Antwerp artist and brilliant market thinker

September 25, 2007

Micha Leeflang carried out an extensive study into the work of Joos van Cleve. She focused on three aspects of the work of this early sixteenth-century artist from Antwerp: how did he produce his paintings, who purchased them and how were they distributed" For example, she investigated how he organised his studio, to what extent he and his assistants painted to commission and which marketing strategies he developed to bring his work to the attention of the public.

Of the more than 300 paintings known to originate from Van Cleve, the researcher studied 107 with infrared reflectography. In addition 50 paintings were dated with dendrochronology, for which the annual rings of the wooden panel on which the scene is painted are used as a time indication. By doing this she could, for example, attribute some of Van Cleve's paintings to two of his students, one of whom was his son. She also established that the quality of the paintings made in his studio was fairly constant. From this the art historian concluded that Van Cleve probably employed a permanent group of assistants to safeguard the quality, which enabled him to distinguish himself from other workshops.

Marketing strategy Joos van Cleve appeared to have focused on the national and international free markets and on acquiring important commissions. This spread of activities over several markets yielded him considerable success. Moreover, he distinguished himself by producing only works of a professional perfection and very high quality. This was a very different approach from the vast majority of other early sixteenth-century artists from Antwerp. Further the painter had important clients such as King Francis I of France and for his time he had a large studio. All of this enhanced his status as an artist, thus enabling him to acquire many new commissions.

Leeflang discovered that Van Cleve often made the rough sketch, the so-called underdrawing, and he sometimes indicated colours in the stage of the underdrawing as a guideline for his workshop assistants. These assistants subsequently completed the paintings under the supervision of their master. Using infrared reflectography Leeflang could also establish which elements were later added to the paintings or changed, probably at the behest of the client. For example, on the triptych with The Crucifixion in Naples (Museo di Capodimonte) a third son appeared that cannot be seen in the initial sketch and is only visible on the top layer of paint in the painting.
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This doctoral research was part of the NWO project 'Antwerp Painting before Iconoclasm: a socio-economic approach'. The purpose of this study was to map how changes in studio practices, the market and the behaviour of clients affected medieval art in Antwerp.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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