‘The archangel Gabriel is flying!’ How Jan de Beer broke the rules

‘The archangel Gabriel is flying!’ How Jan de Beer broke the rules

As this superb Annunciation comes to auction on 29 October in New York, the curator of a UK exhibition of the 16th-century Antwerp painter explains how this ‘show-off’ challenged everything that had gone before

Peter van den Brink, an art historian and director of the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany, knows more than most people about the Antwerp Mannerists, a group of largely anonymous painters based in the southern Netherlands who were active during the first decades of the 16th century.

Not only did he organise the major Antwerp Mannerism exhibition ExtravagAnt!, held in Antwerp and Maastricht in 2006, but he has also now been involved with an exhibition of one of the most talented painters of the group — Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528) — which runs until 29 January at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

On 29 October, Christie’s in New York sold The Annunciation, an oil on panel by de Beer for $1,215,000 (more than six times the lower estimate), which Van den Brink has suggested dates to around 1515, the height of the artist’s career. The painting depicts the moment the Archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary (set inside a Gothic church), and has been copied by other artists in no fewer than 14 other instances.

Here, Van den Brink talks to Christie’s about the exhibition opening on 25 October, and why this Annunciation is so important.

Who was Jan de Beer?

Peter van den Brink: Jan de Beer was one of the most important painters active in Antwerp during the 1510s and 20s. While most painters at that time worked anonymously, de Beer signed two of his works, a drawing now in the British Museum and a painting in Munich. From these we have been able to build up a profile of his oeuvre — currently around 19 paintings and fewer than a dozen drawings.

Why did de Beer sign his works when others didn’t?

PvdB: We actually don’t know why he signed the crucifixion in Munich. The British Museum drawing is called Nine Male Heads and is a fantastic large sketchbook drawing which de Beer presented as a gift to another painter in Antwerp — Joachim Patinir — in 1520, and his name is part of the note.

Have his works been attributed through connoisseurship or scientific analysis?

PvdB: Both. It started with connoisseurship. De Beer had a small workshop and worked most of the time on his own, so his paintings are stylistically very close. Many of the paintings have also been examined with infrared reflectography which allows you to look through the paint layer and see the original drawing underneath — with de Beer, mostly in black chalk. Drawings by de Beer are very similar in terms of his use of hatching and folding edges. It is very different from other artists.

Presumably he painted more than 19 paintings in his life?

PvdB: Certainly. I think many were destroyed or cut into pieces in the early 19th century. In the Rhineland area, after the separation between church and state under French occupation, many altarpieces were sold or given away for free. The dealers then sometimes cut them into pieces. 

There are two large panels in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid depicting an Annunciation  and the Birth of the Virgin  by Jan de Beer and his workshop. They are in fact the front and back of the same altarpiece wing, which has been split in two. The Barber has another large wing, painted on both sides, but from a different altarpiece. If you add together all the missing parts to his oeuvre you come up with many more than 19 paintings.

What makes the Annunciation coming to Christie’s stand out from the copies?

PvdB: Firstly, none of the copies are as refined as this example, and many are missing details from this original, too. Dendrochronology also suggested an earlier date for this work than the others.

Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528 or earlier), The Annunciation. 26¾ x 20⅝  in (67.9 x 52.4  cm). Sold for $1,215,000 on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528 or earlier), The Annunciation. 26¾ x 20⅝ in (67.9 x 52.4 cm). Sold for $1,215,000 on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

How is de Beer’s treatment of the subject radical?

PvdB: Well, the archangel Gabriel is flying! He comes crashing down through the roof with a lot of speed — you can see it in the way the drapery moves. Iconographically, that’s totally new. The archangel Gabriel normally has wings, but is depicted walking or standing. It makes the composition very dynamic and daring.

Is that why they’re referred to as ‘Mannerists’?

PvdB: Yes. It’s about the fluttering garments and bright colours. De Beer’s colours are breathtaking. When you look at the old-school painters in Antwerp, Brussels and Bruges, everything was very lovely and nice, but static. De Beer changed all that — he was dynamic and a great colourist and craftsman. In this work he really shows off — especially in the architecture, which contains miniature sculptures.

Where did the idea for the show at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts come from?

PvdB: The Barber recently did a full restoration of its double-sided altarpiece featuring The Nativity  and the Apocryphal Tale of Joseph and the Suitors. They thought it would be good to do a small exhibition around it. It brings together all the paintings and drawings by de Beer that are in the UK.

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How many is that?

PvdB: Four paintings and three drawings.

Are they from private or public collections?

PvdB: All three drawings are from the British Museum, but the Barber altarpiece is the only painting in a museum collection, although the large privately owned triptych in the show is now on a long-term loan in the National Gallery. 

It’s a very rare thing to come across a de Beer painting because there are so few, which makes it so great that this one is going to on view at Christie’s before it comes to auction.

Truly Bright and Memorable: Jan de Beer’s Renaissance Altarpieces at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, UK, 25 October to 19 January 2020