Lot No. 20


Pieter Coecke van Aelst


(Aelst 1502–1550 Brussels)
The Adoration of the Magi,
oil on panel, 112 x 75 cm, framed

Provenance:
with Lambert J. Nieuwenhuys, Brussels;
Willem II, King of the Netherlands (1792-1849), acquired from L. J. Nieuwenhuys, December 1840, for Hfl. 3.300 (as Lucas van Leyden);
sale, De Vries, Roos & Brondgees, Collection King Wilhelm II, Gothic Hall, Royal Palace, The Hague, 12-20 August 1850, lot 45 (as Lucas van Leyden);
acquired after the sale by Willem Frederik Karel, Prince of the Netherlands (1797-1881), younger brother of King Willem II;
by descent to his daughter Wilhelmina Frederika Anna Elisabeth Maria (1841-1910), Princess of Wied, Princess of the Netherlands, Neuwied;
by descent to her elder son Friedrich Wilhelm Hermann Otto Karl, Prince of Wied (1872-1945), Neuwied;
by descent to his wife, Pauline Olga Helene Emma, Princess of Wied, Princess of Württemberg (1877-1965);
after her death offered for sale by her descendants;
sale, Sotheby’s, London, 5 July 1967, lot 10 (as the Master of 1518, to Hollstein for £ 6.500);
Private collection, Germany

Exhibited:
Düsseldorf, Kunsthistorische Ausstellung, 1904, pp. 77-78, no. 185 (as Herri met de Bles; at the time with monogram L and date 1525 which were later additions)

Literature:
C. J. Nieuwenhuys, Description de la Galerie des tableaux de S. M. Le Roi des Pays-Bas, avec quelques remarques sur l’histoire des peintres et sur le progress de l’art, Brussels 1843, pp. 101-104, no. 40;
M. J. Friedländer, Die Altniederländische Malerei, Die Antwerpener Manieristen, Adriaen Ysenbrandt, Berlin 1933, vol. XI, p. 124, no. 92 (as ‘Der Meister von 1518. Oben dreieckig, ursprünglich wohl geschweift. Falsch signiert L. Die Komposition ist mehrmals kopiert worden’);
M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, 1974, vol. XI, p. 76, no. 92, pl. 85 (as Master of 1518);
E. Hinterding, F. Horsch, ‘A small but choice collection’, The Art Gallery of King Willem II of the Netherlands (1792-1849), Zwolle 1989, pp. 20, note 65, 43, note 178, 69, no. 45 (as Master of 1518)

The present Adoration of the Magi is a newly-attributed early masterpiece by the Flemish Renaissance polymath Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Painted around 1523, it may be seen as a crowning achievement of the young journeyman, then working in the Antwerp studio of the Master of 1518. Originally conceived for a private oratory or chapel, the high quality of the painted surface and the intricate underdrawing, revealed by infrared reflectography, place the present composition among the finest representations of this biblical subject in early modern Flanders. Coecke’ s marriage of empirical observation with his reception of Romanic styles later saw him lauded also for his designs of tapestries, stained glass, woodcuts, decorations and goldwork. Noted by contemporaries and early art historians, Lodovico Guicciardini called him ‘great’. Georg Braun described him as ‘most excellent’ and in 1604 Karel van Mander celebrated him as ‘ingenious and knowledgeable’ (see E. Cleland, Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, New York, 2014, p. 2).

We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for attributing the present painting to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

The Genesis of the Adoration of the Magi

The painting has been fully documented with the aid of infrared reflectography (IRR). The IRR displays the underdrawings of the composition, applied with brush and black paint on what appears to be a layer of lead white on top of the ground. The underdrawings are clearly freehanded, applied with brille and energy. All the figures in the foreground were prepared in detail, with elegant, meandering contour lines; the shadows were prepared in advance by means of hatching, parallel strokes, as well as some limited cross-hatching for the deeper shadows. The figures in the middle ground are only loosely sketched in preparation and the figures in the back not at all; they were only added during the paint stage. It is a system that was used again and again in early 16th century Antwerp painters’ studios and we encounter this type of underdrawing not only with the Master of 1518, but also with the so-called Master of the Antwerp Adoration, Adriaen van Overbeke and Jan de Beer. The absence of underdrawing for the brocade and other decorative motifs, visible in the finished painting, was also typical of early 16th century Antwerp painters’ studios.

A close examination of the painting and the underlying drawing reveals the various changes the painter of the Adoration of the Magi carried through. Many of these corrections have to do with small shifts in the position of hands or faces, clearly meant to improve and finalize the composition. The Christ Child itself is a good example to demonstrate this. The underdrawing shows that the right hand was directed more towards the kneeling Caspar, whereas Christ’s left hand had already disappeared inside the golden cup. In painting the scene, the artist decided to show a more restrained Christ Child, since greed is hardly a virtue. At the lower right of the composition the entrance to the Nativity Grotto is visible. In the first arrangement of our Adoration of the Magi, it appears that a ladder was foreseen to the left of the cave entrance, a rather puzzling idea that was abandoned in favour of the present stone staircase. The Geburtshöhle, as it is called in German, is a recurring motif in Christian iconography that was especially popular in early 16th century painting and it occurs in almost every single Antwerp Adoration of the time, as can be witnessed in the various examples that were painted by Jan de Beer and his contemporaries.

The most dramatic change in the composition, however, is to be found in the upper right portion of the painting’s architectural setting. Hanging from a ring set into the arch’s tracery, the artist had planned to paint a decorative festoon, held by two putti on either side, at the entrance of the vaulted gateway. While the ring and putti were repositioned, playing an extraordinary act of pantomime, the festoon never reached the painted stage. It is quite likely that the idea of a painted festoon was abandoned in favour of an enlarged tower.

The present type of underdrawing is most certainly comparable with the handwriting of the Master of 1518, visible in the Lübeck altarpiece, its predella panels in Stuttgart, the Crucifixion triptych in the Holy Blood-Museum in Bruges and the Marriage of the Virgin in St. Louis. However, although the drawings may be comparable, both in function and in method, they differ stylistically and appear not to be by the same hand. The lines of the Lübeck and Bruges underdrawings are a type of highly finished underdrawing that looks like a woodcut in its fixed pattern of parallel- and cross-hatching for the modeling of forms and system of lighting throughout the composition. Employed by other Antwerp Mannerist artists this style of underdrawing is commonly referred to as the ‘woodcut convention’ (see M. W. Ainsworth, Pieter Coecke van Aelst as a Panel Painter, in: E. Cleland a. o., Grand Design. Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exhibition catalogue, New York 2014, p. 26). Indeed, this very specific type of underdrawing is reminiscent of Dürer woodcuts, where the linear quality and flat two-dimensional approach are in the forefront, creating a clearly readable pattern for assistants to take up the task of painting in the various elements of the composition. Quite often such a pattern is the result of the use of a cartoon, followed by tracing the lines in brush and black paint. In the Lübeck altarpiece underdrawing and painting seem to be two different sides of the coin, two separate parts of the genesis of the altarpiece, not necessarily executed by the same artist.

The underdrawing of the Adoration of the Magi differs stylistically from the Lübeck altarpiece, and more importantly, seems to part of one single process, from the hand of a single artist. As can be judged from the preparation of the greyish white cloak of the black magus Balthasar, the underdrawing has been applied with a swift brush, searching for the right contour lines and volume. This creative energy in the underdrawing phase differs fundamentally with the finished underdrawing in the ‘woodcut convention,’ that has been prepared with the painted composition in mind. When the Adoration of the Magi is compared with the various painted scenes of the Lübeck Altarpiece, there can hardly be any doubt that our painter was trained in the studio of the Master of 1518, whoever he may have been. The colour pattern is strikingly similar and so are the elongated figures, for example Balthasar with his counterpart in the Lübeck Adoration of the Magi. The elegant dancing step of our Balthasar was quite literally replicated from the figure on the extreme left of the Betrothal of the Virgin, next to the young Joseph. The decorative architectural backdrop is evidently based on the examples of the Master of 1518, visible in the Lübeck Altarpiece and even the festoon, held by two putti, as was initially planned for the Adoration, is visible in paint in the background of the Betrothal of the Virgin. However, the figures of the Master of 1518 show his preference for a two-dimensional presentation, as can be seen in its most extreme form in the Magdalene of the Crucifixion triptych in the Holy Blood Museum in Bruges. By contrast, the painter of the Adoration of the Magi placed his figures in different planes of the composition and tried to give them more volume and plasticity. That he did not succeed everywhere can be regarded as a token of his lack of experience.

The young Pieter Coecke in the Studio of the Master of 1518

The Adoration of the Magi is in fact a youthful work by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who probably finished his training with Bernard van Orley in Brussels, before he came to Antwerp, where he married Anna van Dornicke, before 1526 and became a citizen of Antwerp automatically. In 1527 he would enroll into the Guild of Saint Luke as a free master and started his own workshop. The Adoration of the Magi no doubt was produced when Coecke was still active as assistant or journeyman in the studio of the Master of 1518 and therefore remains within the broad stylistic contours of the older painter. A date between 1522 and 1527 therefore seems most likely, like several other paintings that have been discussed recently within the same context, such as a triptych with the Adoration of the Magi in the collection of Hester Diamond, New York, Christ carrying the Cross in the Basel Kunstmuseum and Christ taking leave of his mother in Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The triptych with the Adoration of the Magi in New York lends itself perfectly well to a detailed stylistic comparison. That work of art is probably the earliest of the four mentioned, slightly earlier than our painting with the same subject. The architecture, the vistas, the use of plans and especially the facial types are interchangeable in such a way that it is safe to assume the same painter at work here. The facial type and even the slightly sad expression of Melchior, to the right of our Adoration, is literally repeated in the figure of the High Priest in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The present Virgin with her downcast eyes finds herself repeated in her counterpart on the left wing of the New York altarpiece and the young man with the trumpet has taken the guise of an angel. The paintings in Glasgow and Basel appear to have been painted slightly later, circa 1525-26 and show how the young painter developed in such a short period. An example of which can be seen in the complicated composition of the Basel picture, with the enormous dynamic of the figures engaged in the procession, far removed from Coecke’s beginnings with the Master of 1518.
A Royal Provenance

The present Adoration of the Magi has a royal provenance. Between 1840 and 1850 it was part of the collection of King William II of the Netherlands. William started collecting long before he would occupy the throne in October 1840; he bought his first paintings in 1815 or 1816, when the Dutch Royal Family still used Brussels as a part-time residence. His first collection was largely destroyed when a fire broke out in the right wing of the Brussels palace where the young prince resided. In 1823 he acquired an important group of Early Netherlandish paintings from the art dealer L.J. Nieuwenhuys. By the end of 1823 he had amassed a collection of nearly fifty paintings, thirty-seven of which were characterized as ‘Gothic’, including masterpieces by Van Eyck, Memling, Van der Weyden and Simon Marmion. William’s love for ‘Flemish Primitives’ was probably fed by the fact that he felt more at home in the Roman Catholic south than the Protestant north, and he spent much of his time in the palace at Brussels.15th and 16th century sacred works became widely available in Europe under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Nieuwenhuys family dominated this art market in the Rhineland where the ‘Säkularisation’ of 1802 made altarpieces – usually fragmented – accessible to art collectors. Combined with the ‘rediscovery’ of the Flemish primitives this led to a burgeoning enthusiasm for the collecting of early German and Netherlandish art.

Following the Belgian revolution, William’s collection in Brussels was held hostage until 1840, when he had succeeded his father as King of the Netherlands. Shortly after William’s accession, he acquired the present Adoration of the Magi from Lambert J. Nieuwenhuys, for 3300 guilders. This sale was recorded (with the panel at that time being listed as a work by Lucas van Leyden) in an annotated copy of the 1840 auction catalogue, formerly owned by the treasurer of the King’s estate, now in the archives of the RKD. In 1842, the present panel was hung in the newly built Gothic Hall, behind the Kneuterdijk Palace in The Hague, which was specifically built for William’s collection. In a watercolour of the interior of the Gothic Hall, made by Huib van Hove in 1842, the present panel with its typical shape and the frame it still had in the twentieth century, can be found in the right-hand corner in the back, next to Jan Provoost’s The Virgin Mary in Glory, now conserved in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (inv. no. ГЭ-417).

When the King’s collection was auctioned after his death in 1850, the ‘Gothic’ pictures accounted for one third of the sale, among them the present Coecke van Aelst work (with regard to the background or the circumstances of the sale, see Hinterding/Horsch 1989, pp. 38-45; of its content, ibid., pp. 55-114). Several pictures did not find a buyer, probably due to the high reserves, including the Adoration of the Magi. The painting was subsequently sold for the reserve price to Prince Frederik, the younger brother of the deceased William II, together with nineteen other old master paintings, including the Simon Marmion and the triptych of the Heereman family by Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, conserved at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Subsequently the Adoration of the Magi remained in Neuwied in the Rhineland for nearly a century, where Frederik’s daughter Marie resided after she married the Prince of Wied. The painting stayed in Frederik’s family until it was offered for sale in 1967. After the sale, the painting remained in private German hands and has now surfaced for the first time since 1967.

When the present picture was exhibited at the Kunsthistorische Ausstellung in Düsseldorf in 1904, it was wrongfully attributed to Herri met de Bles. This was, however, a misconceived suggestion that the painting was of the same hand as the Adoration of the Magi in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, who was later re-named Pseudo Bles, due to the fact that the original attribution was based on a falsified signature. This Bles-group remained a ‘name of convenience’ for a long time, until Friedländer brought some order in the staggering amount of anonymous triptychs, fragments from compound altarpieces and devotional pictures that were made in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in Antwerp (see M. J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei, vol. XI, Die Antwerpener Manieristen. Adriaen Ysenbrant, Berlin 1933). It was Friedländer who gave the present Adoration of the Magi to the Master of 1518. The Master of 1518 was identified, and named from the large altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin in Our Lady’s Church in Lübeck, which is placed within a chapel that bears the inscription ‘1518.‘ With this altarpiece Friedländer grouped many pictures that shared the same stylistic features.

Conclusion

The Adoration of the Magi is the centre panel of a triptych, from which the wings, as so often, were separated in the past. The original shape of the top of the panel was altered as well. It most likely would have been comparable to the central Adoration of the Hester Diamond triptych, in its original form. The separation of the centre panel and wings as well as the altered shape, a frequent practice of late 18th and early 19th centuries, occurred before the sale of the panel to King William II, evidenced in the watercolor of the 1840s. The high quality of the painted surface as well as the typical underdrawing were the work of the young Pieter Coecke van Aelst, at the time he was still producing paintings as a journeyman in the Antwerp studio of the Master of 1518. The painting can be dated to circa 1523, in-between the Hester Diamond Adoration triptych and the Basel Christ carrying the Cross and is a significant addition the Flemish polymath’s early oeuvre.

Technical analysis by Gianluca Poldi:

Many non-invasive spectroscopic measures were carried out to study the pigments. The artist chose azurite as the only blue, used together with lead white in different proportions for the sky, the mountains, the various blue clothes including the deep blue of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. The same mineral pigment was employed, together with red lake, to obtain grey-purple tones of some garments. A cobalt blue pigment constitutes the modern integrations in the sky.

All the green areas are made with verdigris (copper acetate), mixed with lead white or lead-tin yellow to achieve brighter colours. This yellow was used alone in the lights of the tree foliage, in light yellow clothes and in many objects to imitate gold, while shadows are obtained with yellow and brown ochre. 
Bright, intense red clothes are based on vermillion, shadowed with red lake. A good quality coccid-derived red lake was used in many areas, such as the Virgin’s red dress and the outer part of Caspar’s ermine mantle.

Specialist: Damian Brenninkmeyer Damian Brenninkmeyer
+43 1 515 60 403

damian.brenninkmeyer@dorotheum.at

09.06.2020 - 16:00

Estimate:
EUR 400,000.- to EUR 600,000.-

Pieter Coecke van Aelst


(Aelst 1502–1550 Brussels)
The Adoration of the Magi,
oil on panel, 112 x 75 cm, framed

Provenance:
with Lambert J. Nieuwenhuys, Brussels;
Willem II, King of the Netherlands (1792-1849), acquired from L. J. Nieuwenhuys, December 1840, for Hfl. 3.300 (as Lucas van Leyden);
sale, De Vries, Roos & Brondgees, Collection King Wilhelm II, Gothic Hall, Royal Palace, The Hague, 12-20 August 1850, lot 45 (as Lucas van Leyden);
acquired after the sale by Willem Frederik Karel, Prince of the Netherlands (1797-1881), younger brother of King Willem II;
by descent to his daughter Wilhelmina Frederika Anna Elisabeth Maria (1841-1910), Princess of Wied, Princess of the Netherlands, Neuwied;
by descent to her elder son Friedrich Wilhelm Hermann Otto Karl, Prince of Wied (1872-1945), Neuwied;
by descent to his wife, Pauline Olga Helene Emma, Princess of Wied, Princess of Württemberg (1877-1965);
after her death offered for sale by her descendants;
sale, Sotheby’s, London, 5 July 1967, lot 10 (as the Master of 1518, to Hollstein for £ 6.500);
Private collection, Germany

Exhibited:
Düsseldorf, Kunsthistorische Ausstellung, 1904, pp. 77-78, no. 185 (as Herri met de Bles; at the time with monogram L and date 1525 which were later additions)

Literature:
C. J. Nieuwenhuys, Description de la Galerie des tableaux de S. M. Le Roi des Pays-Bas, avec quelques remarques sur l’histoire des peintres et sur le progress de l’art, Brussels 1843, pp. 101-104, no. 40;
M. J. Friedländer, Die Altniederländische Malerei, Die Antwerpener Manieristen, Adriaen Ysenbrandt, Berlin 1933, vol. XI, p. 124, no. 92 (as ‘Der Meister von 1518. Oben dreieckig, ursprünglich wohl geschweift. Falsch signiert L. Die Komposition ist mehrmals kopiert worden’);
M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, 1974, vol. XI, p. 76, no. 92, pl. 85 (as Master of 1518);
E. Hinterding, F. Horsch, ‘A small but choice collection’, The Art Gallery of King Willem II of the Netherlands (1792-1849), Zwolle 1989, pp. 20, note 65, 43, note 178, 69, no. 45 (as Master of 1518)

The present Adoration of the Magi is a newly-attributed early masterpiece by the Flemish Renaissance polymath Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Painted around 1523, it may be seen as a crowning achievement of the young journeyman, then working in the Antwerp studio of the Master of 1518. Originally conceived for a private oratory or chapel, the high quality of the painted surface and the intricate underdrawing, revealed by infrared reflectography, place the present composition among the finest representations of this biblical subject in early modern Flanders. Coecke’ s marriage of empirical observation with his reception of Romanic styles later saw him lauded also for his designs of tapestries, stained glass, woodcuts, decorations and goldwork. Noted by contemporaries and early art historians, Lodovico Guicciardini called him ‘great’. Georg Braun described him as ‘most excellent’ and in 1604 Karel van Mander celebrated him as ‘ingenious and knowledgeable’ (see E. Cleland, Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, New York, 2014, p. 2).

We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for attributing the present painting to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

The Genesis of the Adoration of the Magi

The painting has been fully documented with the aid of infrared reflectography (IRR). The IRR displays the underdrawings of the composition, applied with brush and black paint on what appears to be a layer of lead white on top of the ground. The underdrawings are clearly freehanded, applied with brille and energy. All the figures in the foreground were prepared in detail, with elegant, meandering contour lines; the shadows were prepared in advance by means of hatching, parallel strokes, as well as some limited cross-hatching for the deeper shadows. The figures in the middle ground are only loosely sketched in preparation and the figures in the back not at all; they were only added during the paint stage. It is a system that was used again and again in early 16th century Antwerp painters’ studios and we encounter this type of underdrawing not only with the Master of 1518, but also with the so-called Master of the Antwerp Adoration, Adriaen van Overbeke and Jan de Beer. The absence of underdrawing for the brocade and other decorative motifs, visible in the finished painting, was also typical of early 16th century Antwerp painters’ studios.

A close examination of the painting and the underlying drawing reveals the various changes the painter of the Adoration of the Magi carried through. Many of these corrections have to do with small shifts in the position of hands or faces, clearly meant to improve and finalize the composition. The Christ Child itself is a good example to demonstrate this. The underdrawing shows that the right hand was directed more towards the kneeling Caspar, whereas Christ’s left hand had already disappeared inside the golden cup. In painting the scene, the artist decided to show a more restrained Christ Child, since greed is hardly a virtue. At the lower right of the composition the entrance to the Nativity Grotto is visible. In the first arrangement of our Adoration of the Magi, it appears that a ladder was foreseen to the left of the cave entrance, a rather puzzling idea that was abandoned in favour of the present stone staircase. The Geburtshöhle, as it is called in German, is a recurring motif in Christian iconography that was especially popular in early 16th century painting and it occurs in almost every single Antwerp Adoration of the time, as can be witnessed in the various examples that were painted by Jan de Beer and his contemporaries.

The most dramatic change in the composition, however, is to be found in the upper right portion of the painting’s architectural setting. Hanging from a ring set into the arch’s tracery, the artist had planned to paint a decorative festoon, held by two putti on either side, at the entrance of the vaulted gateway. While the ring and putti were repositioned, playing an extraordinary act of pantomime, the festoon never reached the painted stage. It is quite likely that the idea of a painted festoon was abandoned in favour of an enlarged tower.

The present type of underdrawing is most certainly comparable with the handwriting of the Master of 1518, visible in the Lübeck altarpiece, its predella panels in Stuttgart, the Crucifixion triptych in the Holy Blood-Museum in Bruges and the Marriage of the Virgin in St. Louis. However, although the drawings may be comparable, both in function and in method, they differ stylistically and appear not to be by the same hand. The lines of the Lübeck and Bruges underdrawings are a type of highly finished underdrawing that looks like a woodcut in its fixed pattern of parallel- and cross-hatching for the modeling of forms and system of lighting throughout the composition. Employed by other Antwerp Mannerist artists this style of underdrawing is commonly referred to as the ‘woodcut convention’ (see M. W. Ainsworth, Pieter Coecke van Aelst as a Panel Painter, in: E. Cleland a. o., Grand Design. Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exhibition catalogue, New York 2014, p. 26). Indeed, this very specific type of underdrawing is reminiscent of Dürer woodcuts, where the linear quality and flat two-dimensional approach are in the forefront, creating a clearly readable pattern for assistants to take up the task of painting in the various elements of the composition. Quite often such a pattern is the result of the use of a cartoon, followed by tracing the lines in brush and black paint. In the Lübeck altarpiece underdrawing and painting seem to be two different sides of the coin, two separate parts of the genesis of the altarpiece, not necessarily executed by the same artist.

The underdrawing of the Adoration of the Magi differs stylistically from the Lübeck altarpiece, and more importantly, seems to part of one single process, from the hand of a single artist. As can be judged from the preparation of the greyish white cloak of the black magus Balthasar, the underdrawing has been applied with a swift brush, searching for the right contour lines and volume. This creative energy in the underdrawing phase differs fundamentally with the finished underdrawing in the ‘woodcut convention,’ that has been prepared with the painted composition in mind. When the Adoration of the Magi is compared with the various painted scenes of the Lübeck Altarpiece, there can hardly be any doubt that our painter was trained in the studio of the Master of 1518, whoever he may have been. The colour pattern is strikingly similar and so are the elongated figures, for example Balthasar with his counterpart in the Lübeck Adoration of the Magi. The elegant dancing step of our Balthasar was quite literally replicated from the figure on the extreme left of the Betrothal of the Virgin, next to the young Joseph. The decorative architectural backdrop is evidently based on the examples of the Master of 1518, visible in the Lübeck Altarpiece and even the festoon, held by two putti, as was initially planned for the Adoration, is visible in paint in the background of the Betrothal of the Virgin. However, the figures of the Master of 1518 show his preference for a two-dimensional presentation, as can be seen in its most extreme form in the Magdalene of the Crucifixion triptych in the Holy Blood Museum in Bruges. By contrast, the painter of the Adoration of the Magi placed his figures in different planes of the composition and tried to give them more volume and plasticity. That he did not succeed everywhere can be regarded as a token of his lack of experience.

The young Pieter Coecke in the Studio of the Master of 1518

The Adoration of the Magi is in fact a youthful work by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who probably finished his training with Bernard van Orley in Brussels, before he came to Antwerp, where he married Anna van Dornicke, before 1526 and became a citizen of Antwerp automatically. In 1527 he would enroll into the Guild of Saint Luke as a free master and started his own workshop. The Adoration of the Magi no doubt was produced when Coecke was still active as assistant or journeyman in the studio of the Master of 1518 and therefore remains within the broad stylistic contours of the older painter. A date between 1522 and 1527 therefore seems most likely, like several other paintings that have been discussed recently within the same context, such as a triptych with the Adoration of the Magi in the collection of Hester Diamond, New York, Christ carrying the Cross in the Basel Kunstmuseum and Christ taking leave of his mother in Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The triptych with the Adoration of the Magi in New York lends itself perfectly well to a detailed stylistic comparison. That work of art is probably the earliest of the four mentioned, slightly earlier than our painting with the same subject. The architecture, the vistas, the use of plans and especially the facial types are interchangeable in such a way that it is safe to assume the same painter at work here. The facial type and even the slightly sad expression of Melchior, to the right of our Adoration, is literally repeated in the figure of the High Priest in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The present Virgin with her downcast eyes finds herself repeated in her counterpart on the left wing of the New York altarpiece and the young man with the trumpet has taken the guise of an angel. The paintings in Glasgow and Basel appear to have been painted slightly later, circa 1525-26 and show how the young painter developed in such a short period. An example of which can be seen in the complicated composition of the Basel picture, with the enormous dynamic of the figures engaged in the procession, far removed from Coecke’s beginnings with the Master of 1518.
A Royal Provenance

The present Adoration of the Magi has a royal provenance. Between 1840 and 1850 it was part of the collection of King William II of the Netherlands. William started collecting long before he would occupy the throne in October 1840; he bought his first paintings in 1815 or 1816, when the Dutch Royal Family still used Brussels as a part-time residence. His first collection was largely destroyed when a fire broke out in the right wing of the Brussels palace where the young prince resided. In 1823 he acquired an important group of Early Netherlandish paintings from the art dealer L.J. Nieuwenhuys. By the end of 1823 he had amassed a collection of nearly fifty paintings, thirty-seven of which were characterized as ‘Gothic’, including masterpieces by Van Eyck, Memling, Van der Weyden and Simon Marmion. William’s love for ‘Flemish Primitives’ was probably fed by the fact that he felt more at home in the Roman Catholic south than the Protestant north, and he spent much of his time in the palace at Brussels.15th and 16th century sacred works became widely available in Europe under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Nieuwenhuys family dominated this art market in the Rhineland where the ‘Säkularisation’ of 1802 made altarpieces – usually fragmented – accessible to art collectors. Combined with the ‘rediscovery’ of the Flemish primitives this led to a burgeoning enthusiasm for the collecting of early German and Netherlandish art.

Following the Belgian revolution, William’s collection in Brussels was held hostage until 1840, when he had succeeded his father as King of the Netherlands. Shortly after William’s accession, he acquired the present Adoration of the Magi from Lambert J. Nieuwenhuys, for 3300 guilders. This sale was recorded (with the panel at that time being listed as a work by Lucas van Leyden) in an annotated copy of the 1840 auction catalogue, formerly owned by the treasurer of the King’s estate, now in the archives of the RKD. In 1842, the present panel was hung in the newly built Gothic Hall, behind the Kneuterdijk Palace in The Hague, which was specifically built for William’s collection. In a watercolour of the interior of the Gothic Hall, made by Huib van Hove in 1842, the present panel with its typical shape and the frame it still had in the twentieth century, can be found in the right-hand corner in the back, next to Jan Provoost’s The Virgin Mary in Glory, now conserved in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (inv. no. ГЭ-417).

When the King’s collection was auctioned after his death in 1850, the ‘Gothic’ pictures accounted for one third of the sale, among them the present Coecke van Aelst work (with regard to the background or the circumstances of the sale, see Hinterding/Horsch 1989, pp. 38-45; of its content, ibid., pp. 55-114). Several pictures did not find a buyer, probably due to the high reserves, including the Adoration of the Magi. The painting was subsequently sold for the reserve price to Prince Frederik, the younger brother of the deceased William II, together with nineteen other old master paintings, including the Simon Marmion and the triptych of the Heereman family by Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, conserved at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Subsequently the Adoration of the Magi remained in Neuwied in the Rhineland for nearly a century, where Frederik’s daughter Marie resided after she married the Prince of Wied. The painting stayed in Frederik’s family until it was offered for sale in 1967. After the sale, the painting remained in private German hands and has now surfaced for the first time since 1967.

When the present picture was exhibited at the Kunsthistorische Ausstellung in Düsseldorf in 1904, it was wrongfully attributed to Herri met de Bles. This was, however, a misconceived suggestion that the painting was of the same hand as the Adoration of the Magi in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, who was later re-named Pseudo Bles, due to the fact that the original attribution was based on a falsified signature. This Bles-group remained a ‘name of convenience’ for a long time, until Friedländer brought some order in the staggering amount of anonymous triptychs, fragments from compound altarpieces and devotional pictures that were made in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in Antwerp (see M. J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei, vol. XI, Die Antwerpener Manieristen. Adriaen Ysenbrant, Berlin 1933). It was Friedländer who gave the present Adoration of the Magi to the Master of 1518. The Master of 1518 was identified, and named from the large altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin in Our Lady’s Church in Lübeck, which is placed within a chapel that bears the inscription ‘1518.‘ With this altarpiece Friedländer grouped many pictures that shared the same stylistic features.

Conclusion

The Adoration of the Magi is the centre panel of a triptych, from which the wings, as so often, were separated in the past. The original shape of the top of the panel was altered as well. It most likely would have been comparable to the central Adoration of the Hester Diamond triptych, in its original form. The separation of the centre panel and wings as well as the altered shape, a frequent practice of late 18th and early 19th centuries, occurred before the sale of the panel to King William II, evidenced in the watercolor of the 1840s. The high quality of the painted surface as well as the typical underdrawing were the work of the young Pieter Coecke van Aelst, at the time he was still producing paintings as a journeyman in the Antwerp studio of the Master of 1518. The painting can be dated to circa 1523, in-between the Hester Diamond Adoration triptych and the Basel Christ carrying the Cross and is a significant addition the Flemish polymath’s early oeuvre.

Technical analysis by Gianluca Poldi:

Many non-invasive spectroscopic measures were carried out to study the pigments. The artist chose azurite as the only blue, used together with lead white in different proportions for the sky, the mountains, the various blue clothes including the deep blue of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. The same mineral pigment was employed, together with red lake, to obtain grey-purple tones of some garments. A cobalt blue pigment constitutes the modern integrations in the sky.

All the green areas are made with verdigris (copper acetate), mixed with lead white or lead-tin yellow to achieve brighter colours. This yellow was used alone in the lights of the tree foliage, in light yellow clothes and in many objects to imitate gold, while shadows are obtained with yellow and brown ochre. 
Bright, intense red clothes are based on vermillion, shadowed with red lake. A good quality coccid-derived red lake was used in many areas, such as the Virgin’s red dress and the outer part of Caspar’s ermine mantle.

Specialist: Damian Brenninkmeyer Damian Brenninkmeyer
+43 1 515 60 403

damian.brenninkmeyer@dorotheum.at


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Auction: Old Master Paintings
Date: 09.06.2020 - 16:00
Location: Vienna | Palais Dorotheum
Exhibition: 02.06. - 09.06.2020