- Adriaen Isenbrant
- A triptych: The Adoration of the Magi
- oil on oak panel, within the probably original engaged frame
Private collection, Switzerland;
With Thomas Agnew and Sons, New Bond Street, London (bears their label on the reverse);
From whom acquired by Walter Eberstadt on 15 May 1985, for $165,000.
J.V.L. Brans, 'An unknown Triptych by Gerard David', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 91, April 1949, pp. 105–06, reproduced figs 14–16 (as by Gerard David, in a private collection. Brans was unaware that Friedländer had published it, unillustrated, in 1933);
M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. XI, Leiden 1974, p. 81, no. 127, reproduced plate 105 (as Adriaen Isenbrant).
In the light of this it is perhaps surprising that not a single signed or documented work by him survives, and his œuvre is thus entirely a reconstruction by art historians. A group of works roughly corresponding to the core œuvre of Isenbrant as currently understood was assembled by Gustav Waagen in the mid-nineteenth century. He had wrongly connected them with the painter Jan Mostaert, so the anonymous artist was known subsequently as the Waagen Mostaert or the Pseudo-Mostaert. During the ground-breaking 1902 exhibition in Brussels entitled Les Primitifs Flamands, Georges Hulin de Loo suggested that the author of one such work exhibited could be identified as Adriaen Isenbrant (often spelt Ysenbrant). In the early 1930s Max Friedländer went on both to refine the definition of Isenbrant’s artistic personality, and to expand the core group of works which he identified as Isenbrant.1 He further expanded this group in his revised edition in the 1970s, to include works that had come to light in the meantime. Friedländer was not sure if the Isenbrant group should be assigned instead to a contemporary Bruges painter called Albert Cornelisz., and at least one latter-day art historian, Lorne Campbell has argued for this attribution. The current consensus is however that the group should remain identified as Adriaen Isenbrant, but Peter van den Brink has kindly pointed out that Albert Cornelis and Isenbrant, may have shared studio assistants.2 In any event, the stylistic identity of the group is consistent and readily recognised. Isenbrant’s works are characterized by an almost sfumato technique, what Friedländer called 'loosening and blurring the brushwork', noting that his typical ‘heavy pigment layer has an almost smoked or fired aspect'.3 He also clearly liked a warm palette with strong colours. These distinctive characteristics can easily be seen in the present triptych.
Eighteenth-century sources state Isenbrant to have been a pupil of Gerard David, and this has often been assumed to be true, but his arrival in Bruges in 1510 as a Free Master makes it unlikely. He was however strongly influenced by David, especially in his compositions. This triptych is partly adapted from Gerard David’s Adoration of the Magi in Brussels, which is generally dated to the 1490s.4 Isenbrant moved the three figures, including one of the Magi, standing to the left of the Brussels David to the left wing of the present triptych, setting them before a landscape. He removed all of the remaining figures apart from the two Magi and the Virgin and Child from the Brussels Adoration and also set them before an extensive landscape. The Ox and the Ass are moved to the right wing, where St Joseph appears leaning on a stick with his left hand and holding his right to his head. This figure has no direct source in David’s Brussels Adoration, although he balances the figure holding his cap to the left it, who recurs in altered form in the left wing of the present triptych. As Peter van den Brink has kindly pointed out, the same unusual gesture of Joseph, as if holding his cap on his head, occurs in a predella panel in Stuttgart from the Workshop of The Master of 1518.5 As Till-Holger Borchert has kindly pointed out, an earlier source for it is the figure of Nicodemus (or St Joseph of Arimatheia) who appears in a Lamentation in The Mauritshuis from the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden.6 Since the design of the Mauritshuis picture, though not the execution of at least the peripheral figures, is surely due to Rogier, it seems likely that Joseph's gesture in the present triptych has a Rogierian source.
Infra-Red imaging done by Art Access Research reveals extensive and consistent under-drawing on all three panels (reproduced see figs. X, X, X but best studied via the online catalogue of this sale).7 On each, pouncing was used to transfer the design to the grounded panel, but is for the most part limited to the figures and their clothing, although there are traces of pouncing in the landscape background of the central panel (see below). In a few parts, the pouncing has been gone over with chalk to reinforce the lines, and there is diagonal hatching in the wall behind the figures in the central panel. Some details, for example the jar brought by the Magus kissing the Christ-Child, are not pounced but are precisely under-drawn. In the right wing double lines of pouncing may be seen, perhaps showing that the cartoon was moved during the transfer process. Pouncing as means of transfer of design was widespread in Italy, and was used sporadically by earlier Netherlandish painters. It is however particularly associated with Isenbrant's workshop. It is found, for example under the figures of the Virgin and Child in Isenbrant's paintings of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt and Virgin and Child with Six Female Saints, both in Munich, though not beneath the landscape. background.8 as Maryan Ainsworth observed, "It is here in Isenbrant's works, many of which were made apparently to be sold on the open market, that we find the transfer of designs by pouncing to be the most common feature of workshop practice."9
A quite different and very free under-drawing occurs consistently in the landscape backgrounds of the central panel and the left wing. The style of this drawing is similar to the painted landscapes, and both are probably the work of a landscape specialist in Adriaen Isenbrant's workshop.10 The pouncing in the landscape background of the central panel corresponds in only a few places with the under-drawing (most noticeably in the buildings in the town to the upper left), and not at all to the procession of mounted figures. The pouncing suggests a quite different massing of mountains in the centre. Like the architectural setting it is completely unrelated to David's Brussels Adoration. There seems to be no pouncing at all in the landscape background of the left wing.
A dendrochronological analysis undertaken by Professor Pieter Klein of the University of Hamburg reveals that both planks comprising the central panel were made from the same Baltic oak tree. The youngest heartwood ring is from 1517, suggesting an earliest plausible felling date of 1526, an earliest plausible date of use of 1528, and a more likely date of use in the mid-1530s.11 Such a dating removes this triptych from the immediate followers of Gerard David, and although hardly definitive, points to a plausible dating in the middle years of Isenbrant’s career.
The engaged frame, made of Western European oak, is almost certainly original.
We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert and Peter van den Brink for their help in preparing this catalogue entry. Both independently endorse the attribution to Isenbrant.
1 See M.J. Friedländer, under Literature, 1933, pp. 79–101, 128–40.
2 Email, 26 April 2015. Dr van den Brink suggests that he thinks Albert Cornelis may by identical with The Master of the Holy Blood.
3 See under Literature, 1974, p. 57.
4 See H.J. Miegroet, Gerard David, Antwerp 1989, p. 282, no. 10, reproduced in colour figs 94–6.
5 Ibid. The predella is in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, inv. No. GVL 108; see A. Born, in P. van den Brink et al., Extravagant, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp 2005, pp. 196–99, no. 83, reproduced, as Workshop of the Master of 1518.
6. Email, 30th May 2015. The Hague, Mauritshuis, inv. 264; H. Mund, in L. Campbell & J. van der Stock, Rogier van der Weyden, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle/Leuven 2009, pp. 511-3, no. 76, reproduced; see also D. de Vos, Rogier van der Weyden. Das Gesamtwerk, Munich 1999, p. 403, no. C5, reproduced.
7. A copy is available on request and can be accessed in the online edition of this catalogue.
8. Munich, Alte Pinakothek; see M.W. Ainsworth, Gerard David. Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition, New York 1998, p.283, reproduced pp. 280-1, figs. 267-270. The pouncing in the latter picture was gone over with brushed under-drawing.
9. Idem, p. 280.
10. Till-Holger Borchert thinks that that under-drawing in the landscape may also be traced and then worked up more freely. Ibid. For more on under-drawing and Isenbrant see T.-H. Borchert, in: Le dessin sous-jacent et la technologie dans la peinture: Colloque XIII, Leuven 2001.
11. A copy of Professor Klein’s report is available on request.