‘These little-known miniatures … are among the most beautifully drawn works in the new style of Flemish manuscript illumination’ (Illuminating the Renaissance, p.176).
‘The achievement of the Master of the Houghton Miniatures resides primarily in his brilliance as a draughtsman and his sense of physical proportion, whether in the rendering of the human figure, in the distances between objects, or in the conception of spatial recession. There is poetry in his handling of space and also in the quiet, interior expressiveness of his figures ... In my view he was a master of nearly comparable genius to Hugo van der Goes’ (Kren, 2005, p.359).
The Master of the Houghton Miniatures takes his name from the so-called Emerson-White Hours at Harvard’s Houghton Library. His known oeuvre is extremely small: apart from the present two miniatures, it consists of two miniatures in the Huth Hours at the British Library; one miniature, one historiated initial, and few borders in the Houghton Hours, and two miniatures detached from the same manuscript (at the Royal Library, Brussels, and the Getty Museum); and probably a single very small sheet of drawings in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. The only one known to have appeared at auction since 1892 is the one at the Getty, which sold for a record price in 1995.
Until the major reassessment of artistic personalities occasioned by the Illuminating the Renaissance exhibition in 2003, the work of the Master of the Houghton Miniatures was attributed to, or else closely associated with, the Master of Mary of Burgundy. Arguably the greatest and most innovative late-medieval Flemish illuminator, the Master of Mary of Burgundy is credited with having totally re-conceived the relationship between the three-dimensional space of the viewer and the two-dimensional page, including the invention of illusionistic trompe-l’oeil borders.
There are definite similarities between the work of the Master of Mary of Burgundy and the Master of the Houghton miniatures, including ‘a light-filled aesthetic shared with oil painting, occasional use of a fine pointillist technique, similarity in certain facial types, superb draftsmanship, and microscopic brushwork’; but among the differences are that ‘the Master of the Houghton Miniatures was more adventurous in the depiction of space’ (Illuminating the Renaissance, p.168).
The direct link with the Master of Mary of Burgundy having been broken, more recent scholarship now connects the Master of the Houghton Miniatures with an even greater genius. In the recent Beyond Words exhibition catalogue, James Marrow observes that ‘the Master of the Houghton Miniatures must have worked for a while alongside Van der Goes, possibly as one of his close apprentices or assistants. … The miniature of St. Anthony in the Emerson-White Hours [i.e. the touchstone painting by which the style of the Master of the Houghton Miniatures is defined] seems to me a candidate for a work attributable in part or whole to Hugo van der Goes himself’ (Beyond Words, pp.149–50).
One possible explanation for the artist’s extremely small oeuvre as an illuminator is that he worked primarily as a panel painter.
(1) Painted in Flanders, probably at Ghent, to judge by the artist’s close affiliation with Hugo van der Goes. (2) A photograph of the David miniature in the RKD, The Hague, is captioned ‘G.[erard?] David 1929’. (3) Examined by Friedrich Winckler, who wrote an expertise in November 1962 on behalf of the Swiss dealer Fankhauser. (4) Acquired by the father of the present owner in January 1963, with Winkler’s encouragement: ‘Mir sind, wenn ich mich recht erinnere, niemals so qualitätvolle Einzelstücke dieses führenden Genter Buchmalers im Kunsthandel begegnet. … würde ich an Ihrer Stelle die Miniaturen, die ich seit 20 Jahren kenne, erwerben, denn die Gelegenheit dürfte nicht Wiederkommen’.
-- T. Kren, ‘Master of the Houghton Miniatures’, in Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, exhibition catalogue, 2003, pp.168–78 at 176–78 cat.no.34 with col.ills.
-- J. Marrow in Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, exhibition catalogue, 2016, mentioned in cat.no.116.
Discussing and reproducing only the David miniature:
-- B. Brinkmann, Die flämische Buchmalerei am ende des Burgunderreichs, 1997, pp.310–11 and fig.81.
-- T. Kren, ‘The Importance of Patterns in the Emergence of a New Style of Flemish Manuscript Illumination after 1470’, in Manuscripts in Transition, ed. by B. Dekeyzer and J. van der Stock, 2005, pp.357–77 at p.363–4 and ill.12.
-- T. Kren, ‘Two Miniatures by Simon Bening from the Munich/Montserrat Hours’, in Von Kunst und Temperament: Festschrift für Eberhard König, ed. by M. Hofmann and C. Zöhl, 2007, p.143–48 at p.143 and fig.5.
Illuminating the Renaissance, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 17 June – 7 September 2003; and Royal Academy of Arts, London, 29 November 2003 – 24 February 2004
In his study of the role played by patterns in the dissemination of compositions from panel-painters to illuminators, and between illuminators, Kren shows that the present composition was a new invention by the Master of the Houghton Miniatures, and provided a pattern used used by other illuminators for at least the next two generations: a miniature of c.1500 sold in our rooms, 21 June 1988, lot 28 is nearly identical; less close but clearly based on the same model, is the c.1510–20 King David miniature by the Master of the Lubeck Bible in the Spinola Hours (Getty Museum), and a reversed version was painted by Simon Bening probably in the 1530s (Christie’s, 11 July 2002, lot 13).
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