THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
By descent to Comtesse Albert van der Stegen de Schrieck (d. 1936);
By descent to her granddaughters, who each inherited one panel;
The panel with Saint Francis presenting the Donor (inner wing) and The Angel of the Annunciation (outer wing) offered London, Christie's, 30 November 1979, lot 120 (unsold), and again 18 July 1980, lot 116 (unsold), both as The Master of Hoogstraten;
Both panels were subsequently reunited in the possession of the present owner's mother;
Thence by descent.
These two panels, hitherto virtually unknown, are a significant addition to the corpus of painting in Bruges in the second decade of the 16th Century. They are the two inner and outer wings of a dismembered triptych, with the inner wings depicting in colour Saint Francis presenting the Donor and his two sons and Saint Margaret presenting the Donatrix and her four daughters (one deceased), and the outer wings depicting en grisaille the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Annunciate. The central panel is missing and its subject is not known, but it is quite likely to have been a Nativity. A triptych of the Nativity in The Metropolitan Museum in New York by Gerard David, an artist who exerted a considerable influence on Provoost, has inner wings with donors that are similar in composition to the present pair.1
The identities of the donors are unknown. It is quite likely that their presenting saints convey their names: he Francis and his wife as Margaret. His swarthy features and his black hair are Mediterranean, and it is quite likely that he was a Spanish or Italian merchant in Bruges, while her softer physiognomy and light brown hair are more plausibly of the Low Countries. It is interesting to note that the artist has imbued their children with something of the physiognomies of both parents. The two grisaille panels show traces of shields with coats-of-arms which are very difficult to see with the naked eye because they have been subsequently overpainted. They were painted on top of the background paint and not reserved. The coat-of-arms on the panel with Gabriel shows a tower flanked with rampant lions with red tongues on a green-blue background, while that on the panel with the Virgin consists of a split shield with a tower on the left and a single-headed eagle on the right. Neither coat-of-arms has been identified, but one might speculate that the tower might be reflected in the Donor’s name, perhaps De la Torre. There is a Huis de la Torre at no. 16 Spanjaardstraat (Spanish Street) in Bruges (fig. 1). The portico is in the style of the mid-sixteenth century, and dates from then, but there are earlier interiors. It was the headquarters of the Castillian merchant community, and was probably named after a tower that formerly stood on part of the site: alas no direct connection has yet been proved with the present panels or their donors.
These panels were the subject of a study undertaken recently by IRPA/KIK in Brussels under the direction of Christina Currie. This catalogue entry draws extensively on the concluding report, of which a copy is available on request.
The two panels each comprise two boards of vertically aligned Baltic oak joined with four wooden dowels. All four sides of each panel have unpainted borders, and barbes, which shows that they retain their original dimensions and shape. Both are set in their original engaged wooden frames each comprising four elements joined at the corners with half-lap mitred joints reinforced with dowels. The panels were fixed in their frames before the ground layer was applied. Each would have been attached to the frame of the central panel by four hinges, but these have been replaced by four blocks of wood. The outside edges of the frames retain the tab and rebate that allowed for them to close. The surfaces of the front, back and edges of the frames, including the gilding and the black painted areas are due to earlier restorations, and are no earlier than the nineteenth century.
Infra-red imaging of the inside and outside of each panel reveals spontaneous, confident and expressive underdrawing, done in a dry medium with coarsely sharpened black chalk (or possibly charcoal), and in addition in some parts with a brush and liquid medium. Hatching strokes have been applied abundantly to denote shadows and contours, and the artist has on occasion redrawn his lines. The artist frequently deviated from his underdrawing when applying paint, making many modifications to the design during the process of creation, adding and modifying motifs.
Front left panel: Saint Francis with Donor and Sons (figs 2 and 3)
A liquid medium has been used for the face and hands of Saint Francis, and in a few other parts of the composition of the left panel in combination with the dry medium, which occurs in extensive hatched form throughout most of the figures and drapery. There are several significant changes of design in the figures, especially in the position of the donor, whom the artist has moved to the left, and in the face of the eldest Donor’s son, which has been rotated to the left. Because the Donor’s original position lies under thin paint in the landscape, one can here appreciate the vigorous energetic hatching that the artist used here in his underdrawing. The position of Saint Francis, delineated in underdrawing, has not been altered, and would be untenable with the Donor in his original position, so the change in the Donor’s position was probably made at the underdrawing stage. The architectural background appears first to have been freely and loosely drawn, with pentiments visible in the form of spires and pinnacles above the finished roof-line. The architecture appears then to have been drawn in much more precisely in a form that largely corresponds to the finished painting, although the underdrawing displays a far greater degree of architectural detail than is revealed in paint. The trees and foliage have very little underdrawing, although originally conceived but not painted trees appear in the sky as single lines for trunk and branches. The artist originally conceived an architectural element extending up the left edge from above the younger son’s head, culminating in an extending pitched roof. This has been replaced with a freely painted tree, but when abandoning it the artist probably transferred it to the right, where the brick wall running up the right edge has no underdrawing or reserve.
Front right panel: Saint Margaret of Antioch with Donatrix and Daughters (figs 4 and 5)
The underdrawing, not visible under the dark robes of the Donatrix and her daughters (as in the robe of the eldest son in the left panel), is almost entirely executed in a dry medium, with thicker, darker strokes in the face of Saint Margaret, possibly indicating a more carbon-rich medium. The style is rather different from the corresponding front left panel, with more sinuous flowing lines interspersed with hatching that is less extensive. The very freely drawn landscape looks as if it is contiguous with the rest, with the hill to the right raised up much higher than in the painting, and surmounted by a castle. Apart from the landscape details, the most significant differences between underdrawing and painting are in the daughters to the right. The Donatrix and the daughter to the right were reserved from the outset, although their black veils appear to be later additions during painting. Two daughters appear to have been shifted downwards during painting, and a girl was drawn, reserved and painted at the back of the group, above the present heads, and both the reserves for her hands and her open square bodice can be seen in the infra-red image, but she was later painted out. Another, smaller reserved space for a head at the far right is empty, suggesting that a further daughter was planned for this position but likewise abandoned. These figures were most likely shifted during painting to the positions occupied by the middle daughter, who appears to be the youngest, and the lower right daughter, because these two have both been painted on top of the background paint, without reserves. The face of the Donatrix has been shifted downwards slightly during painting, and initially she wore an open bodice with a jewelled pendant. Her appearance as painted, with a white lace fabric concealing her chest, gives her a more pious appearance. The underdrawing shows her wearing a headband with a round pendant, not carried through in the painting, and there are other small changes to her. Though barely visible, it seems that the left hand of Saint Margaret was originally drawn lower, but worked up in the current position.
Inner wings of the Annunciation (figs. 6-9)
These are generally more tautly worked, with copious disciplined close hatching in the draperies. The face of Gabriel was altered during the drawing, with the line of his nose moved, and altered again during the painting, when the curly hair on the top of his head was replaced by a skullcap. The clasp of his cloak originally bore flowers in the four lobes: this was altered during painting. During painting the artist made significant changes to the drapery folds lower down. The position of the vase was also altered during the underdrawing phase, being first loosely drawn in to the left of its present position and subsequently worked up much more precisely in its current position. During painting the flowers were extended much higher, and a projecting handle to the front abandoned. The panel with the Virgin Annunciate is even more extensively hatched, and the drapery folds have curious drawn hooks on their edges, as if they were large stitches joining fabric. Her head is intensely and sculpturally drawn, and is arguably more beautifully realised in the drawing phase than in the finished painting. Her eyes have been altered during the underdrawing phase: this is most noticeable in her left eye. The undulating curves of Her hair are more vigorously expressed in the underdrawing, but in general there are few changes to the design between the drawing and painting phases.
The outer wings are consistent in their underdrawing, and it is reasonable to assume that they are the work of a single hand. The underdrawing of the inner wings is less consistent, but shows a great deal of expressive freedom in many parts of the landscape and architecture, and a use of hatching in the Saint Francis panel to work up ideas, for example in the original position of the Donor. In the underdrawing phase of the Inner wings there is a greater degree of experimentation in the design, and a concomitant greater degree of change between underdrawing and painting.
Throughout his career, Jan Provoost’s technique of underdrawing evolved from liquid to dry medium. Both are present in these panels, but the predominant medium is dry. As Ron Spronk has shown, Provoost frequently used parallel hatching to indicate shadows and contours, and these are characteristics found extensively in these panels.2 Further similarities between the underdrawing in the present panels and that found in other works by Provoost include the series of drawing lines around the eyes of Gabriel to indicate the eye socket and cheek contours which is similar in style to the head of Emperor Maxentius in Provoost’s Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of circa 1500-1510 in Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, and the idiosyncratic manner of defining drapery folds in the grisaille panels finds parallels in Provoost’s Carrying of the Cross of 1522 in the Sint-Janshospital in Bruges. Characteristic too of Provoost are the frequent changes of design during the phases of underdrawing and painting.
Rapports with Provoost’s paintings
The landscape and architectural backgrounds in paintings produced in Provoost’s workshop were most likely the work of specialist painters. The farm buildings and towers in the background of the Saint Margaret panel are reminiscent of those in the left hand background of Provoost’s Virgin and Child in a Landscape in the National Gallery, London, while the crenelated fortified buildings in the background of the Saint Francis panel - especially as revealed in the underdrawing, are reminiscent of the fantastic structures in the backgrounds of the two truncated wings of a dismembered triptych attributed to Provoost in Madrid, Fundaciòn Colecciòn Thyssen-Bornemisza.3
The present two panels are far from being the only altarpiece wings from Provoost's workshop that have lost their central panels, in fact a significant proportion of works attributed to Provoost consists of unattached altarpiece wings. The Johnson collection in Philadelphia houses a pair of double-sided wings with Saints Andrew and Catherine with Donor, Donatrix and their children on the inner wings and The Annunciation painted en grisaille on the outer wings. The Johnson wings display marked similarities with the present ones, especially in the face of the female presenting Saint, and in the depiction of the Donors sons, and the Donatrix and her daughters, and of course in the outer wings.
The differences between the high quality of the underdrawing and the less consistent handling of the paint points to the possibility, as Ron Spronk has suggested, that these altarpiece wings may have been started in Provoost's workshop under his direction, and completed by workshop assistants after his death in 1529.4 In any event, the underdrawing, or at least a substantial part of it, is evidently due to Provoost himself, allowing for the execution of the painting to be completed by workshop assistants, perhaps posthumously.
1. Suggested by Professor Didier Martens, and recorded in the KIK/IRPA report, n12.
2. Cited in the KIK/IRPA report.
3. See M.P.J. Martens, Bruges and the Renaissance, exhibition catalogue, Bruges 1998, pp. 101, 104, nos 23 and 26, reproduced.
4. Letter 20th March 2016 and email 31st May 2017. Dr Spronk's suggestion is provisional, pending full cleaning and restoration of the works. Given that Provoost is believed to have had a classical education, errors in the Latin inscription in the banderole of the right hand outer wing, noted by Martens and quoted in the KIK/IRPA report, may also point to their posthumous completion.
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