The father of landscape art: the first-ever major exhibition on Joachim Patinir is a triumph for the Prado.
Relatively little is known about Patinir's life. He was born around 1480-85, in Dinant (or possibly Bouvignes, on the opposite bank of the Meuse), in what is now south-eastern Belgium. It is unrecorded where he trained, but in 1515 he became a master of the Antwerp painters' guild. He married twice, and on the second occasion, in 1521, Durer was an honoured guest at his wedding. Patinir died in 1525, so his professional career lasted for little more than a decade.
Intriguingly; evidence previously unrecorded in the Patinir literature suggests that the artist may have visited the British Isles. In 1566 the Spanish collector Felipe de Guevara commented on a seascape he owned by the artist. This depicted a shipwreck, and Patinir had apparently sailed in the only vessel in a convoy of 70 that survived a great tempest between England and Ireland. Felipe wrote that in the painting the artist 'made eternal that storm of two hours'. Sadly, the picture has been lost, and it is uncertain whether the story is true.
The most detailed information we have on Patinir is the few sentences in Durer's chronicle of his 1520-21 visit to the Low Countries, in which he tellingly describes him as 'the good landscape painter'. Durer also records that on 16 March 1521 he was given a Patinir painting of Lot and his daughters. This could well be a small landscape of Sodom and Gomorrah deposited at Rotterdam's Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum (and acquired by Hermann Goring during World War II). Dendrochronology now suggests that the panel was probably painted in 1521 or shortly afterwards, providing additional evidence to support the Durer connection.
Earlier artists incorporated landscapes into the background of their paintings, but Patinir was arguably the first artist (and certainly the first who had an international impact) to make it the main focus of his pictures. Yet although his works are primarily landscapes, they all tell biblical stories.
Patinir's style is instantly recognisable. In his panoramic landscapes, with their high horizons, vast stretches of land are visible. These are painted in brownish tones in the foreground, greens in the middle and marvellous blues in the distance. Features, such as buildings, trees, people and animals, are depicted as if seen from eye level. The bizarre rock formations that appear in most of his works seem to have been inspired by formations along the Meuse, such as La Roche a Chandelle, near his birthplace.
The variable quality of the works in Patinir's style makes it difficult to establish exactly which paintings are from the master's hand. The exhibition's curator, Alejandro Vergara, has divided the 29 works he accepts (or 30, if two panels from one picture are counted twice) into three categories. Fifteen are by Patinir's hand. Twelve are by 'Patinir and workshop', done to his design and under his control. Finally, two works are categorised as 'Circle of Patinir', produced by artists working close to him. All this is dealt with in an important catalogue raisonne, edited by Vergara and published for the show (it largely supplants Robert Koch's 1968 catalogue). Of the 29 accepted works, 22 are on show. Considering the problems of borrowing panels, this is a triumph.
So what is missing? A Wiesbaden private owner of a triptych refused to lend it (or even to provide a colour image, so the catalogue reproduces a 1904 black and white photograph). The Louvre's Landscape with St Jerome has a crack and could not travel for conservation reasons. Also missing is a landscape from the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. A Brussels private collector refused a loan request for part of a cut-up panel of The Flight into Egypt that had been bought at Sotheby's in 2003 as by a 'follower of Patinir', for a very modest 3,600 [pounds sterling]. Four paintings of lesser quality were excluded by the curator (works in the Jean Bonna collection in Geneva, the Ca' d'Oro in Venice, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art), as he felt they would weaken the exhibition visually, but it seems a missed opportunity not to have aimed for comprehensiveness.
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It is also a pity that the five drawings attributed to Patinir were not shown. There has been much debate over their attribution, but in the catalogue Stefaan Hautekeete concludes that 'a consensus exists to justify their ascription to Patinir'. The drawings (Rotterdam, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and unknown location) have never been shown together, and presenting those that could have been borrowed with the paintings might have resolved the debate.
The exhibition occupies five rooms, starting with works by Patinir's predecessors that include landscapes (largely in the background of religious images). The Patinirs, in three rooms, include a newly attributed Landscape with the Crucifixion, bought in 1999 by a Madrid collector from the dealer Georges de Jonckheere. The last of these rooms has a marvellous display of the three late masterpieces, cleaned for the show: Charon Crossing the Styx (Fig. 2)--surely also an early Flemish depiction of the Four Elements?--The Temptation of St Anthony (with figures by Quentin Massys) and Landscape with St Christopher. All were acquired by Philip II and remain in Spain (the first two at the Prado and the third at El Escorial).
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One of the pleasures of the show is being able to enjoy the details of the paintings, particularly the small figures in the background. This has been a game for centuries: in 1604 the Dutch art historian Karel van Mander recorded that Patinir was known as 'The Shitter', since his trademark was said to be the tiny figure of a defecating man, hidden in the composition. However, the exhibition suggests that this incongruous Bosch-like man appears in only three works (all once owned by Philip II).
The final room has a selection of works by Patinir's followers. These include Herri Met de Bles, thought to be Patinir's nephew. Although these pictures help to put Patinir into context, it means that the show tails off in visual impact, with a few slightly lacklustre paintings; this underlines the master's skill.
It is difficult to foresee a Patinir exhibition of this ambition being mounted again, since the most important (and largest) works are all in Spain, and are very unlikely ever to travel abroad, for conservation reasons. The Prado offers us a unique opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of Patinir's world.
Martin Bailey is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper and the author of Durer (1995).
'Patinir', Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 3 July-7 October, +34 902107077. Catalogue raisonne by Alejandro Vergara (ed.), English edition ISBN 9788484801207 or 9788496209916, 30 [euro] (Prado).
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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