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“On the Trail of Bosch and Bruegel: Four Painting United Under Cross-Examination” edited by Erma Hermens

A review of:  “On the Trail of Bosch and Bruegel: Four Painting United Under Cross-Examination” edited by Erma Hermens, published this year by Archetype Publications Ltd.

This publication brings together a pan-European investigation of four different, yet very similar, paintings in an exhibition titled “Tracing Bosch and Bruegel: Four Paintings Magnified.”  The paintings, from the Kadriorg Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia; The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen; The University of Glasgow and a Private collection, look similar yet are very different.  (You can compare the paintings yourself using the excellent exhibit website:  This fascinating monograph investigates the paintings from a variety of perspectives including working to answer such questions as which of the four paintings was the original.

Starting with the province of the paintings, chapter 1 reviews the relatively short history of the four works.  All are not traceable before than the 20th century.  Three of the paintings are similar in size and format, with the Glasgow panel the exception with its portrait format.  Virtually unknown before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Tallinn work is the least studied of the works.

Chapter 2 traces the roots of the composition, pointing out that without Max Friedlander’s attribution of the Copenhagen work in 1931 to Bruegel, this series would not be historically attached to him.  Where the Copenhagen work (and to some extent the Tallinn version) are very Bruegelesque, the copy in Private hands and the Glasgow version are much more Bosch-like.   The author persuasively argues that there is little Bruegel influence on the composition, with it being much indebted to Bosch motifs.

This chapter is a wonderful encapsulation of the mystery of these four paintings.  While the Private painting is likely the oldest, dating from the 1530’s, of the three large canvases, it is thought to be the least like the original model.  The Copenhagen version, painted some 30 – 40 years later, is probably closer to the original composition.  However, the Copenhagen version is not faithful to what was likely the original’s background, with the painting in Tallinn adhering more closely to the background of the original.

Chapter 3 reviews the paintings’ materials and techniques of the studios where the paintings were executed.  This chapter is especially engrossing for those coming to the subject for the first time, and features clear writing and fascinating illustrations, including presenting the method for separating a tree in order to make the planks for the paintings.  The Private painting has a mark from the lumberjacks who cut down the tree, a rare example of these being visible on the reverse of a completed paintings.

A discussion of the underdrawings and the ground used to prepare the panels for paint is also discussed in this chapter.  Regarding the layers of paint, the authors conclude that three of the paintings had similar build up of layers of paint, with the Private painting being the exception due to its simple preparation.  Fingerprints were also found in this version and not found on the others.

Dating of the trees used to create the panels of the four paintings is a technique undertaken to assist with determining when the paintings may have been created.  This process, called dendrocronology, was used in three of the four works.  (Because the Glasgow’s restoration in 1987 introduced balsawood into the frame, it was not possible to attempt to date this work.)  The authors note that the Copenhagen version’s planks were drawn from the same tree, which does not occur in the other two paintings.  The authors conclude that the Private painting was made 30 years before the Copenhagen and Tallinn versions, within the lifetime of Bruegel but after the death of Bosch.

Chapter 5 examines the underdrawing of the paintings to determine the “handwriting” of the art works.  The authors use infrared (IR) imaging techniques, including infrared reflectology to examine the underdrawings.  Material used for underdrawings typically consisted of black oil chalk, which provided an outline for the painter(s) to then follow as they applied the layers of paint.  It was common in workshops of the 16th century to use a so called “cartoon” or drawing covered in chalk on the reverse side of the image, placed on top of a painting and then traced.  However, only the Private and Glasgow version have the characteristic “trembling” of the hand that would indicate the use of a cartoon.  The authors conclude that each of the four paintings’ underdrawings as well as final paint layers were all created by different hands, and none of the four are the master model.  The authors even question whether a single master model was used, believing it possible that several different version of the painting were circulating among the painters studios over the 30+ years that the works were created.  The authors conclude that none of the works were created in the same studio or with the same cartoon.  However, they believe that a model was on hand to create the works, given the nearly identical full foreground composition.

The 6th chapter discusses copying for the art market of the 16th century, and reviews the Antwerp art market of the time, which was said to employ twice as many artists as bread makers.  Antwerp became a hub for production of copies, which accounted for fully half of the painted art output of the city during this time.  There is not consensus among the authors regarding whether the works are a copy after a lost original, or a “phantom copy” (an invention made to look like the work of a popular artist).  Because the coloring differs so widely across the four versions, the authors surmise that a drawing or cartoon was used.  The author of this chapter concludes that the prototype was closest to the Private version, while as we saw earlier in chapter 2, the author surmised that various aspects of the Copenhagen panel was closest to the original.

In chapter 7 the author argues the case for the paintings following a lost Bosch original, rather than a Bosch 16th century revivalist.  The author bases this hypothesis on the iconography of the composition, which is compatible with Bosch’s “system of norms and values.”  Bosch used biblical imagery from the past to comment on the Low Countries in the early 16th Century.  Like in biblical times, the typically late medieval Dutch town shown in the painting is comprised of the poor, peasants and beggars.  Bosch’s lost original compels viewers to “take to heart the word of Christ” to be saved.

This monograph takes the reader on a fascinating detective hunt for the original and earliest version of the painting.  For those interested in an investigation of this type within an art-historical context, this will be the perfect summertime read!

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