In addition to the figures in the foreground, which are based on Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut from his Life of the Virgin series (fig. 1), other references to the biblical story of the Flight into Egypt are woven throughout the varied topography. In the middle of the panel appear King Herod and his soldiers between a bridge and a golden wheat field. This tiny detail is a reference to the miracle in which a wheat field grew overnight after the Holy Family passed through, so that when a pursuant Herod arrived the next day inquiring after the traveling group, the farmer could truthfully claim they had passed at the time of last sowing. In the right foreground, a statue appears in a bowed position on its pedestal, alluding to the pagan idols that fell to the ground when the Holy Family entered Egypt.
Scholars once ascribed the present work to Joachim Patinir, one of the founding fathers of Netherlandish landscape painting, while others believed it to be a collaboration between Patinir and Adriaen Isenbrant, himself a leading figure of the Northern Renaissance in Bruges and active in the first half of the 16th century. More recently, however, this panel has been more firmly placed within the group of works given to Isenbrant. Peter van den Brink gives this work entirely to Isenbrant, though other scholars, including Till-Holger Borchert and Dr. Max Martens, have suggested a possible collaboration between Isenbrant and a contemporary landscape specialist, a common practice in the workshops of Bruges during Isenbrant's lifetime.
Although not much is known of Isenbrant's biography, archival evidence provides color to this elusive artist's life and professional career. In 1510, Isenbrant became a free-master in Bruges, where he would remain for nearly the entirety of his career, which spanned over four decades. He married twice, held the position of vinder (juror) to the guild’s dean nine times, assisted with the festival decorations in celebration of the Triumphal Entry of Charles V into Bruges in 1520, was influenced by the works of Gerard David, and was a contemporary of Ambrosius Benson. He ran a successful workshop in Bruges, which was home to a thriving art market during his lifetime, and he produced works for both private clients and the open market. In 1511, the artist's guild in Bruges lifted restrictions that had previously prevented members from freely selling in both their shops and on the free market.1 This fortuitous shift allowed for a more prodigious output for artists, including Isenbrant, whose paintings found their way onto the open markets of Bruges and Antwerp, perhaps with the assistance of Marc Bonnet, who was a dealer active in both cities.
Following earlier efforts of nineteenth century art historians such as Gustav Waagen, Eberhard von Bodenhausen was one of the first art historians to isolate a group of about thirty works by Isenbrant and his workshop in 1905. This group was further refined and expanded to over one hundred and fifty panels by Max Friedlander in the 1930s and then again in the 1970s. Over the years, Friedlander was unsure 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 identification. In her 1995 article, Jean C. Wilson proposed that the group of paintings given to Isenbrant may be comprised by examples from a circle of artists working closely together in Bruges and suggested that the group be examined on the basis of stylistic analysis.2 More recently, however, Till-Holger Borchert, discussed how the varied nature of the works ascribed to Isenbrant is due in part to his practice of absorbing other artist's pictorial schemes, the involvement of his workshop, and his collaboration with other artists of the period.3
Around five hundred paintings currently comprise Adriaen Isenbrant’s impressive body of work. Even though there are no signed or monogrammed works by the artist, the stylistic identity of the group of works given to him is consistent and readily recognized. His works are characterized by a palette of strong colors, smooth yet lively surfaces, intense modelling, delicate curves, and a close attention to detail. His landscapes are notable for their high horizon lines, which allow for a larger stage on which to depict the natural world, an understanding of spatial recession, and lush foliage. Comparisons can be drawn between the figures of the present painting and those found in Isenbrant's small Life of the Virgin triptych in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 2), particularly those figures in the right wing of the triptych, which also depicts the Flight into Egypt, a theme that Isenbrant returned to repeatedly throughout his career. Iterations of this biblical story appear in various formats by the artist, either as small devotional works, wings to altarpieces, or small vignettes within a larger landscape, as is the case in the present work.
Infrared reflectography (IRR) images of the present panel reveal small changes made to the figures and to the carefully arranged composition (fig. 3). It also unveils a distinct and lively underdrawing that moves freely across the entire work, possibly suggesting the hand of just one artist rather than two, an opinion supported by Peter van den Brink. The IRR imaging also helps link this painting to another in the Isenbrant group, for it is consistent with the underdrawing found in the landscape of the Crucifixion triptych attributed to Isenbrant in the Art Museum of Estonia (Niguliste Museum) Tallinn, Estonia.
We are grateful to Till Holger-Borchert, Dr. Max Martens, and Peter van den Brink for their assistance in cataloguing the present lot.
1. See M. Ainsworth, Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition, New York 1998, p. 277.
2. See J. Wilson, “Adriaen Isenbrant and the Problem of his Oeuvre” Oud Holland, vol. 109, 1995, p. 12.
3. See T.-H. Borchert, in Bruges and the Renaissance: Memling to Pourbus, Ludion 1998, pp. 120-122.
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