15 The Van Limburg Brothers: Oblivion and fame

 

The two breviaries on which the Van Limburg brothers worked so many years were among the most valuable objects in the inheritance of the Duc de Berry. The Belles Heures, more extensively described as 'tres bien et richement historiees', was bought from the Duke's estate by Duchess Yolande of Anjou, Queen of Sicily. During the first twenty years after purchase the book often served as an example for other breviaries. After this, the Belles Heures disappeared from sight.
Only in 1880, the manuscript surfaced again when the noble family d'Ailly sold it to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, descendant from the famous bankers family. In 1936, the Belles Heures came into the possession of his son Meurice de Rothschild. Thanks to financial support of another immensely rich art collector, the American tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York could purchase the book of hours in 1954. Presently, the Belles Heures is one of the most important art treasures of The Cloisters, the department of Middle Ages of the Metropolitan Museum. The book is on display. Now and again a page is turned.

The incomplete Très Riches Heures ended up with one of the two daughters of the Duc de Berry, Bonne. She was married to Duke Amadeus VII of Savoy; because of this the manuscript came into the possession of Charles I, duke of Savoy and direct descendant of Amadeus, some decades later.
Charles I finally had the work completed by a famous painter from Bourges, Jean Colombe (ca. 1433 - ca. 1493). In his city of birth, Colombe worked diligently on his assignment somewhere between 1465 and 1485. 
He did not try to imitate the Van Limburg Brothers' style, but worked in the spirit of his own time. The elegant, fragile refinement of Late Gothic was passé. Perhaps in a reaction to this, Colombe's figures and compositions were painted robustly and strongly, with an excessive amount of gold. Because of this, it is relatively easy, even for laymen, to distinguish the folios made by the Van Limburgs from those by Jean Colombe. Recently, it has been speculated that other artists worked on the Très Riches Heures as well in the period between 1416 and 1465, who added subtle 'modern' elements to the work of the brothers. These theories have on the other hand been contradicted just as many times.
In the beginning of the 16th century, the practically completed manuscript came in the possession of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, who kept it in a chapel in Mechlin. Shortly after her death, the Très Riches Heures was forgotten, evidently owned by Italian noble families, but completely lost from the public view. In the middle of the 19th century, the son of the French King Louis Philippe, the Duc d'Aumale, was told during a visit to Genoa that a local nobleman wanted to sell a unique book of hours. D'Aumale, the most important art collector of his time, immediately recognized the Duc de Berry as the patron. He bought the book for 22,000 francs (daily wage at that time was 1 franc). Several years later, the pre-eminent art historian Leopold Delisle recognised his purchase as the 'Très Riches Heures que faisoient Pol et ses frères' from the inventory of Duc de Berry's estate.
The Duc d'Aumale was a nobleman of the old school, who believed in the vocation and mission of his caste. He also believed in the privileges of nobility. He would not dream of sharing this object of his private devotion and private pleasure with the general public. He deliberately created a cult of mystery and exclusiveness around the manuscript. Exiled to England for political reasons, he there in 1862 showed the Très Riches Heures for the first time to a closed circle of dignitaries and noble connoisseurs. He presented himself explicitly as the re-discoverer of the work and identified himself strongly with the original patron, the Duc de Berry. At subsequent 'exhibitions' of his proud possession, the company was also carefully selected and convinced of their privileged position beforehand. An invitation to see the Très Riches Heures was seen as a confirmation of someone's status as a member of the absolute elite, a situation which now - in a modern context - still exists.
Back in France, the Duc d'Aumale again settled in his newly built castle of Chantilly. There he brought together his enormous art collection. A few years later he bequeathed the castle with everything in it to the French Government, provided that the integrity of the collection would not be disrupted. The powerful Institut de France, umbrella organisation of all official cultural institutions in France, became the new owner of the Très Riches Heures. After the death of the duke, the Institut opened the collection for the public under the name Musée de Condé. Nowadays, the Musée de Condé is the third most important art museum in France, after the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. From the beginning, the Très Riches Heures was the most important art treasure of the museum. But due to the limitations which are inevitably encountered when exhibiting a bound oeuvre, the museum visitors only saw one folio per visit. Many enthusiasts experienced the brief moment of viewing not only as a privilege, but also as sheer torment. Thus, frustration added to the creation of a legend around the Très Riches Heures and the growing cult status of the master piece. 

After the Duc d'Aumale had created a myth of exclusiveness around the Très Riches Heures, a remarkable different development started: the reproduction. This was in fact the democratisation of a work of art intended for a small elite. In the second half of the 19th century, art salons, art exhibitions and art museums flourished. Art became a public business. The press interfered in the matter. Throughout Europe and America art magazines were started. The most famous periodical was the Gazette des Beaux Arts. In 1884, this featured three articles on the Duc de Berry and his art collection. These extensively described the Belles Heures as well as the Très Riches Heures. The author, the above-mentioned Delisle, frankly admitted that he lacked the words to describe particularly the Très Riches Heures. Luckily, the publisher had decided to add a number of heliogravures. This for the first time gave the general public - though in black-and-white - an impression of the work of the Van Limburg Brothers. Time was ripe, for the age also knew a growing appreciation for Gothic. In 1904, the first great exhibition of Gothic panels and miniatures was an enormous success. Twelve reproductions of the Très Riches Heures were exhibited. The original was kept behind lock and key. The reproductions made a grand impression. They supported the claim of the exhibition that French art of that time was superior to Italian. In the same year, the first monograph on the Très Riches Heures was published. This book, written by Count Paul Durrieu, contained 56 heliogravures (a photographical technique) of which one (January) was in colour. In the first half of the 20th century, the work of the Van Limburg Brothers was included in all relevant textbooks and surveys of art history. The first real colour reproductions appeared in the French art magazine Verve, which with its gold-stamped cover cost as much as three months wages of a manual labourer. The magazine published the twelve calendar folios as 'the most refined paintings in the world'. The issue was a success, to such an extent that a subsequent series of pictures was included a year later.
The true democratisation of the Très Riches Heures started in the United States of America in 1948. The photo magazine Life was at the height of its popularity. New mass printing techniques enabled the use of colour in the interior as well. This landmark was celebrated with publication of the twelve calendar folios, which were by this time commonly known among art historians. The issue of Life became a great success, even with spotted-out genitalia in February. The expurgated 'Van Limburg-calendars' hung in hundred thousands of living rooms and increased the demand. In the following years, the American publishing world threw themselves onto the Van Limburgs. Numerous publications appeared, popularly as well as scholarly. In some of them, literally hundreds of pictures were reproduced.

During this flood of attention, the billionaire John Rockefeller bought the Belles Heures for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now, the names of four of the greatest art collectors of all time, De Berry, d'Aumale, De Rothschild and Rockefeller were connected with the work of the Van Limburgs, as well as the families of Savoy, Aragon, Anjou, Valois, Bourbon, Orleans and Habsburg, who each owned one of the two manuscripts at some time during the past 600 years.

Many publications would follow, usually by foreigners, rarely by Dutchmen. The only Dutchman who came into the international discussion was L. Delaisé, who in foreign art magazines convincingly examined the 'Dutch' dimension of the brothers' work.
The Dutchmen who did write about the Van Limburgs were not minor: the novelist Hella Haasse described their situation at the French Court and gives an intimate view of the Duc de Berry in 'Het Woud der Verwachting' (Woods of Expectation). The legendary historian Johan Huizinga, who in his master work 'Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen' (The Waning of the Middle Ages) was inspired by the Van Limburg Brothers, derived many insights from their work, and included a number of pictures from the Très Riches Heures in his book.

 

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