Flemish painting and De Jonckheere Gallery's old master paintings
Signed with a white owl.
Provenance: private collection.
A painter admired and collected by the greatest Italian patrons of his time, Herri Met de Bles perfected his knowledge in the Italian...
Signed with a white owl.
Provenance: private collection.
A painter admired and collected by the greatest Italian patrons of his time, Herri Met de Bles perfected his knowledge in the Italian peninsula by cleverly combining the poetry of northern painting with the techniques of the Mediterranean. Close to Joachim Patinier, our artist developed a repertoire of special forms which, although particular to him, were genuinely anchored in the Nordic tradition of landscape.
This Landscape with the repudiation of Hagar and Ishmael belongs to a particular context in the history of thought: Humanism. Advocating a return to classical sources, the intellectuals of the Renaissance embarked upon a new interpretation of the founding texts of European civilisation. The bible thus became an object of study that escaped the control of the church for the first time. This rediscovery of the Old Testament’s sacred texts inspired painters by allowing them to illustrate scenes that had never been portrayed until then. The illustration of the Scriptures gradually became a pretext for the creation of vast exotic landscapes teeming with forests, mountains and rivers.
Our painting refers to a tragic moment in the history of Abraham. Knowing that she is sterile, Sarah, the patriarch’s wife, offers him Hagar, her Egyptian servant, so that she can give him a son and thus ensure a descendant. A son named Ishmael is born from this union. However, Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant a few years later and gives birth to a boy called Isaac. As they grow up, Abraham’s two sons argue and Sarah catches Ishmael mocking his half-brother. Angered by her servant’s son’s mockery, Sarah orders Abraham to get rid of the maid and his son. The patriarch hesitates but God assures him that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation. In the morning, Abraham takes bread and a water skin, and chases them into the desert of Beersheba. It is precisely this episode that the painter is showing us here: Abraham repudiating his servant Hagar and their son Ishmael.
He places the scene’s the three figures in the foreground of his painting. The richly clothed Abraham is presented from the back, pointing a finger at Hagar. She is dressed as a modest peasant and little Ishmael, whose hand she is holding, is carrying two loaves of bread and the water skin. Placing figures in the foreground is rare in his work: except for the Holy Family kept as the museum in Basel, Bles always relegates his figures to the scale of the other elements that fill the space. However, a meticulous study of the painting allows us to distinguish other figures, lost in the décor. In the background, we can catch a glimpse of Hagar, distraught and anxious, sheltering Ishmael under a shrub. She receives a visit from an angel who assures her of her son’s fabulous destiny. The portrayal of these figures in the background is symptomatic of Herri Met de Bles’ way of mixing biblical scenes and landscape, and painting his figures with tiny, transparent touches of paint.
The way he paints the landscape is true to his style of painting. Qualified by contemporary critics as ‘cosmic landscapes’, Bles’ landscapes are arranged in a particularly harmonious manner. Borrowing natural motifs from the greatest painters of his time (such as Patinier, Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer), Herri Met de Bles became a master in the arrangement of veritable panoramas. Whether large or small, Bles’ paintings open up to us just like the universe before the eyes of God. The painter creates a sort of montage by giving precise elements the place of honour in each of his paintings. In this panel, our attention is thus drawn by the splendid craggy peaks in the background that stand out against the whitish, misty glaze of the sky. These mountains, directly inherited from the work of Patinier, are painted in sfumato, a legacy from Leonardo da Vinci. At the foot of these steep slopes is a sumptuous castle, whose tower and solid fortifications are the fruit of a meticulous underlying sketch, drawn with a lead pencil and hidden beneath thin layers of paint. Just before the mountain chain, a fortified village is hidden behind large trees growing on the banks of a crystal-clear river. This magnificently ochre-coloured village is in the form of a cone. This particular shape leads us to interpret it as a portrayal of Celestial Jerusalem. Bles very clearly resorts to atmospheric perspective as well as sfumato to give depth to the painting. In order to increase this perception, the artist delimits the foreground of the work by drawing a particularly slender tree in order to push the rest of the composition into the background.
A large oak tree with a split trunk (which features in many of the master’s paintings) hides a small white owl. Scanning the scene from his hideaway, the bird served as the painter’s signature throughout his career. This Repudiation of Hagar offers an astonishing and original synthesis of Herri Met de Bles’ work. The aesthetic quality and skilful execution of this recently discovered panel proves, once again, the importance of Herri Met de Bles as the leader of Flemish landscape painting in the mid 16th century.
C. 1510 Bouvignes – c. 1560 Ferrara
After a long stay in Italy, Herri Met de Bles settled in Malines in 1521, then Amsterdam where Frans Mostaert became his pupil. Very much attracted to Italy, he made a second journey and died in Ferrara around 1560 while serving the Dukes of Este.
A painter of animated panoramic landscapes and religious, mythological or popular scenes, Herri Met de Bles followed the pictorial tradition of his uncle, Joachim Patinier.
The realistic yet imaginary places are an extension of this tradition, especially the rocky mountains with their fantastic configurations; however, our painter asserts his talent through a less rigid and more vaporous atmosphere.
The master was also inspired by the principles of Leonardo da Vinci, who recommended allowing far-off objects to disappear into a light mist to emphasise air effects and to stress perspective.
During his trips to Italy, he was known by the name of ‘Civetta’ owing to the owl he featured in many of his paintings.