Who Painted That Flower?

John Haber
in New York City

A Joos van Cleve in Cincinnati

Who painted what when? To many, that recalls what turned them off art history. I call it an invitation to see. Sometimes, too, it has the appeal of a good mystery.

A passion for art

A journalism professor from Florida A&M had turned to Renaissance Europe for the secrets of Kabala. In a painting in Cincinnati, he may have discovered as well a story of missionaries, the conquest of the New World, botanical scrutiny, and belief. Joos van Cleve's Madonna and Child (Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, 1530–1535)

This may well sound like outtakes from a certain movie, but it does not require murder, self-flagellation, or even lame dialogue. An attribution simply means asking if the artist at hand would have or could have done the job. As I have described for a controversial attribution to Jan Vermeer, an answer hinges on the totality of a painting's subject, style, and technique, which is why art takes words. These in turn direct one to historical documents, close technical examination, and what one can see with the naked eye. And this time, a work's history extends to everything from biology to the history of scientific discovery and to cultural anthropology.

In Joos van Cleve's Madonna and Child, which dates from before 1535, the infant Jesus reaches for his mother and for three cherries—the number associated with the Trinity and the fruit with paradise. His affection for Mary and her association with salvation already has doctrinal implications. In the process, the child seems to flee two flowers in his mother's right hand. To a believer, he has every reason to fear.

A carnation's nasty thorns and red flowers had made it a symbol of the Passion. When travelers with Hernando Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, found a relative with deeper reds and spinier petals, they could hardly resist naming it a passion flower. In the painting, the miraculous new flower tops the older one. They could be growing out of the same stem—if a stem could somehow start over after a burst of pink.

However, Michael E. Abrams has a problem with this picture. Word of the discovery did not reach Europe for decades, starting with a physician around 1570 and drawings by Jesuits in 1608. Prints of Passiflora incarnata circulated more widely in Europe only later still. He cites a remarkable series, documenting biodiversity in Virginia and issued in London.

Could Joos have somehow had an inside track, both to dozens of then unfamiliar species and to an apparent revelation. Could the attribution to Joos instead have a serious flaw? Abrams wrote the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts to ask. Although I can hardly claim to have played a role beyond offering another lay opinion, he also got in touch with me—as has the Tallahassee Democrat.

The economy of vision

Andy Haslit, the curator, insists on the attribution. He can trace the painting, which entered the collection in 1981, only as far back as 1913. However, he can rely on agreement among other art historians. I hate to judge a work of art in reproduction, but I reached same conclusion.

Joos, formerly known as Master of the Death of the Virgin, takes his name from Cleves, on the lower Rhine. He moved to Antwerp around 1510. There, under the influence of Quentin Massys and Jan Gossart, he furthered a style known now as Flemish Mannerism, as with Bartholemeus Spranger. One can see it in the painting's acrid colors, heavy shadows, and hard finish.

At the same time, Mannerism often revisits the past, Joos van Cleve stood as a classicist. He looked to the early Renaissance, as in a close copy after Jan van Eyck. He also introduces Italian models to northern Europe, much as Hans Memling had in Memling's portraits many years before. In copying van Eyck's Madonna in a Church, he beefs up her proportions, and the Madonna in Cincinnati has the same weighty folds of drapery and rounded faces. The motif of a carnation goes back to a more famous Madonna in Munich, by Leonardo da Vinci—perhaps his first painting on that theme and among the first paintings to embody High Renaissance ideals. The pyramid here, completed by the arm at left and architecture at right, also recalls Leonardo.

Joos, then, almost surely had no contact with flora across the ocean, but plenty of contact with this canvas. Abrams himself, however, realized another possibility, for if Joos had painted the Madonna, another hand could have added the second flower much later. Could someone at least look closely at the painting's surface to see? Major scholars historians who ascribed the painting to Joos, such as Max Friedländer, never thought to ask.

I found Abram's third possibility a no-brainer. First, symbolism requires that the natural world speak in an economical language. One flower growing out of another just will not do. Besides, it does not look terribly naturalistic. Moreover, I had to suspect the black background. Black hides a multitude of sins, much as in clothing, and indeed I began to wonder if it effaced the carnation's thorns. Joos himself did as much as anyone to add detailed backdrops, broken color, and variegated shadow, whereas black came into fashion only in the next century, when still life leapt forward to engage a viewer's five senses.

A bustling port like Antwerp served naturally as an avenue for commerce in ideas as well as things. Free thinkers represented a tiny minority even in the early 1600s, and the religious wars that led to a Dutch republic still raged. An embattled Catholic may have seized on the carnation and on news of a passion flower as a godsend. Who could resist "finishing" the painting to rub in the miracle? "Knowledge of a little botany," Abrams comments, "might help art critics"—or at least historians. Knowledge of the Reformation and Spain's other armies, in northern Europe, hardly hurts either.

What lies beneath

At the museum, Haslit declined a radiograph, an obvious way to see what lies underneath the surface. However, he found more than enough under a microscope. Someone painted all that black around the carnation, implying a later addition, and the passion flower lies on top of that. Haslit also considers the passion flower's color and modeling rather flat compared to the rest. He does not consider the overpainting an act of subterfuge, and it does not diminish the work's value to his collection.

Now that I can see a close-up, I have to agree here, too—although I would still love an image of what Joos painted underneath. Sometimes entire works of art have been found beneath layers of paint. Abrams has an account on his Web site of all these concerns and a good deal more, along with quotes from the curator. I have obviously drawn on it and his personal correspondence freely. Blame errors here, however, solely on me.

Since cracks run continuously across the black and the passion flower, these additions must have arisen around the same time. Overpainting is not uncommon, because tastes change: a painting may come to look old-fashioned or downright prurient by the standards of another time. An owner may therefore demand "improvements," although I do not recall a motive as particular as this one. Haslit dates the cracks to perhaps one hundred years after Joos's original—but with a "wide standard deviation," depending on such factors as heat, light, and humidity. Now you know why museum workers must put up with such limited air conditioning.

Regardless, one hundred years would do the trick just fine. It coincides with the great age of still life. A banquet piece Willem Claesz. Heda in Holland, for example, dates to exactly 1635. Abrams notes that in 1519 Cortés brought back cocoa beans, which of course became a Dutch treat. Given "the cruelties inflicted upon the Aztecs by the Spanish," he adds, "I guess I would rather see the Dutch credited with popularizing the flower." Perhaps they did so in art, too.

Abrams still corrects small details in Haslit's botany, which I shall leave to the Passiflora Society International to decide. He also describes symbols in art as labels for the illiterate. One should see them instead as the promise of God's presence in every aspect of the visible world. Their interpretation, called iconography, arose from studies of the early Renaissance. Robert Campin and others gave art a greater faith in the visible world and a more sophisticated language than text labels—which persist even on the Sistine Ceiling. One should see all this as very much part of a budding humanism.

I have argued that attributions matter, because they teach one how to look at unfamiliar or overly familiar art. In the case of even a lesser Renaissance painter like Joos van Cleve, the connections—between stories and across continents— also suggest why paintings matter. Not every work can lead one to journalism, botany, art history, missionary zeal, the conquest of Mexico, the Virginia colonies, religious lines in European politics, and laboratory methods. Not every work has a trail from Germany to Belgium, Italy, the Americas, and back. Not every work can mix economy in the senses of intercontinental trade and artistic expression. Sometimes, however, an artist can do things like that, and it takes a special kind of "just looking" to watch them unfold.

BACK to John's arts home page


Haslit issued his report on June 29, 2006. Abrams describes the events on his Web site. The Tallahassee Democrat ran its story on July 16, 2006, and with luck I do not sound too full of myself.


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