Five hundred years on, there’s still something new to say about Bosch
by | 13 February 16
To mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (around 1450-1516), the Noordbrabants Museum in his hometown of Den Bosch is staging a sweeping survey. The show, for which the museum has borrowed 20 of the artist’s 25 surviving panels and triptychs, looks to transform our knowledge of this extraordinary painter, famed for his bizarre fantasies.
Although the major research findings are due to be released only shortly before the show’s opening, it is already clear that scientific study of his surviving works will be a decisive turning point in Bosch studies. “For the first time, nearly all his works have been investigated by the same people using the same equipment, to get standardised results,” says Charles de Mooij, the director of the Noordbrabants Museum.
The nine-year Bosch Research and Conservation Project, which was supported in part by the Getty Foundation, involved the detailed investigation by an international team of nearly all his paintings and drawings from 25 collections in ten countries. High-resolution photography and infra-red reflectography (showing underdrawing) made it possible to compare similar features in different pictures. It was found that Bosch painted very rapidly with wet-on-wet technique.
Once the research had been completed, informed decisions could be taken on possible conservation work. Nine panels and triptychs were ultimately conserved, making them fit to travel for the exhibition. The Bosch project could provide a model for the study and exhibition of other major Old Masters, particularly those with a relatively small surviving body of work.
There is at least one addition to the artist’s paintings: The Last Judgment (around 1495-1505) from the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. The work was previously assumed to be from Bosch’s workshop. Research also led to the rejection of three works: The Seven Deadly Sins table top (1510-20) from the Museo del Prado in Madrid, The Conjurer panel (1510-30) at Musée municipal de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Christ Carrying the Cross triptych at the Museum Voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, which has not been dated by exhibition organisers and is not part of the show.
The research project has increased the number of Bosch’s surviving drawings from around a dozen to 19, all of which will be exhibited. These include a major discovery: Infernal Landscape, an undated work sold at Sotheby’s in 2003 for $277,000 as a drawing by a follower. It has now been upgraded to a fully autograph work. Bosch now ranks as the earliest Netherlandish artist for whom we have a significant body of drawn works.
Bosch was so inventive and imaginative that it is commonly assumed that he must have been the epitome of the “mad artist”. But according to De Mooij, Bosch was highly learned and very much part of the establishment. “He was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady and had close contacts with the Duke of Burgundy and his court,” De Mooij says. “The unconventionality of his art was not for the common people, but for aristocratic patrons.” After the Noordbrabants exhibition, a selection of Bosch paintings will be presented in a different show at the Prado in Madrid (31 May- 11 September).
The show is supported by a range of institutions including the North Brabant Province and Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.
• Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius, Het Noordbrabants Museum, s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), 13 February-8 May