Massijs, Rubens, Van Dyck and the others

Painting in Antwerp, 1500-1650

Ben van Beneden

Antwerp, strategically located at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary, prospered and flourished as never before in the early sixteenth century. Within a few decades, the port had become a powerful commercial metropolis and the most important centre of the arts north of the Alps. The city's meteoric rise to prominence acted as a powerful magnet, not just for merchants, but also for painters and other highly skilled craftsmen. It was the leading place in the Netherlands for ambitious young artists to keep abreast of the latest trends in art. Many of the artists who lived and worked in Antwerp in the sixteenth century came from elsewhere. Some, such as Jan Gossaert (from Maubeuge) and Lucas van Leyden (from Leiden), were active in Antwerp for a limited period of time. Others, such as Anthonis Mor (also known as Antonio Moro, from Utrecht) and Hans Vredeman de Vries (from Friesland), travelled around Europe throughout their lives in search of new artistic challenges, but used Antwerp as their base.

The city's remarkable concentration of outstanding artists boosted the pace of innovation and accelerated the dissemination of new approaches. Inventive painters went in search of new possibilities, and studied Italian examples. Their compositions became more harmonious, and their figures acquired more natural anatomical features. Classical architectural elements and ornamental motifs inspired by Italian examples were introduced. The fierce rivalries among Antwerp's painters will undoubtedly have fostered specialisation. Many of what was later labelled 'typically Dutch' – realistic landscapes, still lifes, and scenes from everyday life – originated in Antwerp. The enormous demand led to a vast output of art of variable quality: paintings were produced in ever larger numbers, from the most expensive commissions to cheap bulk-produced items, both for the domestic market and for export to Italy, Spain, and South America. Copies of paintings by popular masters were also turned out in growing numbers. Besides the great masters, Antwerp was home to a large number of minor or anonymous painters who were highly skilled in their craft.

Quinten Massijs (1456 or 1466-1530) – who was born in Leuven, where he may have been trained by Dirk Bouts – was the city's first famous artist. Together with his contemporary Joos van Cleve (c. 1485-c. 1540) he forged a bridge between the late mediaeval tradition and the sixteenth-century Renaissance. In many respects, Massijs exemplified the new artistic age. Although he mainly painted religious works, he also ventured into moralistic genre scenes and animated portraits, which testify to a new view of human nature. Massijs introduced natural movements into his portraits through his portrayal of hands, which often speak a humanist, rhetorical sign language, and he was also one of the first to pay attention to characterisation in his sitters. In 1517 he produced the oldest known portrait of Erasmus. In addition, a number of grotesque tronies by Massijs have been preserved. These reflect familiarity with the character sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, with whom he evidently shared the Renaissance interest in human physiognomy. A telling indication of Massijs's fame is the fact that copies were soon being made after his work, by artists including Rubens. Besides Massijs and Van Cleve, two other history painters determined the appearance of Antwerp's art in the first half of the sixteenth century: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) and Jan van Hemessen (c. 1500-after 1575. The Aalst-born Coecke was a homo universalis: painter, architect and designer of prints, stained glass and tapestries, but best known, perhaps, as the translator of the architecture books by the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio. With this work, Coecke did much to promote the dissemination of the Renaissance in northern Europe. In the 1520s, Jan van Hemessen, who was born in Hemiksem near Antwerp, travelled to Italy, where he became acquainted with the art of the Italian Renaissance. The most innovative part of his oeuvre consists of genre-like biblical scenes, such as The Prodigal Son. Van Hemessen's unconventional compositions, with vigorously modelled figures filling the entire picture, were extremely bold for their time.

Joachim Patinir (c. 1480-1524) and Herri met de Bles (c. 1510-after 1555?), both from Dinant, were the first painters in Antwerp – and in the Netherlands – who specialised in depicting landscapes. In general, they produced brightly-coloured, imaginary landscapes viewed from a high vantage point, which served as settings for biblical narratives. Patinir frequently enlisted the help of painters such as Massijs and Van Cleve to add the figures. The Amsterdam artist Pieter Aertsen (c. 1508-1575) secured a section of the market in Antwerp with his peasant scenes, which preceded those of Pieter Bruegel; in addition, his market and kitchen pieces, combined with biblical themes, laid the foundations for still life painting. In 1555 or 1556 Aertsen returned to his home city, but his younger cousin and pupil Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1533-1575) continued along the path he had mapped out. Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526-1609) experimented with different perspectival constructions and was the first to specialise in 'perspectives', as paintings of architecture were known at the time.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) was the most successful history painter in Antwerp. After his Italian journey he created a sensation with his vigorously designed paintings that incorporated the latest developments among his Italian contemporaries. He was also the first to introduce mythological themes into Antwerp painting. Like his teacher Lambert Lombard (1505/06–1566), he presented himself as a pictor doctus, a painter with a wide range of humanist knowledge. Floris's contemporaries Anthonis Mor (1519-1576), Willem Key (c. 1520-1568) and Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c. 1545-c. 1589) had also trained as history painters, but were chiefly known for their outstanding portraits. Willem Key and Mor were among the first artists in Antwerp to specialise exclusively in portraiture.

All in all, the artistic output of sixteenth-century Antwerp exhibited extraordinary thematic and stylistic diversity. So defining the identity of what we might call the 'local' art of the period – that is, art typical of Antwerp – is no easy task. It was not until the seventeenth century, the century of Rubens and Van Dyck, that Antwerp's art production started to display greater homogeneity, but no characteristic style bearing the clear stamp of Antwerp ever evolved.

When it fell to the Spanish armies in 1585, the Calvinist city of Antwerp was transformed overnight into a centre of Catholicism. It eventually had to cede its powerful economic position to Amsterdam, whose Asian trade had by then made it the wealthiest city in Europe. The mass exodus from Antwerp included countless entrepreneurs, highly educated professionals and skilled craftsmen, and many young painters also went north to escape religious persecution. Still, this bloodletting did not mean that Antwerp's international trade, prosperity, and artistic culture came to an abrupt and decisive end. The city's painting retained its vibrancy and high quality, and partly thanks to brilliant painters such as Rubens and Van Dyck, it actually witnessed a new period of remarkable artistic vitality.

The fall of Antwerp can be identified as the unintentional beginning of the division between the two Netherlands, not just in religious and political terms, but partly in the arts as well. In the Southern Netherlands, the Counter-Reformational Church, the court in Brussels, the nobility, and the affluent bourgeoisie guaranteed a continuous flow of commissions. In this respect, the situation differed significantly from that of the Northern Netherlands, where Church and court (excepting that of Frederik Hendrik) scarcely commissioned works of art any more. The burghers of Holland, too, stopped commissioning large biblical and mythological scenes, preferring everyday subjects instead. The painters of the Northern Netherlands specialised more and more, and their art acquired a distinctly national character. In the South, on the other hand, art remained more international in orientation, and history paintings dominated the scene.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and workshop, The Descent from the Cross, c. 1618, Oil on canvas. 297 x 200 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The return of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) to Antwerp in 1608, after eight remarkably productive years in Italy, where he had also made a great impression, signalled a clear turning point for Antwerp's artistic life. Under his forceful influence, many artists started painting in a majestic, monumental and highly dynamic style. Rubens excelled in every category: besides biblical, mythological, and historical scenes, his repertoire also included portraits, landscapes, animal pieces, and still lifes. One of Rubens's most remarkable qualities was undoubtedly his peerless capacity for absorption: his work is pervaded by the presence of the venerated art of the ancients and that of his great Italian contemporaries. To execute the numerous commissions entrusted to him, Rubens ran a large and busy studio, the organisational structure of which was based on similar ventures in Italy, where the large-scale commissions were produced with the aid of numerous assistants. That Rubens also inspired many painters in Holland is clear from the large number of migrants from the Northern Netherlands who worked in his studio for varying periods of time: Pieter Soutman from Haarlem, Justus van Egmont from Leiden, and Abraham van Diepenbeeck and Theodoor van Thulden from 's-Hertogenbosch. Attracted by the impressive work of fellow painters such as Frans Snijders, who maintained close contact with Rubens and who made paintings unlike those produced in Holland, the Leiden-born Jan Davidsz de Heem also went to Antwerp. On his return to Holland, he became one of the founders of the 'sumptuous' still life.

Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Concert of Birds, 1630–50, Oil on canvas. 136.5 x 240 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St

Rubens's studio was supreme in Antwerp, and his artistic and social dominance in the Southern Netherlands greatly surpassed that of his peer, Rembrandt, in Holland. The mark of his influence was everywhere, not just in history paintings, but in genres such as still life and hunting pieces as well. The work of the gifted still life and animal painter Frans Snijders (1579-1657) clearly reflects this primacy. Aside from ambitiously designed still lifes, with fruit, vegetables, and a hunting catch, often with a Baroque dynamism, he painted animal scenes, kitchen pieces, and market scenes, including a number of large fish markets, which he supplied either individually or in the form of series. Snijders was greatly influenced by Rubens, with whom he frequently collaborated from 1609 onwards, and his reputation was such that he could rely on the assistance of other influential Antwerp history painters, although he executed some of the figures in his paintings himself. Like Snijders, Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652) also depicted monumental still lifes, game larders, and market pieces, but his work is less accomplished

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Frans Snyders (1579–1657), The Union of Earth and Water (Scheldt and Antwerp), c. 1618–21, Oil on canvas. 222.5 x 180.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St

vRubens painted thirty hunting pieces, many of which were commissioned by sovereigns and aristocrats such as Philip IV of Spain and the archducal couple Albrecht and Isabella. Rubens showed himself to be a major innovator of this genre, by presenting hunting as a heroic battle between man and animal. He also had a masterful gift for portraying aggression and fear in animals: many of his hunting scenes are superb specimens of animal psychology. For some of his hunting pieces, Rubens enlisted the help of specialists such as Snijders or the latter's brother-in-law Paul de Vos (1591/92 or 1595–1678) to paint the animals. These artists adopted Rubens's animated mode of representation in their own hunting scenes.

Pauwel (Paul) de Vos (1591/92 or 1595–1678), Dogs Fighting, 1620–40, Oil on canvas. 115.5 x 172.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Rubens also played a leading role in the development of Flemish landscape painting. In the 1630s, inspired by the beauty of the natural surroundings of his country house 'Het Steen', near Mechelen, he painted some truly audacious atmospheric impressions of nature, which appear to presage the romantic landscapes of the great English landscape painters John Constable and William Turner. Few artists emulated Rubens's images of the Brabant landscape in the seventeenth century. In comparison to the Northern Netherlands, Antwerp – with the exception of Rubens himself and to a lesser extent Jan Wildens (1586-1653), with whom he often collaborated – did not produce any great masters of landscape painting.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Family Portrait, c. 1619, Oil on canvas. 113.5 x 93.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Rubens's most famous – and undoubtedly the most talented – of his pupils was Anthonie van Dyck (1599-1641), a child prodigy who produced his first self-portrait around fifteen years of age. In Antwerp he became Rubens's first serious rival, although for some time he continued to operate in the latter's sphere of influence. Later, once he was working independently in Genoa, and from 1632 onwards as the court painter to King Charles I in London, Van Dyck revealed himself to be a masterful portraitist with unerring empathic powers, whose brilliant technique was on a par with that of Frans Hals. Although in Antwerp Van Dyck was overshadowed by the unassailable Rubens, his history paintings, as well as his portraits, became major sources of inspiration for other artists. Portrait painters who drew inspiration from Van Dyck include Peter Franchoys (1606-1654) and Michiel Sweerts (1618-1664).

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Portrait of Nicolaas Rockox, 1621, Oil on canvas. 122.5 x 117 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Van Dyck was not the only gifted portraitist in Antwerp. Rubens had already made a name for himself in this area. Leading Antwerp burghers with rather more conservative tastes (and less money) went to Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651), a productive history painter who made a career chiefly in portraiture. That De Vos followed the trends of the day is clear from a 'snapshot' portrait he made of his own family, an effect he doubtless learned from studying Rubens and Van Dyck. In the mid-seventeenth century, Gonzales Coques (1614/18-1684) became the portrait painter of the Antwerp élite. Coques, one of the few artists in Antwerp to specialise exclusively in portraiture, painted primarily small-sized portraits, generally with a garden, landscape, or terrace setting. He was also one of the artists, the other being Philip Fruytiers (1610-1660), who paved the way for the 'conversation piece', a painting that depicts a group of people conversing with each other.

Cornelis de Vos (1584–1651), Self-portrait with his Wife, Susanna Cock, and Children, 1634, Oil on canvas. 185.5 x 221 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

In spite of the dominance of the giants Rubens and Van Dyck, seventeenth-century painting in Antwerp nonetheless displays a surprisingly varied picture. A great many history painters unmistakably took their lead from the two great masters, while at the same time preserving an entirely individual style, which was determined in part by their personality as artists and in part by the inspiration that they gained in Italy. This applies in particular to Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Antwerp's most popular painter after the deaths of Rubens and Van Dyck, but also to Abraham Janssens (c. 1575-1632), Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), Cornelis Schut (1597-1655), and Erasmus II Quellinus (1607-1678). But the work produced in Antwerp was not limited to grand history paintings. Other masters – most notably, perhaps, Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) – painted Italianate scenes in far smaller formats.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Cleopatra's Feast, 1653, Oil on canvas. 156.4 x 149.3 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Jan I Brueghel (1568-1625), the youngest son of Pieter Bruegel, focused primarily on small landscapes that may be seen as the most direct precursors of the simple Dutch landscape, and also pioneered the flower still life, a genre that he greatly refined at an early stage. In the tradition of Flemish painting, Brueghel worked with minute brushstrokes in opaque paint, in which he depicted highly detailed images of his favourite subjects. A greater contrast with the work of his friend Rubens is hard to imagine. Still lifes with floral wreaths around a stone relief painted in trompe l'oeil technique were the trademark of Daniël Seghers (1590-1661), a Jesuit painter who learned his craft from Jan I Brueghel. Like his teacher, Seghers often relied on the assistance of figure painters to provide staffage for the central scene. The most famous examples of artistic collaboration in this area are the paintings produced jointly by Jan I Brueghel and Rubens, but other masters too worked together in this way on more than one occasion. Brueghel's contemporary Clara Peeters (active from 1607 onwards) introduced the pure fish still life into Antwerp – and the Netherlands. Antwerp's most productive fish painter was Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661), although most of his still lifes depict fish amid other objects, such as a hunting catch. Adriaenssen often included a thief-like cat in his fish still lifes. Joannes (Jan) Fijt (1611-1661) focused primarily on still lifes with a hunting catch in varying size and format, with a masterful feeling for the rendering of textures. Like Adriaenssen, he enlivened his still lifes by adding a cat eying the catch, or a hunting dog that appears to be watching over it. Another still life specialist was Cornelis Mahu (1613-1689), whose preference was for soberly arranged ontbijtjes (breakfast pieces) and banketjes (banquet pieces) in the style of Haarlem artists such as Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda.

Jan Brueghel I (Velvet Brueghel, 1568–1625), Wooded Landscape (The Rest on the Flight into Egypt), 1607, Oil on panel. 51.5 x 91.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The work of Adriaen Brouwer (c. 1605/06-1638) can also be described as originating from Haarlem. Brouwer, who was born in Oudenaarde, originally painted his smoky pub scenes with uncivilized, drinking and fighting peasants in Haarlem, but took his Holland-bred genre style to Antwerp, where he settled in 1631. David II Teniers (1610-1690) initially followed his example, but his view of peasant life later changed, and his scenes became less grim and sometimes even took on a tender ambience. From that moment onwards, Teniers also allocated more space to the landscape.

In Antwerp, Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637), Adam de Coster (1585/86-1643) and Gerard Seghers were the primary exponents of the Caravaggist genre scene that enjoyed a brief wave of popularity throughout Europe, and especially in Utrecht. These painters drew their inspiration from the bold works of Caravaggio and his most prominent follower, Bartolomeo Manfredi. The earliest work of Jan Cossiers (1600-1671), given its themes, combined with its remarkable illumination and strong chiaroscuro effects, was also related to that of the Caravaggists. Jacob Jordaens also produced genre paintings. Particularly popular were his scenes of the Feast of the Epiphany ('The king drinks') and of 'As the old sing, so pipe the young', a proverb he took from the work of Jacob Cats, and which Jan Steen would interpret in his own way over two decades.

In some genres, like marine and architectural painting, Antwerp never attained the heights achieved in the Northern Netherlands. The oblique 'momentary' glimpses of church interiors that Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte had introduced to Delft around 1650, with immense feeling for light and space, appear to have escaped the attention of Antwerp's architecture painters. Other genres did not develop in Antwerp at all. For instance, local painting had nothing equivalent to the simple interiors with one or more figures, such as those painted in Delft by Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. But there was also a genre that was exclusive to Antwerp: art cabinet or kunstkamer scenes. In one of the most beautiful examples, the owner displays the pièce de resistance of his collection – Quinten Massijs's Madonna and Child – to prominent guests, while Rubens explains the work of his illustrious predecessor. Among those present we recognize Anthonie van Dyck and Frans Snijders: Antwerp knew its star painters. At the same time, this work gives a superb picture of the wealth and extraordinary versatility of the Antwerp school of painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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