Herri met de Bles (Netherlandish, ca. 1510 - before 1572?)
Landscape with the Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus, ca. 1545
Oil on panel
18 x 23 1/4 in. (45.8 x 59 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1995
Herri met de Bles's inventive "world landscapes"--vast, minutely detailed panoramas seen from a bird's-eye view--usually included a religious narrative in the foreground space. The religious themes favored by met de Bles in his landscape compositions emphasize the interaction between figure and landscape; in the Conversion of Saul, the dynamic procession of soldiers traces the intricate contours of the landscape in a sprawling S-curve.
Met de Bles's interpretation of the Conversion of Saul is one of the earliest representations of the theme in Netherlandish painting.1 Christ himself appears in the sky, marked with the stigmata and surrounded by a brilliant aureole. Saul tumbles headlong from his horse (the box containing the warrants issued by the priest has fallen to the ground before him), as his companions scatter, throwing up their arms to shield themselves from the divine light. In the distance is a walled city; other man-made structures such as buildings and bridges dot the craggy landscape.
The panoramic "world landscape" setting of the Conversion of Saul reveals the influence of the artist's mentor Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480-1524), specifically in the fanciful cliffs and mountain peaks that crowd the distance. Met de Bles's evocation of space is more unified than that of his predecessor, however. Particularly in mature works from the mid-1540s (including the Oberlin picture), the profusion of detail is subordinated to a unified whole, the horizon is slightly lower and the panoramic expanse more confined. Several of the individual motifs that make up the Oberlin landscape are repeated in other paintings by the artist and in drawings associated with his workshop, indicating the existence of "pattern books" or models which facilitated the efficient production of a large number of paintings by the artist's atelier.2 For example, the walled city seen in the distance of the Conversion of Saul(presumably Damascus) shares many distinctive features with the city of Jerusalem depicted in met de Bles's roughly contemporary Road to Calvary, now in Princeton.3 Identical motifs are found in a drawing from the sketchbook of an anonymous sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist; several drawings from this sketchbook have been associated with paintings by met de Bles.4
It was quite common in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century for two or more artists to collaborate on compositions involving both figures and landscape,5 and it is generally assumed that met de Bles, like Patinir, relied on other artists to paint the figures in his landscape compositions from time to time. In addition, some paintings by the artist incorporate figural groupings copied from woodcuts by Jan Swart van Groningen (ca. 1500-after 1553), Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer, and others, although the figures themselves were probably painted by met de Bles.6 In the case of the present painting, Gibson has stated that the composition is "probably indebted to Jan van Amstel," and the figures, more competently painted than in most of met de Bles's landscapes, were added by another artist, possibly someone in the circle of the Braunschweig Monogrammist.7 Luc Serck, on the other hand, asserts that the entire composition--figures and landscape--was executed by met de Bles.8 The latter seems most plausible, given the seamless execution of the paint layer, and the uniformly accomplished underdrawing which underlies the entire composition--and which is certainly by met de Bles himself (see Technical Data).
The religious themes favored by met de Bles in his landscape compositions--Saint John Preaching, the Road to Calvary, or the Conversion of Saul--emphasize the interaction between figure and landscape: the figures are active within the landscape, rather than just set before it, as they are in comparable works by Patinir. In the Oberlin picture, this integration is effected by the sinuous and dynamic procession of figures that traces the intricate contours of the landscape in a sprawling S-curve. The unusually large and powerfully muscled figures in the foreground of the Conversion of Saul are clearly influenced by Netherlandish Romanist painters active at mid century, such as Lambert Lombard (1505-1566). The choice of this figural style may reflect the artist's desire to "update" a traditional landscape format through the use of conspicuously modern staffage.
A second, slightly smaller version of the Oberlin painting, with essentially the same figures but a different landscape setting, was formerly on the London art market.9 The artist treated the subject of the Conversion of Saul on at least one other occasion, in a larger and more complex composition (now lost).10
M. E. Wieseman
Herri met de Bles (a nickname meaning Herri "with the blaze," or forelock, referring to the artist's distinctive streak of white hair) was the most prolific and successful Netherlandish landscape painter working in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Little is known about his life; he was probably born near Dinant, in southern Belgium, and is assumed to be the "Herri de Patinir" who joined the Antwerp painters' guild in 1535. He may have been a nephew of the pioneering landscape painter Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480-1524), who was apparently his teacher. In Italy, where many of met de Bles's paintings were exported even during his lifetime, he was known as "Civetta" (little owl) because of his habit of marking his paintings with an owl inserted somewhere in the landscape. The lack of dated works by met de Bles makes it difficult to establish a definitive chronology for the artist.
Met de Bles is known for his inventive "world landscapes," vast panoramas seen from an elevated bird's-eye view, and filled with minute detail. These landscapes usually included a narrative religious scene in the foreground, thereby combining late medieval piety with a new, Renaissance interest in the physical, material world.
Gibson, Walter S. "Mirror of the Earth": The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting. Princeton, 1989, pp. 26-33.
Serck, Luc. "Herri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux avant Bruegel." Ph.D. diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990.
Acquired by an unnamed family in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, probably in Italy
By descent in that family
Sale New York (Sotheby's), 7 June 1984, lot 18
Private collection, Maryland
Sale New York (Sotheby's), 19 May 1995, lot 29
With Jack Kilgore & Co., New York, from whom purchased in 1995
Gibson, Walter S. "Mirror of the Earth": The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting. Princeton, 1989, pp. 33, 103 n. 147.
Serck, Luc. "Herri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux avant Bruegel." Ph.D. diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990, vol. 4, pp. 996-97, no. 90.
Chong, Alan. "Cleveland's Preaching of John the Baptist by Herri Bles: A Landscape with Figures, or Figures in a Landscape?" In Norman Muller, James Marrow, and Betsy Rosasco, eds., Herri met de Bles: Studies and Explorations of the World Landscape Tradition. Forthcoming 1998.
The painting is in good condition overall. The original panel has been thinned and cradled; a thick layer of wax fills the area between the slats of the cradle on the back of the panel. A split 8 7/16 in. (21.4 cm) from the bottom edge of the painting appears to extend the entire width of the panel; there are two other, smaller splits commencing at the left edge of the painting. The panel is prepared with a thick, smooth white ground.
There is extensive and detailed underdrawing in charcoal or black chalk throughout the entire composition, some of which is visible with the naked eye. Infrared examination of the underdrawing confirms that it is by the same hand as that found in other paintings by the artist; changes from the underdrawing to the painting further indicate the artist's process in conceptualizing the narrative.11 The paint layer is in good condition, with scattered inpainting throughout the sky, at lower left, and smaller areas of inpaint associated with the splits in the panel along the left side of the painting.
1. Compare, however, drawings of the Conversion of Saul by Jan Swart van Groningen, before 1535 (bister, 27.5 x 19.5 cm, formerly with R.W.P. de Vries, Amsterdam ); by Pieter Coeke van Aelst, ca. 1540s (pen, 23.1 cm diam., Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. 11837); and by Jan Gossaert, before 1532 (pen, 30.3 x 43 cm, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. 8484); and a print by Philips Galle (ca. 1575) after a design by Maerten van Heemskerck (The New Hollstein's Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts 1450-1700, compiled by Ilja M. Veldman, ed. Ger Luijten, vol. 7 [Roosendaal, 1994], part 2, p. 100, no. 407). Heemskerck's drawing, dated 1573, is in Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst.
2. Walter S. Gibson, "Mirror of the Earth": The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting (Princeton, 1989), pp. 31-32; the issue was discussed at greater length by Arianne Faber Kolb, "The Working Methods of Sixteenth-Century Landscape Painters in Antwerp: Joachim Patinir and Herri met de Bles," presented at "Anatomy of a Painting: The Road to Calvary by Herri met de Bles," a symposium held at The Art Museum, Princeton University, 13-14 October 1995.
3. Oil on panel, 114.3 x 82.2 cm; Princeton University, The Art Museum, inv. y1950-1.
4. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. C 79 2; compare especially sheet 31. The drawings were first studied by Julius Held ("Notizen zu einem niederländischen Skizzenbuch in Berlin," Oud-Holland 50 , pp. 273ff.); see also Robert A. Koch, "A Rediscovered Painting: ‘The Road to Calvary,' by Herri met de Bles," Record of The Art Museum, Princeton University 14 (1955), pp. 44-47.
5. Heinrich Gerhard Franz, "Landschaftsbilder als kollektive Werkstattschöpfungen in der flämischen Malerei des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts," ahrbuch des Kunsthistorischen Institutes der Universität Graz 18 (1982), pp. 165-81.
6. See Walter S. Gibson, "Herri met de Bles: Landscape with St. John the Baptist Preaching," Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 55 (1968), p. 85.
7. Walter S. Gibson, "Mirror of the Earth": The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting(Princeton, 1989), p. 33; and information communicated via Jack Kilgore (1995). More specifically, Gibson has suggested that the figures in the Oberlin painting might be by the same hand as the Crucifixion Triptych in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna (inv. 916/18).
8. Luc Serck, "Herri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux avant Bruegel" (Ph.D. diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990), vol. 4, pp. 996-97; reiterated in verbal communication with the author, October 1995.
9. Oil on panel, 34 x 53.5 cm; sale London (Christie's), 29 March 1968, lot 8, and subsequently with Hal O'Nians Gallery, London. Luc Serck, "Herri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux avant Bruegel" (Ph.D. diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990), vol. 4, pp. 998-99, cat. 90a.
10. Luc Serck, "Herri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les Pays-Bas meridionaux avant Bruegel" (Ph.D. diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990), cat. no. 89; Giorgio T. Faggin, La Pittura ad Anversa nel cinquecento(Florence, 1968), p. 41.
11. The infrared examination and reflectogram assembly photos were done by Marcia Steele, paintings conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in September 1995. On the implication of narrative changes made in the final painting, see Alan Chong, "Cleveland's Preaching of John the Baptist by Herri Bles: A Landscape with Figures, or Figures in a Landscape?" in Norman Muller, James Marrow, and Betsy Rosasco, eds., Herri met de Bles: Studies and Explorations of the World Landscape Tradition(forthcoming 1998).