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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lucas van Leyden

The Last Judgments, 1527, Lucas van Leyden
Municipal Museum of Lakenhal, Leiden
Lucas van Leyden, Self-portrait, ca. 1530
Child prodigies today are much more common than in the past and, I must say, also much more suspect. That's because they tend to pursue the already childlike essence of Abstract Expressionism, and they very often have high pressure art entrepreneurial parents managing their "careers" from as early as age six. There's also been a sort of depreciation of the term, "prodigy." Just because a child turns out a prodigious amount of art does not make him or her a prodigy. A true child prodigy must develop an exceptional degree of eye-hand coordination, usually possess a high degree of intelligence, coupled with a strong work ethic. Moreover, all these traits need to be developed by the child largely on their own. That's not to say outside training is not valuable or valid, it simply means such adult input tends to develop imitation, which may be important from a technical point of view, but is often inhibitive creatively. With all that in mind, it's reasonable to say that the Dutch painter/engraver, Lucas van Leyden, was a true child prodigy.

Mohammed and the Murdered Monk,
1508, Lucas 
van Leyden, 
You know you have an art prodigy on your hands when he stays up late at night and draws by candlelight. That was the distressing dilemma Lucas van Leyden's mother faced when her son was just ten (he was burning up every candle in the house). Moreover, somehow, some way, (no one is quite sure the circumstances) by the time the boy was fourteen he was producing etched engravings on a par with the best to be found by even the professionals of his hometown of Leiden (southern Holland). The apparently original composition, Mohammed and the Murdered Monk (left) dates from 1508. The image bears not a single indication marking it as the work of a boy born in 1494. Although he likely had some kind of professional guidance (engraving is not an art where one is self-taught) any lack of experience, either technically or in its narrative composition, is far from obvious.

Potiphar's Wife Displays Joseph's Garment, 1512, Lucas van Leyden
(the cropped figure at far right is likely subsequent damage).
Lucas van Leyden, ca. 1521,
Albrecht Durer.
By the age of twenty, Lucas van Leyden was sufficiently proficient as a painter to enter the local Guild of St. Luke (akin to a painters' union), turning out major works such as Potiphar's Wife Displays Joseph's Garment (above), from 1512 (making him eighteen at the time). He'd been selling his work from the age of twelve (a watercolor for twelve gold florins). Despite what I said above regarding prodigies and prodigious output, van Leyden was nothing if not prolific, and apparently earned enough for a trip to Antwerp where he met his idol and major influence, Albrecht Durer, who was more than twenty years his senior, but considered by the German painter and engraver to be his equal. Durer even did an etching of his young admirer (right). As a painter, van Leyden's other major influence was that of his father, also a painter, though none of the elder van Leyden's work survives so its impossible to compare father to son. In any case, though Lucas van Leyden was quite adequate as a painter, as seen in his 1527 Last Judgment triptych altarpiece (top), which is considered his greatest masterpiece, his most impressive strength as an artist can be found in his dozens of finely detailed, highly original engravings.

Joseph Explains Pharaoh's Dream, 1512, Lucas van Leyden
Although most of van Leyden's engravings deal with old-testament incidents similar to Potiphar's Wife, as seen in his engraving, Joseph Explains Pharaoh's Dream (above) from 1512, the artist was also largely responsible for introducing into Dutch art of that era the previously rare element of genre content. His Milkmaid (below) from 1510, is a mildly amusing (if slightly elongated) glimpse of rural peasant life that later was to become an important aspect of Dutch painting. Lucas van Leyden died of tuberculosis in 1533 at the age of thirty-nine. After such a relatively short lifespan, it's only because of his workaholic habits that we have such an incredible body of his work through which to trace his art.

The Milkmaid, 1510, Lucas van Leyden. The artist's lack of academic training can be seen in his poorly proportioned figures (heads too small, feet too big). The problematic bovine is too obvious to require comment.

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