Overview

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Marten van Cleve (Antwerp c. 1527-before 1581)
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Marten van Cleve (Antwerp c. 1527-before 1581)

The Blind leading the Blind

Details
Marten van Cleve (Antwerp c. 1527-before 1581)
The Blind leading the Blind
oil on panel
29½ x 41¼ in. (74.9 x 104.8 cm.)
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No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

Lot Essay

Marten van Cleve was one of the foremost of a dynasty of painters who moved to Antwerp from Cleves in the late 15th or early 16th century; he was the younger brother of Hendrik van Cleve III, who acted as the guardian of his children after his death. Marten became a master in the Antwerp Guild of St Luke in 1551-2 and, according to Van Mander, followed his brother into the studio of Frans Floris; if this is correct, it was probably in circa 1553-5 as motifs drawn from the latter's work appear in Van Cleve's paintings executed during those years. Marten apparently set up his own workshop shortly afterwards, which remained very productive throughout the 1560s and 1570s, concentrating for the most part in producing versions of his own original compositions. Van Mander's statement that the artist collaborated with a number of landscape painters, including his brother Hendrik III, Gillis van Coninxloo III, Gillis Mostaert and Jacob Grimmer, is confirmed by 17th-century inventories.

The chronology of Marten's original work is still unclear. There are a handful of datable, or roughly datable, works, including the Visit to the Farm (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) included in the 1659 inventory of Archduke Leopold William, and three monogrammed and dated works: The Slaughtered Ox of 1566 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), The Bride Goes to Bed of 1570 (private collection, see Raupp, no. 255) and The Beggars of 1579 (St Petersburg, Hermitage). Marten's subject-matter of predominantly low-life scenes - peasant weddings and dances, kermesses, plundering soldiers - was much indebted to the work of his contemporary Pieter Bruegel I, as with the present composition. However, his reputation as a Bruegel follower, comparable with artists such as Pieter Brueghel II, is unjustified: not only was he a contemporary of Pieter I's, but his compositions and some subjects are almost entirely original and were on occasion themselves copied and adapted by that subsequent generation. Perhaps the most famous of Van Cleve's original themes, The King Drinks, was to become one of the most popular genre subjects in Flemish 17th Century art.

The theme of the Blind leading the Blind derives from Matthew, XV: 13-4, in which Christ, told that he had angered the Pharisees by criticising their spiritual leadership, replied : 'Let them alone: they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.' Hieronymous Bosch painted the earliest known treatment of the theme, in a work known only through a later engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, published by Hieronymous Cock (see P. Lafond, Hieronymous Bosch. Son art, son influence, et ses disciples, Brussels and Paris, 1914, illustrated opposite p. 94). It was taken up again in an engraving by Cornelis Massys of circa 1540, showing four figures rather than Bosch's two, before being again depicted by Van der Heyden and Cock in 1561. The most famous representation, that of Pieter Bruegel I of 1568 (Naples, Museo Nazionale), may well have been inspired by Van der Heyden's renditions of the theme. The subject subsequently entered into the general vocabulary of Flemish art, being treated by such artists as Pieter Brueghel II and Marten van Valckenborch.

The present composition, which is very much of Van Cleve's own devising, is one of two depicting the theme by the artist. The other is known through the painting of circa 1570 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, of which other versions exist in the Kunstmuseum, Basel, and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. Van Cleve's compositions suggest a possible knowledge of Pieter Bruegel I's, in their general feel and the broad design of the figures within the composition, but neither is in any way dependent on that picture. The Vienna type loosely follows Pieter I in the positioning of the man already fallen into the water, but the present work changes even that. It also introduces a new element with the curve in the line of the blind men, turning back towards the left side of the picture, that provides an added feel of depth to the composition. It is interesting that both Van Cleve's types include a pilgrim amongst the blind men: a motif absent from Pieter I's painting but that directly recalls Bosch's lost painting, in which both figures are pilgrims.
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