Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens was a Flemish painter, draughtsman and tapestry designer known for his history paintings, genre scenes and portraits. After Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, he was the leading Flemish Baroque painter of his day. Unlike those contemporaries he never traveled abroad to study Italian painting, and his career is marked by an indifference to their intellectual and courtly aspirations. In fact, except for a few short trips to locations in the Low Countries, he remained in Antwerp his entire life. As well as being a successful painter, he was a prominent designer of tapestries.
Like Rubens, Jordaens painted altarpieces, mythological, and allegorical scenes, and after 1640—the year Rubens died—he was the most important painter in Antwerp for large-scale commissions and the status of his patrons increased in general. However, he is best known today for his numerous large genre scenes based on proverbs in the manner of his contemporary Jan Brueghel the Elder, depicting The King Drinks and As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young. Jordaens’ main artistic influences, besides Rubens and the Brueghel family, were northern Italian painters such as Jacopo Bassano, Paolo Veronese, and Caravaggio.
Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens was born on 19 May 1593, the first of eleven children, to the wealthy linen merchant Jacob Jordaens Sr. and Barbara van Wolschaten in Antwerp. Little is known about Jordaens’ early education. It can be assumed that he received the advantages of the education usually provided for children of his social class. This assumption is supported by his clear handwriting, his competence in French and in his knowledge of mythology. Jordaens familiarity with biblical subjects is evident in his many religious paintings, and his personal interest with the Bible was strengthened by his later conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism. Like Rubens, he studied under Adam van Noort, who was his only teacher. During this time Jordaens lived in Van Noort’s house in the Everdijstraat and became very close to the rest of the family. After eight years of training with Van Noort, he enrolled in the Guild of St. Luke as a “waterschilder”, or watercolor artist. This medium was often used for preparing tapestry cartoons in the seventeenth century. although examples of his earliest watercolour works are no longer extant. In the same year as his entry into the guild, 1616, he married his teacher’s eldest daughter, Anna Catharina van Noort, with whom he had three children. In 1618, Jordaens bought a house in Hoogstraat (the area in Antwerp that he grew up in). He would then later buy the adjoining house to expand his household and workspace in 1639, mimicking Rubens’ house built two decades earlier. He lived and worked here until his death in 1678.
Jordaens never made the traditional trip to Italy to study classical and Renaissance art. Despite this, he made many efforts to study prints or works of Italian masters available in northern Europe. For example, Jordaens is known to have studied Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, and Bassano, either through prints, copies or originals (such as Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary). His work, however, betrays local traditions, especially the genre traditions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in honestly depicting Flemish life with authenticity and showing common people in the act of celebratory expressions of life. His commissions frequently came from wealthy local Flemish patrons and clergy, although later in his career he worked for courts and governments across Europe. Besides a large output of monumental oil paintings he was a prolific tapestry designer, a career that reflects his early training as a “watercolour” painter.
Jordaens’ importance can also be seen by his number of pupils; the Guild of St. Luke records fifteen official pupils from 1621 to 1667, but six others were recorded as pupils in court documents and not the Guild records, so it is probable that he had more students than officially recorded. Among them were his cousin and his son Jacob. Like Rubens and other artists at that time, Jordaens’ studio relied on his assistants and pupils in the production of his paintings. Not many of these pupils went on to fame themselves, however a position in Jordaens’ studio was highly desirable for young artists from across Europe.
Jordaens was greatly influenced by Peter Paul Rubens who occasionally employed him to reproduce small sketches in a larger format. After the death of Rubens, Jordaens advanced to the position of one of the most admired painters in Antwerp. Like Rubens, Jordaens relied on a warm palette, naturalism, and a mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism. Jordaens was only moderately successful as a portrait painter but excelled in representations of the base character of humanity. His classically inspired peasant themes and large-scale moralistic genre scenes influenced Jan Steen. Although Jacob Jordaens did not specialize, he often repeated a theme based on a proverb that depicted a wide range of characters of a variety of ages, crowded in a festive scene around a banquet table. These humorous pieces have a sense of coarseness. While Jordaens drew upon Rubens’ motifs throughout his career, his work is differentiated by a tendency to greater realism, a crowding of the surface of his compositions, and a preference for the burlesque, even within the context of religious and mythological subjects. Prometheus, c. 1640 is an example of the influence of both Rubens and Frans Snyders on Jacob Jordaens. While he drew inspiration from their collaboration Prometheus Bound, c. 1611–12, Jordaens’ version is a more hopeful narrative.
In addition to being a well-known portrait painter, Jordaens also employed his pencil in biblical, mythological, and allegorical subjects and even etched a number of plates. Although primarily a history painter, he also painted illustrations of Flemish proverbs, such as the “Old Sing so the Young Twitter”, and depictions of Flemish festivals, for example “The King Drinks.” Several of his works hint at a passion for animal painting. He often included a variety of animals, most likely drawn from life, including cows, horses, poultry, cats, dogs, and sheep. His life drawings of both animals and people were used and referenced throughout his life. After Rubens’ death in 1640 Jordaens became Antwerp’s new leading artist. Only after achieving this status did Jordaens receive royal commissions, predominantly from the north. He also received a commission from Ruben’s heirs to finish a Hercules and an Andromeda for Philip IV of Spain.
In 1635–40, when Rubens was ill from gout, Jordaens was commissioned to use Rubens’ sketches, and work on the decorations for the triumphal entry of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the new Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, for his arrival in Antwerp in 1635. Although the works are lost, Jordaens was commissioned in 1639–40 by Charles I to finish decorating the Queen’s chambers at Greenwich, a commission which was originally given to Rubens, who was unable to execute due to his poor health.
Jordaens also played his part in a collaborative effort to decorate the Torre de la Paroda, done between 1636 and 1681. Two works in the series attributed to Jordaens are Apollo and Pan (1637), made after a sketch by Rubens, and Vertummus and Pomona (1638). Further contributions debated include Fall of the Titans, Marriage of Peleus and Thitis, and Cadmus Sawing the Dragons Teeth. In 1661, he was asked to paint three, fairly large lunettes for the newly constructed Amsterdam Town Hall.
At the end of Jordaens’ career between 1652 and 1678 his creative and artistic ability had deteriorated. He moved from vibrant colours to a gray-blue palette, accented at times with a dull brown, and applied paint so thinly that the canvas could be seen. However, there were few exceptions to this (such as the aforementioned religious paintings he produced after he had converted to Protestantism), most notable being the History of the Psyche that he did for his own house.
The Protestant religion was forbidden in Antwerp, which at the time was still Spanish-occupied territory. Towards the end of his lifetime Jordaens converted to Reformed Protestantism, but continued to accept commissions to decorate Catholic churches. Jordaens was fined 200 pounds and 15 shillings for scandalous or heretical writings between 1651 and 1658.
Jordaens died of the mysterious Antwerp disease in October 1678, which, on the same day, also killed his unmarried daughter Elizabeth, who had lived with him. Their bodies were buried together under one tombstone in the Protestant cemetery at Putte, a village just north of the Belgium border, where his wife Catharina had been put to rest earlier. A monument was erected in Putte in 1877, dedicated to and containing the tombstones of Jordaens and two of his painting colleagues, Simon de Pape and Adriaan van Stalbemt. It stands on the location of the little Protestant church and cemetery, both of which were demolished years earlier. The bust on top of the monument was made by Jef Lambeaux.
One year after his death, Jacob Jordaens’ son donated “twenty-five Flemish pounds to the Camer van den Huysarmen in Antwerp.” Also included in this donation was The Washing and Anointing of the Body of Christ which was given to an orphanage of girls. Apparently this was all done in following correspondence with a will that Jacob Jordaens left behind. Unfortunately, this document has yet to be found. Even without the finding of Jordaen’s will, his kindness has been recognized by all who knew him. There are many other found documents that note his admiration by others.