- Jheronimus Bosch: La question de la chronologie
Recent years have seen an abundance of books devoted to the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516). Frédéric Elsig's is, however, the first to consider the thorny questions of Bosch's chronology, stylistic evolution, and workshop practice in light of the 2001 Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum exhibition, which provided a major reassessment of the enigmatic painter. Elsig's task is complicated by the lack of documentation concerning the events of Bosch's life, his patrons, and artistic milieu. Furthermore, none of the approximately thirty works agreed to be authentic shows a date, and only seven bear Bosch's name, though the artist's signature was freely employed by followers and copyists. Paintings attributed to Bosch also vary significantly in their styles of underdrawing and application of paint, and some even display different approaches and techniques within the same panel. Conclusions arrived at by connoisseurship are, at best, highly subjective, and experts disagree passionately in their assessments of Bosch.
The best hope for clarification seems to lie in modern scientific analysis. In recent years, dendrochronology, which can establish the age of wooden panel supports by deducing when the tree in question was felled, has emerged as an important tool for the study of Bosch's works. Dendrochronological analysis has removed several paintings from the master's oeuvre by proving that the wood of their panels came from a tree felled after his death. However, even this spectacular technique offers no insight into how long a panel may have languished in an artist's studio before being painted. The task of charting the evolution of style in Bosch's paintings still depends largely on historical detective work.
Elsig jettisons dendrochronological evidence, except when it establishes an inarguable terminus post quem. Basing his conclusions on perceptive stylistic analysis, in combination with provenance and, to a much lesser extent, iconography, he divides Bosch's paintings into three groups: early works by Bosch and members of his atelier before 1505, those dating from 1505 to 1510, and late paintings completed by Bosch and his atelier between 1510 and 1525. Elsig includes several disputed works in this final group (among them the Marriage at Cana, Concert in [End Page 648] the Egg, and Conjuror), to one Gielis Panhedel (1490-ca. 1545), a supposed student who may have worked with Bosch in his studio. Elsig places several other problematic paintings in the posthumous group, including the Cure of Folie and the Munich Last Judgment fragment. Thus, the dendrochronological evidence that removed some of Bosch's most intriguing works from his oeuvre is justified by attributing them to students and family members who may have inherited the atelier.
Readers will be intrigued by some of Elsig's pronouncements, and many will argue with the stylistic criteria used in establishing them. Some assumptions defy common sense, such as retaining the traditional placement of the famous Garden of Earthly Delights among Bosch's mature works, despite its archaic representation of space and old dendrochronological age. One might argue that the handling of atmosphere and space is much more sophisticated in the St. Anthony Triptych, which Elsig dates earlier. Equally worrisome is the identification of the Vienna Last Judgment as the triptych painted in 1505 for Philip the Handsome. Elsig makes the Vienna triptych the pivotal point in his chronology, marking the beginning of the second phase of Bosch's development. There are, in fact, enough discrepancies between the details stated in the commissioning document — the only one that exists for a Bosch painting — and the extant Vienna triptych to cast doubt on whether the two are actually one and the same. With this contested work as the pivotal point in Bosch's chronological development, Elsig's case begins to resemble a teetering house of cards.
Despite such difficulties, this book contributes significantly to Bosch studies. Elsig convincingly asserts that the variety of painterly techniques in the works traditionally...