This impressive panel with Isaac blessing Jacob was hitherto completely unknown. It is a highpoint of Flemish Romanism, datable to around 1560, when the paradigmatic lingua franca of the great Italian artists, such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, had firmly asserted its place in the art north of the Alps and decisively began to reshape Flemish art in particular. This splendid work offers a glimpse in this fascinating evolution and epitomizes the important transitional phase during which the foremost figure painters in Flanders strove to reconcile the Italian idiom with the powerful qualities that were at the heart of Flemish painting; exactness and realism. They were the ones that put the human body centre-stage, achieving the solid basis on which later Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck later were to build their glorious oeuvres.
The leading Italianate artists active in the Southern Netherlands during the early 1560s were Lambert Lombard and his pupil Lambert Suavius in Liege, Frans Floris, Maerten de Vos and Lambert van Noort in Antwerp and Michiel Cocxie in Malines. All of them visited Italy, but others adopted the new styles through other ways. Willem Key, for instance, was a pupil of Lambert Lombard’s. It is with Key’s works that the present unsigned work shares several striking features, as kindly pointed out to us by Professor Koenraad Jonckheere of Ghent University. Jonckheere notes that the physiognomy of Rebecca, the servant carrying water, the curtain and its crimson red colour, the lion’s head adorning the bed and the Titianesque figure of Esau in the background all are typical for Key. The body position of Isaac is furthermore strongly reminiscent of the Saint Jerome by Willem Key’s pupil and relative Adriaen Key, a composition that has come down to us in at least four versions.
The blessing of Jacob was not at all often depicted during this period, but it was typically a theme that the foremost artists of that moment treated in competition with each other, such as Antwerp Jan Sanders van Hemessen (Boedapest, Museum of Fine Arts), Frans Floris (mentioned by Karel van Mander in his 1604 Schilder-Boeck) and Joachim Beuckelaer (dated 1568; Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent). The artist of the present work appears to have been inspired by a rare print with this theme of 1549 by Dirck Coornhert (Amsterdam 1522-1590 Gouda) after Maarten van Heemskerck, another ambitious master at that time (fig. 1). The kneeling figure of Jacob seems taken over almost literally, albeit mirrored. The standing Rebecca in near profile is very similar as well and the water-carrying servant here echoes the Atlas with his raised arms in the background of Coornhert’s print. The painter gave a powerful interpretation of the subject, fusing the borrowed elements into the energetic and emotionally charged image.