4 The Maelwaels, an artist family from Nijmegen

 

Through their mother, the Van Limburg Brothers were descended from an artist family that occupied a prominent place in Nijmegen towards the end of the 14th century: the Maelwael family. In the 50 years between 1370 and 1420, three generations from this family were present at the birth of Dutch painting. It is not an exaggeration to say that the art of painting in the Netherlands started in Nijmegen.
The first time the name Maelwael was written in the Nijmegen archives was in 1382. From that year onwards, we are faced with three male Maelwaels: Herman, Willem and Johan, who probably were brothers.
Where did they come from so suddenly? Possibly - though there is no direct proof - from Kleef or Xanten. In the archives of these towns, the family name Maelwael can be found several times in the first half of the fourteenth century, although without any reference to the profession of painter. In 1356, there is a sudden end to these records. The name disappears, to resurface just as suddenly, a quarter of a century later, in Nijmegen. There, the Maelwaels are known as painters from their very first mention.
What does the name Maelwael tell us? Is it an indication of a place? Perhaps a reference to a mill, or to a treacherous part of the river? The experts explain it as "maal wel", which would be Old Dutch for "paints well". The family name would therefore indicate a talent, a reputation or a profession. This view is supported by the Latin translation "Pictoris" which was used for "Maelwael" in documents from the Vatican from that time.

The first generation of "Nijmegen" Maelwaels was formed by painters Herman and Willem, and their brother, priest ('presbyter') Johan. This last man came into conflict with his superiors, was put under an ecclesiastical ban, and was eventually excommunicated. This failed to impress in Nijmegen. Because of the Western Schism, the authority of the Church was limited and even a papal anathema could be denied or ignored. Both brothers of priest Johan, painters Willem and Herman, appear in the annals of Nijmegen from 1382 until 1395-1396, and then suddenly disappear.

The second generation follows: Willem Maelwael had a daughter, Metta, and a son, Jan. This Jan Maelwael was also a painter by profession. His work attracted attention. He received an assignment from the French queen and left for Paris. Within a short time, he was the best paid artist in France. For seventeen years, Jan Maelwael worked at the Burgundy court in Dijon, where he became quartermaster and mentor to his young Nijmegen nephews, the three eldest sons of his sister Metta (or Mechtild).
These brothers, Paul, Johan and Herman, formed the third generation. They were frequently called Maelwael, but usually - after their father - Van Limburg. Their talent was apparent from an early age. They left Nijmegen for Burgundy and Paris not long after their uncle, and developed into the most important painters of their time. 

In 1415, Jan Maelwael died in Dijon. He left a widow and four children. A year later, his nephews Paul, Johan and Herman van Limburg also died, without leaving children, shortly after each other, probably in Bourges, probably of the plague. Jan Maelwael's children and his sister Metta's remaining children still frequently appear in the Nijmegen and French archives in the first half of the 15th century. After 1460, the name Maelwael does not occur again in Nijmegen and, as far as is known, disappears without a trace elsewhere as well.

 

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