Flemish painting and De Jonckheere Gallery's old master paintings
Our panel of the Parable of the blind, illustrates a type of iconography that was hugely successful in the Southern Netherlands at the end of the 16th century....read more
Our panel of the Parable of the blind, illustrates a type of iconography that was hugely successful in the Southern Netherlands at the end of the 16th century. This theme has indeed been anchored in Northern painting since Hieronymus Bosch; one of his paintings, which is now lost, is known through an engraving by Hieronymus Cock. This engraving was used in turn in 1540 by Cornelis Massys, who added two blind figures to the other two painted by Bosch. Drawing inspiration from a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (museum of Capodimonte, Naples ), Maerten van Cleve provides us with his own interpretation in this fantastic version of the Parable of the blind.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew tells us about Christ questioning the notion of tradition as defended by the Pharisees, supporters of an orthodoxy that was blind because it was misunderstood: “Let them alone: they are blind and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit!” This notion of “tradition” perverted by blindness over the centuries, is at the heart of the philosophical questioning that existed in Northern Europe in the 16th century. The Reformation, the position of the Church of Rome, and the discovery of new continents and new civilisations shattered the certainties of old, and “blinded” men lost in a world whose rules they no longer seemed to control. Faced with this reality, it is easy to understand why the artists of the time were so interested in this parable.
The attitude adopted by each character illustrates the originality of a master who liked to caricature society’s vices and weaknesses. Maerten van Cleve’s interpretation shows seven figures, one more than Brueghel. Their good-natured and clumsy appearance gives the painting all its charm. While the original version tends towards a certain rigour, the work of Maerten van Cleve presents the fall in a dynamic and dramatic manner. The character who has fallen into the river is painted in the same position as the one in Brueghel’s painting. However, he is no longer with his hands and feet in the air in a symbolic gully, but actually in the water. The second man, who is in the process of falling, expresses his surprise through his gaping mouth. The third one, guided by the cape of the preceding one, does not seem to be aware of the accident about to happen and continues to confidently hold onto the light-coloured coat. The fourth one, staring fixedly beneath his hat, vigorously follows his fellow men, while behind him, a hurdy-gurdy player beats the rhythm. Finally, a pilgrim concludes the mad procession: his hat is firmly pulled down and he is decorated with trinkets particular to the Saint Jacques pilgrimage. A little dog yelps around the feet of the group to warn the merry band of the danger ahead. This little dog, added by our artist, gives the scene a childish, fun-filled air.
The parable is set in a delightful Brabant landscape, whose vast cottages and the gentle undulating hills seem to exude a perfect calm. The resolutely modern composition is a legacy of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s work. A small earth promontory supports the band, while other planes feature dwellings, the river and a very low horizon.
Besides the painting we are presenting here, two other variants of the parable painted by van Cleve currently feature in the collections of the museums of Vienna and Munich , as well as a third version, very similar to ours, kept at the museum of Basel . Portraying a scathing view of society at that time, this large panel is a true synthesis of Brueghel the Elder’s painting and van Cleve’s subtlety. The viewer’s gaze effortlessly follows these unfortunate blind men in a painting which, although light-hearted in appearance, is created with technical vivacity and psychological depth.
1527 – Antwerp – 1581
Maerten van Cleve was the son of the painter Willem van Cleve and the pupil of Frans Floris. In 1551, he became a Master of the Antwerp guild, the very same year as his ...
1527 – Antwerp – 1581
Maerten van Cleve was the son of the painter Willem van Cleve and the pupil of Frans Floris. In 1551, he became a Master of the Antwerp guild, the very same year as his contemporary, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. It is important to note that van Cleve never travelled to Italy, even though this was customary at the time for numerous young painters from northern Europe. The influence of Pieter Aertsen can clearly be seen in his early works. The popular, peasant scenes of his later works prove the artist’s taste for the universe of Pieter Brueghel. Like the latter, Maerten van Cleve painted many aspects of life in the countryside with an acute sense of reality. We know that Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who was inspired by the work of his famous father, also drew inspiration from several of van Cleve’s paintings.
A number of characteristics can be found in all the works of the Maerten van Cleve: the women’s white headdresses are larger than those painted by the Brueghels, and the strings are sometimes knotted above their heads. In addition, his paintings are never complete without a dog, which is nearly always portrayed in profile.
This exceptional artist worked with his brother Hendrik, a landscape painter, as well as with the Grimmers and Gillis van Coninxloo.