Dazzling in both its minutely-rendered details and the sheer breadth of its overall composition, this picture is a rare early surviving example of the highest quality of a Weltlandschaft or ‘world landscape’. This genre was originally devised by the pioneering Antwerp artist Joachim Patinir in the first decades of the sixteenth century, and quickly met with tremendous success across Europe. These Weltlandschaften offered an extensive vista seen from an elevated viewpoint, which combined naturalistically observed motifs to create an imaginary scene, showing a mannerist taste for the fanciful and the spectacular. This twisted, manipulated reality is evident here: organised around a central sinuous river, the landscape opens out onto on a series of fantastic rock formations topped by similarly eccentric fortresses with triangularly crenellated towers. An ornate city, painted with miniaturist precision, is surrounded by an idyllic countryside, dotted with castles and more modest peasant dwellings. With animated figures engaged in everyday activities, from the soldiers in the extravagant attire of lansquenets in deep discussion in the foreground, to the two rowboats water jousting in the middle of the river, cheered by onlookers on the shore, this picture is an ode to the liveliness and the beauty of the anecdotal. The painter’s subtle use of atmospheric perspective, carefully grading blue tonalities to suggest spatial recession, carries an immense poetic appeal.
While the painting’s exceptional quality has been universally recognised, its authorship has long been the subject of debate. Although its close proximity to Patinir’s style has been noted, it has remained rather generically catalogued as the work of a Flemish master and dated to 1540-1550. More recently, however, an attribution to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths has been proposed by Luc Serck, to whom we are grateful, who notes that, ‘Il s’agit incontestablement d’une oeuvre du Maître des demi-figures, tout fait comparable avec le paysage avec saint Jerôme et scènes de travaux de la mine de Kansas City, Nelson Atkins Gallery of Art’ (written correspondence, 29 October 2013). This elusive figure, whose name remains a mystery, is believed to have been active in Antwerp during the first half of the sixteenth century, heading a large workshop specialising in the depiction of elegant ladies playing music, reading, writing or praying. He also produced devotional works in which holy figures were placed in outdoor settings (for example, The Rest during the Flight into Egypt, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). The quality of the landscape background in these works, as well as their similarity to other pictures previously ascribed to Patinir, led scholars such as Robert Koch to believe that the Master of the Female Half-Lengths was also a landscape painter, an idea later endorsed by Walter Gibson. In his seminal 1968 monograph on Patinir, Koch attributed 13 of these landscapes to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths and ventured that he could have trained with Patinir (R.A. Koch, Joachim Patinir, Princeton, 1968, pp. 56-65 and 85-9, pls. 73-91; W.S. Gibson, ‘Mirror of the earth’, The world Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting, Princeton, 1989, pp. 15-6, pls. I.32-I.36). Although this nucleus of work is not entirely homogeneous and still poses some questions, the present panel undoubtedly fits very well into this corpus. We are, furthermore, grateful to Till Holger-Borchert for confirming, on inspection of the original, that this panel is by the same hand as the group of landscapes given to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, and to Peter van den Brink who has suggested an alternative attribution to Cornelis Massys.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, Antwerp was a vibrant market for paintings, and had superseded Bruges as the main artistic centre of the Northern Renaissance. Antwerp’s painters ran busy workshops that often specialised in one distinct genre (small devotional panels, narrative altarpieces, figures, landscapes, and so on). These artists frequently combined their specialisms producing cross-genre pictures: for example, Patinir joined forces with the figure painter Quentin Massys to create the superb The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Madrid, Museo del Prado). The present panel is also likely to have been the result of such a fruitful collaboration, and it would appear that it is the work of two hands, one for the landscape, and one for the figures, which were added after the background was completed. Infra-red reflectography reveals a preparatory drawing under the paint layer, and shows that the composition is very loosely and confidently laid out, with few if any details, the artists just indicating the main lines and masses that would structure the eventual image. Stunning passages such as the city in the middle ground for instance, have been painted straight onto the panel. It is thus apparent that this highly skilled artist did not need careful guidelines, and it is also evident that he was not slavishly copying an existing work.
The duality of the composition, arranged around the central river that emphatically splits the landscape, finds few precedents other than Patinir’s celebrated Charon crossing the Styx (Madrid, Museo del Prado), where the spatial dichotomy carries moral and symbolic associations relating to the path to Christian salvation: the choice between the way to paradise and the way to hell. Yet in this picture, such an allegorical reading is decidedly absent, which accounts for the striking modernity of the work. This makes it a very early example of a completely secular landscape, especially so if painted around 1530 as the attribution to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths would suggest. This early date is also confirmed by dendrochronological analysis that provides a terminus post quem of 1500. Another example by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths of a fully secular subject is Landscape with a Hunting Party (Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire). These autonomous landscapes would later be developed by the next generation of landscape painters such as Herri met de Bles with his Landscape with Mining Scenes (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi). Freed from any religious meaning and interpretation, these pictures would have been designed for the sole purpose of visual delight on the part of the beholder, whose eye would romantically travel through the landscape, making its way from one detail to the next, only to discover, each time, a new, previously unregistered element. This invitation to a visual journey through the painting stands today as it did then. This primarily aesthetic function of the picture may account for the panel’s unusually wide panoramic format found in another painting by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, The Landscapes with episodes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist (Uppsala, Universitetets Konstsamling), and is reminiscent of the Italian spalliera or cassone panels. Similarly, the picture could have been inset into a cabinet or chest, or inlaid into a wall panelling as part of a larger decorative cycle.