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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dieric Bouts

Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, 1463-4, Dieric Bouts
Dieric Bouts by Hendrick Hondius
One of the many difficulties facing modern-day art historians is the ineptitude of past art historians. When Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in 1550, he started a publishing trend. Often credited as the first art historian in modern times, Vasari was at least as good a biographer as he was a painter and architect. He'd actually known many of those he wrote about. In 1604, the German biographer, Karel van Mander published his own art history book, Schilder-Boeck dealing with Netherlandish artists (he also included a German translation of Vasari's tome). Alas, Van Mander was no Vasari. In at least one case, he wrote two separate biographies which turned out to be about the same artist. He confused "Dieric of Haarlem" and "Dieric of Leuven." His subject, Dieric Bouts, lived and worked in both cities. To make matters worse, he further muddied the water by confusing the name Dieric Bouts with Hubrecht Stuerbout, of Leuven, who was a sculptor, not a painter.
Christ in the House of Simon, 1440, Dieric Bouts.
Painted at the age of 25, Bouts' instinctive perspective is awkward, at best.
Dieric Bouts was born in Haarlem around 1415. However, as mentioned above, he worked most of his life in Leuven. Bouts, himself, was guilty of creating another difficulty art historians hate--he named his oldest son after himself. When the son grew up to become an artist (as did his brother, Aelbrecht), art historians were saddled with the perennial (elder/younger) nuisance designation. And, unlike today when biographical documentation runs literally from "womb to tomb," art historians now, as then, aren't so fortunate in dealing with artists like Bouts. Researchers frequently encounter the phrase: "Little is known regarding the artist's early life." Indications are, however, he may have studied under both Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.
Lamentation, 1450, Dieric Bouts
One of Bouts' earliest works, his 1440 Christ in the House of Simon (above) is quite scripturally accurate, even down to the rather awkward woman ducking under the table to anoint Christ's feet. However, his landscape background is highly stylized while the one-point perspective is instinctive, at best. Twenty years later, in 1460, Dieric Bouts painted a rather stiff, somewhat Gothic Lamentation (left), typical of German painting from this period. The intervening years seemingly having had little effect on his work.

Even as it developed in Italy during the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance migrated north. By 1464 when Bouts painted his Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (top) for a Leuven church, there is much improvement. After just three or four years, we see him trying to assimilate Brunelleschi's rediscovered formulas for one-point perspective. His central panel, featuring the first Northern Renaissance depiction of the last supper, shows a reasonable grasp of the fundamentals, though his single vanishing point (above the head of Christ) is too high for his horizon (seen through background windows) while his adjacent room employs a separate vanishing point (also too high). As my seventh grade students used to complain, perspective is tricky. I might add, the same could be said for art history.


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