Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2014
Joost Vander Auwera and Irène Schaudies, eds. Jordaens and the Antique Exh. cat. Brussels and New Haven: Mercatorfonds in association with Yale University Press, 2013. 320 pp.; 229 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300188714)
Exhibition schedule: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, October 12, 2012–January 27, 2013; Fridericianum, Museumslandschaft Hessen, Kassel, March 1–June 16, 2013

Last year the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the Museumlandschaft Hessen Kassel co-organized the provocative exhibition Jordaens and the Antique and published the accompanying catalogue under review here. Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) has long been relegated to a distant third position in the pantheon of seventeenth-century Flemish painters, behind Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Nonetheless, Jordaens outlived both Rubens and Van Dyck by twenty-five years and, as a result, became perhaps the leading Flemish painter for a quarter of a century. Despite achieving considerable fame in his lifetime, Jordaens has remained a bit of a shadow figure in histories of Northern European art. Jordaens and the Antique does much to shed new light on the artist and his work.

Among the most fundamental contributions is a rediscovery of the artist’s preferred first name. While nearly all later writings on the artist have used Jacob, documents published in the catalogue show that Jordaens signed his letters Jacques. Names in early modernity were far more fluid than they are today. Instances abound of artists modifying their given names to adapt to local languages as they traveled or worked abroad. Rubens, for example, was known variously as Pieter Pauwel, Pietro Paulo, and Peter Paul. Names were also transformed to fashion various identities based on ascribed connotations of certain languages. To take the case of Rubens again, the artist often used Pietro as his first name when he returned to Antwerp after living in Italy for eight years to establish or remind others of his travels as well as his aspirations to rival the great artists Michelangelo, Titian, and others. For Jordaens, the discovery of his use of Jacques reveals much, as the curators explore in their introduction. They suggest that later scholars cast Jordaens as Jacob to evoke Flemish cultural pride and frame him as a painter of the common people. Alternatively, reclaiming Jacques, with its associations with French intellectualism (even perhaps in the seventeenth century), begins the process of understanding Jordaens’s artistic and cultural sophistication, including his knowledge of and interest in Greco-Roman antiquity.

Jordaens’s engagements with antique subjects, writings, and art are explored by a series of essays in the catalogue. Each essay introduces a section of the exhibition and frames a group of entries on individual objects within that section.

Schaudies first places Jordaens within a humanist tradition. She argues that as a member of an affluent family in Antwerp he would have been raised in a cultural milieu that exerted certain expectations for refinement and sophistication. Though early biographical details are lacking, a boy of his circumstances would have received an education from perhaps as early as five years old that included reading, writing, mathematics, and catechism. Jordaens’s apprenticeship to the history painter Adam van Noort would have furthered not only technical training in the visual arts but also continued his humanistic education. Indeed, Jordaens’s art suggests familiarity with a wide range of texts. Schaudies argues reasonably that lack of knowledge of Latin and Greek would not have precluded such familiarity due to the active publishing of ancient literature, history, and philosophy in Dutch and French, the languages Jordaens is known to have spoken. Schaudies makes good use of Jordaens’s circa 1650 self-portrait (Museés d’ Angers) wherein the artist holds a statuette of a nude Venus and Cupid. Rather than holding a brush to mark his occupation, Jordaens cast himself as one who is knowledgeable of art, culture, and the antique.

Another essay by Schaudies maps Jordaens’s frequent painting of classical subjects and his adoption of antique figural prototypes. The frequency and variety of Jordaens’s practice comes as a surprise for a painter who has so often been categorized as bourgeois. Schaudies explores how Jordaens—who did not travel to Italy—might have developed his repertoire of antique prototypes. No firm conclusions are offered, but her efforts to connect Jordaens with collections such as that of the antiquities Rubens acquired from Sir Dudley Carleton and other artists’ quotations of ancient forms begin to suggest how diffuse awareness of the ancient world was in Jordaens’s lifetime.

Ulrich Heinen studies Jordaens’s renditions of the Satyr and the Peasant and the artist’s interests in ancient satire. Jordaens painted the subject of the satyr and the peasant several times between 1615 and 1645. Heinen links these images to Jordaens’s monumental Diogenes with His Lantern, Seeking a Man (ca. 1642). Heinen considers how Jordaens would have had access to the texts from which these images drew, chiefly through translations such as those by Eduard de Dene. In each case, however, Heinen argues that Jordaens did not craft a literal illustration of any single text. Rather, Jordaens synthesized myriad sources, including other artists’ visualizations of the themes and characters as well as Juvenal’s Satires, especially on Democritus. Heinen argues that Jordaens maintained a special interest in antique subjects and texts that explored for both humor and edification humanity’s vices and follies. To put it differently, Heinen roots Jordaens’s interests in satire within the classical traditions of the genre. Heinen’s arguments that Jordaens’s predilection for satire distinguished him from Rubens is not wholly convincing given Rubens’s own picturing of humorous foibles like those of the drunken Silenius.

In a comparably focused study, Vander Auwera investigates Jordaens’s allegories of fertility. For these large-scale paintings of female nudes in lush, abundant settings Jordaens found a ready international clientele, including the King of Denmark. While these paintings may not have been as rigorously conceived as were Rubens’s allegories, they are important for the curators’ reclamation of Jordaens’s intellectual credentials. Indeed, not only are they allegories, but Jordaens frequently populated these scenes with figures derived from antique sculptures such as the Crouching Venus, the Shell Nymph, and the Medici Venus, further establishing the erudition of painting and painter alike.

Schaudies’s essay on the Triumph of Bacchus (ca. 1640–45) again invokes Rubens as a paradigm. She places Jordaens’s paintings in the context of Rubens’s bacchanals and other boisterous imagery. In comparison, Jordaens appears restrained, as his picture contains very little frivolity. This is in direct opposition to Jordaens’s historical reputation as a painter of rowdy genre scenes. Here again, the reader is confronted with the discrepancies between historiography, popular perception, and the artist himself.

Schaudies furthers the arguments of the exhibition by positioning Jordaens in relation to Italian painters of the Renaissance who processed and filtered the impact of antiquity. Schaudies sees the impact of Italian Renaissance art to be especially strong on Jordaens’s series of what she calls “monumental cabinet paintings,” i.e., pictures that “employ relations of scale and subject typical of cabinet paintings—smallish figures with respect to the picture plane, mythological scenes in atmospheric landscape settings—while at the same time attempting to surpass them in scale and grandeur” (231), and which were painted in the first half of the 1640s. Joachim von Sandrart in his Teutsche Academie of 1675 had noted how Jordaens had engaged the art of Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, and Bassano. Somewhat amazingly, Von Sandrart’s assessment has long been avoided. Jordaens’s paintings of Diana and Acteon, the Rape of Europa, and Diana Resting before the Hunt have much to do with sixteenth-century Venetian painting. Of course, they are related to the pictures of Rubens and Van Dyck who also developed an aesthetic rooted in the art of their Venetian predecessors.

Koenraad Brosens extends the discussion beyond the realm of painting to tapestries with classical subjects or referents. Jordaens created or designed eight sets of tapestries over his career. Four of these are based on themes from antiquity: Life of Alexander (ca. 1630), Life of Odysseus (ca. 1635), History of Theodosius II (ca. 1654–62), and Famous Women of Antiquity (ca. 1660). Brosens argues that Jordaens might have been particularly interested in showcasing his erudition in these elaborate and costly monumental cycles given the general high prestige granted to tapestries in courtly circles.

The two essays in the catalogue devoted to drawings do not address Jordaens’s interests in the antique. Schaudies’s exploration of Jordaens’s late drawings focuses on the artist’s methods and commercial activities at the end of his career. Nico van Hout’s study of Jordaens’s drawings from the live model likewise seems to depart from the exhibition’s organizing principle. Put differently, Jordaens’s drawings seem to have little to do with the antique. Artists frequently made drawn studies of antique sculptures, but the catalogue does not offer that Jordaens did the same. Jordaens did not travel to Rome to see the great collections of antique sculpture. Nevertheless, he had considerable knowledge of objects of this type, as the catalogue consistently and fervently argues. Jordaens seemed to make figure studies and designs for compositions. Thus myriad questions arise. What was the relation between life drawing and drawing after the antique? Did Jordaens pose figures in his studio after antique compositions? Was he trying to enliven, animate, or even contemporize his sources? Though not explored in the catalogue, questions of this type are especially worthy of consideration, as they apply not only to Jordaens but to Rubens and others as well.

The final essay in the catalogue is Justus Lange’s investigation of Jordaens’s antique subjects in historical collections, and it returns to the issue of the history of responses to Jordaens and his work. Jordaens’s paintings with classically inspired themes, subjects, and figures are especially well represented in the princely collections formed in the eighteenth century, not only in Kassel, but also in Dresden, Vienna, and Salzdahlum (now Braunschweig). Wilhelm VIII, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, acquired ten paintings by Jordaens alone. Thus, Jordaens appears to have been quite popular in the aristocratic circles of German-speaking territories in the eighteenth century. This certainly contradicts the nineteenth-century image of Jordaens as the bourgeois painter extraordinaire.

Overall, the catalogue convincingly achieves its goal. The reader is left with no alternative but to reevaluate Jordaens and his creations. Jordaens possessed far more erudition than that he is normally granted, while much of his art is intimately intertwined with diverse elements of the antique as well as humanist traditions with deep classical roots.

Christopher D.M. Atkins
The Agnes and Jack Mulroney Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900, Philadelphia Museum of Art