'Forgotten Masters' thrill in Bruges

'Pieter Pourbus and the Forgotten Masters' is an exceptional exhibition that sheds light on a century of Bruges painting that is often overlooked. By focusing on the production of two Bruges dynasties of artists it shows that even after Bruges' heyday in the 15th century Bruges masters were still a force to be reckoned with.

Exhibition curator Anne van Oosterwijk: « Bruges generated its prosperity during the 15th century. It was one of the key European trading centres where goldsmiths, leatherworkers and painters produced luxury products that were snapped up by wealthy merchants. Thanks to the access that its port afforded it was also a place where the most exotic goods were available on the market. By the beginning of the 16th century the tide was changing. Mary of Burgundy was dead and her successor promoted cities like Ghent and Antwerp to the disadvantage of Bruges. The Zwin estuary that linked Bruges to the North Sea was silting up restricting access to the port of Bruges and the city's guilds were adopting restrictive and protectionist regulations in an attempt to safeguard their own interests. All this put a damper on Bruges as a trade centre. The art market was shifting to Antwerp. International merchants moved elsewhere. Still, two dynasties of painters managed to survive in these challenging economic times: the Pourbus Family and the Claeissens Family. »

By the 16th century Bruges was becoming a city with two faces. An extremely rich elite ensured that there was still a market for paintings, but this was a small elite. By the turn of the 16th century wages in Bruges were among the highest in Europe, but then wages no longer increased. An impoverished underclass was unable to seek its fortunes elsewhere.

Anne van Oosterwijk: « Attempts were made to show that Bruges did still count. Pieter I Claeissens was commissioned to paint the 'Seven Wonders' of Bruges. It shows key city buildings including the bell tower and the Water Halls, but with ruins mixed in-between. There were no ruins in Bruges, but this was an attempt to mirror the practice of showing Rome's greatness by the presence of ruins. In addition Marcus Gerards was commissioned to produce a map that accentuated the size of Bruges' waterways and its proximity to the sea in order to promote it as a centre of trade. Prints of this map were dispatched across Europe even surfacing in Seville. »

The exhibition focuses on two painters' dynasties; the Pourbuses and the Claeissens. Pieter Pourbus, a native of Gouda, arrived in Bruges in the 1540's at the age of 19 or possibly 20. He is soon to be honoured in the Dutch city by an exhibition of his own. Arrived in Bruges Pourbus went to work in the studio of the established painter Lancelot Blondeel, marrying his daughter and inheriting his studio on Blondeel's death.

Anne Van Oosterwijk: « The exhibition is the result of five years of intense scientific research undertaken by the Flemish Research Centre for the Art of the Burgundian Netherlands that is even carrying on during the exhibition itself. We've used infrared technology to reveal the underlying drawings behind masterworks. We notice what changes have been made and have been able to discover how the people who commissioned works were able to influence what ended up on the final canvas. »

A Latin text carried on countless paintings has today allowed these works to be attributed to Pieter I Claeissens. By establishing a set of core characteristics unsigned works too have been attributed to this Bruges master who stood at the helm of an entire painters' dynasty spanning three generations.

Anne Van Oosterwijk (pictured below): « The way that a composition is constructed, the drawing below the painting, the shapely facial features of those depicted and the detail of decorations are all elements that allow attribution to this artist. Some works erroneously attributed to other masters have been identified as pieces by Pieter I Claeissens too! »

« We also notice how the painter will take account of the differing tastes in different markets. Spanish merchants were some of the last foreigners to hang on in Bruges. Their taste was a conservative one. Pieter I Claeissens courts them by sticking to the old Bruges painting traditions. »

« The Claeissens dynasty consisted of seven artists spanning three generations. Pieter I's three sons all remained working in their father's studio well after they would normally have left. They employ the same models and it's often quite a job to distinguish which work was painted by which painter. We have examined underlying drawings to gain greater insight into the actual dating of works. Some works were commissioned, others were painted with the market in mind. Buyers could purchase a half completed work and determine how it should look in the end. Attribution is also complicated by the fact that often several artists collaborated on one and the same work. »

The greatest forgotten master included in the exhibition is Gillis Claeissens, the eldest painting son of Pieter I. He worked for the governors of the Southern Netherlands, Albert and Isabella, and produced countless magnificent portraits that were used to glorify their subject.

Anne Van Oosterwijk: « We were only familiar with Gillis thanks to written documents. No works had been attributed to him, but a contract stipulating what a work should look like allowed us to attribute a first work kept in Budapest. Gillis used a particular signature with a combined G and E and a C and this allowed us to attribute many more works from the minute this signature had been linked with this artist.«

The two families also interact with Antonius Claeissens undergoing training in Pourbus's studio. After Pourbus's death in 1584, Antonius and Pieter II Claeissens become the most influential painters of their day in Bruges, with Pieter II Claeissens specialising in producing new works based on popular masterpieces from the past. The practice hampers attribution as stylistically works can be up to 70 years out of date.

Pourbus's son Frans I and grandson Frans II become important painters in their own right. The grandson shares his grandfather's flair in portraiture as is clear from portraits of the Archduke and Archduchess Albert and Isabella, two works that glorify their subjects and were copied on a massive scale. Today the originals can be seen in Madrid and Hampton Court in London.

'Pieter Pourbus and the Forgotten Masters' features at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges until 21 January 2018.

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