Denver Art Museum’s new look at Flemish old masters

Diana Hunting with Her Nymphs by Peter Paul Rubens and Studio.

© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.
Diana Hunting with Her Nymphs by Peter Paul Rubens and Studio.
“Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks” debuts never before seen works from Southern Netherlands.

“Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks” debuts never before seen works from Southern Netherlands.

© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Hell by a follower of Hieronymux Bosch.

The exhibit opens with Hell, a complex morality painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch. “It depicts an intentionally horrible vision of hell, a powerful visual incentive to lead a virtuous life and avoid eternal damnation,” said Daneo.

Angelica Daneo

The Denver Art Museum in collaboration with Belgium-based Phoebus Foundation presents a fresh take on old masters with “Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks” showing through Jan. 22, 2023.

The show exquisitely spotlights more than one hundred and twenty masterpieces including seventy paintings created by artists in Flanders (the Southern Netherlands) from the 15th to 17th centuries. DAM’s Chief Curator, Angelica Daneo, hypothesized that the oldest work in the show, Saint Anthony Rebukes Archbishop Simon de Sully in Bourges, was painted between 1450 to 1475.

“A shift happened in perception from the 14th century, when artists were still considered craftsmen, using their hands to create, to the 15th century when artists begin to be accepted in the same circle of creators such as poets and historians, on the basis of their intellectual skills, rather than their manual abilities,” Daneo said, “a true shift that led to the concept of artistic genius.”

© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Peter Paul Rubens, A Sailor and a Woman Embracing, about 1615–18. 

Most notably, the show exhibits paintings by the widely renowned artistic genius Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640). A quintessential Renaissance man, Rubens was a classically educated courtier who enjoyed a lucrative career not only as a painter with a monopoly on commissions and a cadre of supporting artists but also as a savvy art dealer. Though a consort to kings, Rubens probably never suspected that in 2002, one of his paintings would sell at auction for $76.7 million. The artist made an impact so profound that his surname became a term — “Rubenesque” — meaning “voluptuous,” like the fleshy female nudes the artist often depicted.

At the DAM, Rubens’ Diana Hunting with her Nymphs evidences the Flemish penchant for mind-boggling detail. The enormous painting conveys a sense of movement, the vitality, and ferocity of the hunt, the animals muscled and modeled, and the women so realistic they appear to have human blood, not paint, beneath the surface of their luminous skins.

Daneo collaborated on the exhibit with The Phoebus Foundation’s Curator Katharina Van Cauteren. The two enjoy simpatico and a friendly rivalry between their homelands: Italy and Flanders.

Daneo said, “The development of Renaissance principles in Italy meant that Italians favored the human figure above all else, all the other elements in the composition were secondary to the overall unity of the piece. Unlike the Italians, the Flemish artists treated every element equally, an absence of hierarchy that translated into paintings of exquisite, detailed accuracy. Their technique and style were admired abroad, artists traveled to Flanders to learn oil technique and how to render details with the same level of precision and exactness.”

The curators agreed upon their intention to present these old masters' artworks not to intimidate but to prove their contemporary relevance. Their focus on human emotions in the paintings evokes powerful impressions. Jan Gossaert’s The Virgin and Child portrays the nude, roly-poly baby Jesus with his hand tenderly touching the chin of his blessed mother.

Jan Massys, Rebus: The World Feeds Many Fools, about 1530.
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Jan Massys, Rebus: The World Feeds Many Fools, about 1530.

Hans Memling and Workshop, The Nativity, about 1480. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Hans Memling and Workshop, The Nativity, about 1480. 

Frans Snyders, A Pantry with Game, about 1640.
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Frans Snyders, A Pantry with Game, about 1640.

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Prince William II of Orange as a Child, about 1631. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Prince William II of Orange as a Child, about 1631. 

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, about 1530– 40. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, about 1530– 40. 

Master of Frankfurt and Workshop, The Adoration of the Magi with Emperor Frederick III and Emperor Maximilian, about 1510– 20. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Master of Frankfurt and Workshop, The Adoration of the Magi with Emperor Frederick III and Emperor Maximilian, about 1510– 20. 

Jan Gossaert, The Virgin and Child, about 1520. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Jan Gossaert, The Virgin and Child, about 1520. 

Jacob Jordaens, Serenade, about 1640– 45. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Jacob Jordaens, Serenade, about 1640– 45. 

Michaelina Wautier, Everyone to His Taste, about 1650. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Michaelina Wautier, Everyone to His Taste, about 1650. 

Jan van Hemessen, Double Portrait of a Husband and Wife Playing Tables, 1532. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Jan van Hemessen, Double Portrait of a Husband and Wife Playing Tables, 1532. 

Hendrick de Clerck and Denijs van Alsloot, The Garden of Eden with the Four Elements, 1613. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Hendrick de Clerck and Denijs van Alsloot, The Garden of Eden with the Four Elements, 1613. 

Peeter Neefs II and Gillis van Tilborgh, Portrait of an Elegant Couple in an Art Cabinet, 1652 and about 1675. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Peeter Neefs II and Gillis van Tilborgh, Portrait of an Elegant Couple in an Art Cabinet, 1652 and about 1675. 

Jan van Hemessen, Portrait of Elisabeth, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary, about 1525. 
© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

Jan van Hemessen, Portrait of Elisabeth, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary, about 1525. 

The paintings hold a presence across centuries, continents, and even religious beliefs, precisely because human emotions haven’t changed all that much.

The exhibit opens with Hell, a complex morality painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch. “It depicts an intentionally horrible vision of hell, a powerful visual incentive to lead a virtuous life and avoid eternal damnation,” said Daneo.

The exhibition presents art evidencing religious, Classical, and historical influences. Here is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mother and the heavenly host of angels along with characters from the pagan myths, as well as Flemish citizens – not only nobility, but also middle-class art collectors, as well as court entertainers known as fools.

“The sections are arranged somewhat chronologically,” said Daneo, “but they focus on themes that were relevant in Flemish art: the exquisite and precise depiction of details, the importance of portraiture, the imagery of fools, to name a few.”

One of the most eerily striking pictures is Jan van Hemessen’s Portrait of Elisabeth, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary (c. 1525). The woman in the portrait is dignified, well-dressed, and wearing fine jewelry along with a knowing look. Van Cauteren says on the subject, “I think her look is saying, ‘We’re all fools.’”

“The invention of the oil technique was a game changer. Unlike egg tempera, oil paint is applied in layer upon layer of semi-transparent color, thus allowing depth and nuanced tonal transitions.” Angelica Daneo

Wisely, the DAM’s fresh look at the old masters juxtaposes the centuries-old art with modern exhibition design. From hot-pink fonts on signage to turquoise-colored projects, the exhibit lends to a 21st-century framework. Additionally, the exhibition chalks up several important points on the art history timeline: emerging female painters, the first art created on speculation, and, most importantly, the introduction of linseed oil to pigments. Prior to this period, painters worked primarily in egg tempera, a paint that quickly dried to a flat finish.

“The invention of the oil technique was a game changer,” said Daneo. “Unlike egg tempera, oil paint is applied in layer upon layer of semi-transparent color, thus allowing depth and nuanced tonal transitions.”

The paintings’ infinitesimal details render a realism so accurate that the velvets, brocades, and laces appear almost photographic. Conserved by The Phoebus Foundation, the art survived so well over centuries in part because most were painted on wood panels, primarily oak.

In addition to the religious paintings and the imperious portraits, the exhibit displays lavish florals that bear the quintessential look of old masters: dark fields in the background, sensuous blossoms painstakingly depicted… the list goes on and on.

Van Cauteren pointed out that although one painting’s bouquet would have been exorbitantly priced the arrangement would be impossible given that the flowers would never have bloomed at the same time.

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Daneo said, “Flemish painters were masters at floral still lifes, skilled at rendering the specificities of each blossom and deceiving the viewer with their illusionistic compositions.”

Part Christianity, part pagan myth, part history, and part imagination, the exhibition transports visitors to another time and place while underscoring similarities to modern life. “This was the contemporary art of their time and contemporary art is a reflection of people’s passions, ambitions, fears, and beliefs,” said Daneo. “The artworks may look of the past, but they display the truths of the present.”

Daneo credited The Phoebus Foundation — a scion of a private collection — for conserving and championing art from Flanders. “If not for The Phoebus Foundation’s amazing collection, we would have had to go to many museums and collectors, and we would not have a show like this,” Daneo said.

Along with the artworks, the exhibition showcases the world’s first atlas. The exhibit also will show at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Colleen Smith, a regular contributor, is a widely published writer based in Denver and curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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