cleaned and recognized as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. Called the Salvator Mundi, it was recently part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. In the frontal image, Jesus holds a glass globe and stares directly at the viewer while using the blessed gesture. His calm face is full of compassion and kindness. The penetrating sense of life in this image is clearly palpable, as revealed after its cleaning. It has Leonardo’s recognizable sfumato, the smoky quality which gives a dark softness to the shadows. It has the iconic and mysterious qualities reminiscent of as the Mona Lisa. Cleaning revealed this Salvator Mundi to be an authentic
Leonardo da Vinci dating to c. 1500
Martin Kemp, Leonardo expert in England, has identified the rock crystal orb to show the crystalline cosmos in Jesus’s hand as something only Leonardo could have painted with accuracy. Leonardo was quite the geologist and Kemp compared the painted example to crystal orbs in the geology collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Therefore, the painting could not have been done by a follower. The last time a painting was discovered to be by Leonardo was 100 years ago.
Only the master Leonardo, who intimately studied nature,
could have portrayed this rock crystal so accurately
Even more remarkable is the fact that a lost painting by Leonardo’s young rival, Michelangelo appeared in 2009. This Temptation of St. Anthony is now in the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth. Michelangelo painted this oil and tempera when he was only about 13 years old. The first writer of art history in 1570, Giorgio Vasari described a painting that copied an engraving by Martin Schongauer.
The fact that the two greatest artistic prodigies born in Europe during the 1470s, Albrecht Durer and the divine Michelangelo, admired Martin Schongauer, speaks to that master’s incredible reputation as an artist in the 15th century. He died young, but his contribution to later art cannot be overlooked. Although Schongauer’s travels probably took him only to the center of Europe: Alsace, Burgundy, Flanders and the Rhineland, his prints gave him a reputation throughout Italy, France, Spain and even England. Italians called him Bel Martino. Perhaps he was born around 1448, a few years before another great observer of nature, Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings inspired the great drawings of nature by Durer, namely The Rabbit and Large Piece of Turf.