Completely unknown to scholars until its recent rediscovery, this powerful and solemn Virgin and Child is the earliest known autograph treatment by Joos van Cleve of one of the most popular images in 16th-century Northern Europe, the so-called Madonna of the Cherries. Presented here for the first time, this work provides key insight into the development of one of Joos’s most well-known compositions - from Leonardo da Vinci’s invention of the design in Milan during the first decade of the 16th century, to its nearly-contemporaneous adaptation by one of the Italian master’s best students, Giampietrino (active Milan circa 1495-1540), and finally to its popularization and proliferation north of the Alps by Joos van Cleve and his workshop in Antwerp around 1525-1530.
Of the numerous depictions of the Madonna of the Cherries from the 16th century, ten are known to be by Joos van Cleve and his studio. Although Friedländer, Von Baldass and Hand did not consider any of these extant versions to be completely by the master’s hand, Peter van den Brink and Micha Leeflang identify the paintings in Aachen (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum) and in the Hester Diamond Collection, New York, as autograph (Joos van Cleve: Leonardo des Nordens, exhibition catalogue, Aachen, 2011, p. 176, nos. 34-35; M. Leeflang, Joos van Cleve: A Sixteenth-Century Antwerp Artist and his Workshop, Turnhout, 2015, pp. 75-79; for the known versions, see J.O. Hand, Joos van Cleve, The Complete Paintings, New Haven, 2004, nos. 112-112.9, pp. 185-187). Additional surviving copies are best understood as a distinct group, executed around 1550 and are clearly of a lesser quality - the modelling of the flesh tones is hard and the compositions lack the finely painted details that are so typical of Joos van Cleve and his studio. The exceptional quality of the present work, along with its unparalleled fidelity to the Giampetrino model, has led Peter van den Brink to suggest that Joos van Cleve painted the present Madonna of the Cherries in 1520 (oral communication, based on firsthand inspection).
The Madonna of the Cherries composition was likely invented by Leonardo during his second Milanese period (1508-1513), although whether this took the form of a painting or merely a drawing remains uncertain. Sir Kenneth Clark theorized that it may have been one of the two painted Madonnas mentioned by Leonardo in his correspondence to Charles d’Amboise, the French governor of Milan, which refers to “due quadri dove sono due Nostre Donne di varie grandezze…[per il] Christianissimo Re o per chi a voi piacerà / (two paintings of Our Lady of different sizes…[for the] Most Christian King [Francis I] or for whomever would like them).”(K. Clark, Leonardo da Vinci. An Account of His Development as an Artist, Cambridge 1952, pp. 142-143). If, as some believe, Joos traveled to Italy in the 1520s, he may have seen Leonardo’s work there, or perhaps later on, during his presumed trip to France, which is generally thought to have occurred between 1528/1529 and 1535. It is far more likely, however, that the immediate model for Joos’s Madonna of the Cherries was not Leonardo’s prime version, but rather a copy by one of the Italian master’s followers. Such was probably the case, for instance, with Joos’s other highly popular Leonardesque composition, The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing, which presumably was derived from the painting attributed to Marco d’Oggiono (c. 1475/77-1530) now in the English royal collection in Kensington Palace. Joos might have encountered Marco d’Oggiono’s painting when it was in the collection of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen (see M. Leeflang, op. cit., p. 79). For the Madonna of the Cherries, the intermediary was almost certainly Giampietrino’s painting, now in a private collection (fig. 1; formerly Robert Edsel, Texas; sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 27 January 2011, lot 137). Infrared reflectography of the Giampietrino reveals that the artist made several compositional changes, including a radical reconception of the Madonna’s hair and veil. Presumably, the initial design seen in Giampietrino’s underdrawing preserves Leonardo’s lost prototype, and as these original features do not appear in any of the known versions by Joos and his workshop, a direct link between Joos and Leonardo should be ruled out.
During the 2011 exhibition in Aachen, Joos van Cleve: Leonardo des Norden, (op. cit., p. 176, under nos. 34-36), a tracing of Giampietrino’s Madonna of the Cherries was laid over Joos’s version from the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, revealing that with the exception of a minor shift in the position of the Virgin and Christ Child, the two paintings align almost perfectly in their drapery folds as well as the figures' hands, legs and arms. Due to this concordance, Peter van den Brink and Micha Leeflang concluded that Joos must have obtained permission at some point to trace directly from Giampietrino’s painting, and that the northern artist used this pricked cartoon to create the numerous versions painted by him and his workshop.
The early dating of the present Madonna of the Cherries is supported not only by the painting’s style, but also by the fact that out of all of the known versions associated with Joos van Cleve, it is compositionally closest to the Giampietrino prototype. Joos’s painting retains the rectangular format of its model, and comparison of the drapery folds reveals very few variations – the upper fold over Joos’s Virgin’s proper right leg, for instance, is identical to the corresponding fold on Giampietrino’s Madonna, whereas in later examples by Joos, this fold shifts upward and is more agitated.
Moreover, the numerous ornamental additions that are prevalent in the other known versions by Joos, such as the orange on the table, the gilt sculptures on the ledge above the Virgin, and the Italianate pilasters in the background, are absent here. Most tellingly, the landscape in the present version retains many of the compositional elements found in the Giampietrino. Whereas in other versions by Joos, the landscape has been transformed into a Patinir-inspired vista, and typically includes vignettes of the Flight into Egypt or soldiers talking to farmers as they harvest grain - a reference to the Miracle of the Wheatfield (Matthew 13:25) - here Joos’s tranquil landscape is more restrained and ordered, and includes a castle, a house, and sweeping hills analogous to those in his model. The two trees at left are also quoted from Giampietrino’s composition, and they too disappear in later treatments.
Dendrochronological analysis by Ian Tyers of the tree ring sequences from the present painting’s two boards establishes a likely usage date between c. 1495 and c. 1530 for the Baltic oak panel. Infrared reflectography (fig. 2) of the present panel reveals that, like the other versions of this composition, here the Christ Child originally held cherries in his hands, rather than the Crown of Thorns and Cross. Likewise, the nails resting on the stone block near the Virgin’s elbow seem to be a later additions. In fact, the cherries held in Christ’s hands are visible to the naked eye, suggesting that they were painted over at some point, most likely at the request of a particularly devout owner. Precisely when this change happened is unclear, although the handling of the paint suggests it may have occurred around 1600.