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Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Limbourg Brothers

Over the past 150 years there has developed two branches of painting. One we gloriously call "fine" art and the other has come to be known by the somewhat utilitarian term, "illustration." Often today, they are taught in very different academic institutions or by two widely divergent departments in the same university. The staff of the graphic design department seldom even sees that of the painting department. The definition of illustration involves art for printed reproduction while "fine" art revolves around one-shot "originals," seemingly without regard for the fact that if an "original" is exceptionally salable it is quickly made into a print while the original illustration intended for reproduction often compares quite favorably to "fine" art. We have the printing press and the development of the mass media to thank for this irony. But there was a time, around the turn of the fifteenth century when some of the greatest paintings being done were illustrations the size of a sheet of typing paper.

The Garden of Eden, 1415-16,
The Limbourg Brothers
Among the best were three brothers, from Gelderland, in Holland. Their names were Pol, Herman, and Jehanequin Limbourg and they worked in France for the Duc de Berry, the younger brother of Charles V, King of France at the time. Their meticulously painted illustration in the book, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry were never intended for reproduction. The book was a "book of hours" detailing prayers to be said at various hours of the day. It was basically a religious calendar, though the artwork was on a considerably higher plain than that which might grace a calendar today. In an era when we measure paintings by the square foot, it's difficult  to even think about paintings as profuse and detailed as these, a mere 8 inches by 8 inches, such as The Garden of Eden from the prayer book, which demurely, with Sunday School lesson clarity, tells the story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden.

AuLes Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:
 August, 1412-16,
The Limbourg Brothers

The page from the month of August is the most often depicted, detailing with almost infinite resolution a brightly dressed hunting party parading across the foreground while in the middle-ground, peasants swim in a stream watched over by cattle and farm workers. In the background is a gleaming castle belonging to the Duc, so minutely detailed one can count the doors and windows. The top of the page is composed of a semicircular astrological chart having nothing to do with "astrology" as we know it today, but simply the placement of stars in the skies of August. The Duc was a great art lover, filling his many castles with books, paintings, and tapestries. On the other hand, he also collected dogs. He owned 1500 of them.

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