Maerten de Vos (1532-1603)

Maerten de Vos, Maerten de Vos the Elder or Marten de Vos was a Flemish painter mainly of history paintings and portraits. He became, together with the brothers Ambrosius Francken I and Frans Francken I, one of the leading history painters in the Spanish Netherlands after Frans Floris’ career slumped in the second half of the sixteenth century as a result of the Iconoclastic fury of the Beeldenstorm.

De Vos was a prolific draughtsman and produced numerous designs for the Antwerp printers.

He was born in Antwerp as the youngest of the four children of Peter (Pieter) de Vos and Anna de Heere. His father was born in Leiden and relocated to Antwerp where he was recorded at the age of 17 years as a pupil of Jeroom Scuelens. Maerten and his brother, also called Pieter, first trained with their father. A pupilage with the leading mid-16th century leading history painter Frans Floris has been surmised by some art historians but there is no documentary evidence for this.



As a trip to Italy had become a rite of passage for Flemish artists in the 16th century, de Vos travelled to Italy where he resided between 1550 and 1558. It is possible that he made at least part of his trip to the south in the company of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He likely resided in Rome, Florence and Venice. De Vos’ work shows a strong influence of the colors of the Venetians. The 17th-century Italian artist biographer Carlo Ridolfi wrote that de Vos worked in the studio of Tintoretto in Venice, which would explain this influence.

Upon his return to Antwerp in 1558 de Vos became a member of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke. It is possible that he returned to Antwerp earlier if the date of 1556 on a portrait painting is correct. He married Joanna le Boucq, whose family was originally from Valenciennes in France. The couple had five daughters and three sons. At the time, Frans Floris was the leading history painter in Flanders and he operated a large workshop in Antwerp. This made it more difficult for other artists to find commissions. De Vos was lucky to obtain in 1564 commissions from the rich Antwerp merchant Gillis Hooftman.

In the 1560s Flanders suffered from the Beeldenstorm, the iconoclastic fury that reached its peak in 1566. During the period of iconoclasm, Catholic art and many forms of church fittings and decoration were destroyed by nominally Calvinist Protestant crowds as part of the Protestant Reformation. Frans Floris, who was at the time the leading Flemish history painter, never recovered from the shock of seeing his artworks destroyed. Floris found himself in a downward spiral in both his personal and professional affairs. As Floris virtually stopped painting after 1566, a younger generation of artists seized the opportunity to take over his important position in history painting in the Habsburg Netherlands. Among these artists Maerten de Vos became the most prominent.



De Vos received in 1570 the commission to decorate the palatine chapel of William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Celle, Germany. His reputation grew and in 1572 he was appointed dean of the Antwerp guild. De Vos had initially converted to the Lutheran faith, but he reconverted to Catholicism after the Fall of Antwerp and the defeat of the Protestant cause in the Habsburg Netherlands. His career took off as he was awarded important commissions from the brotherhoods and guilds of Antwerp. De Vos executed monumental altarpieces in the Antwerp Cathedral and other Antwerp churches. De Vos was deacon of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1572–1573.

His reputation was such that in 1589 de Vos together with Ambrosius Francken I was appointed by the Ghent magistrate to value the painting of the Last Judgment by Raphael Coxie. Raphael Coxie was involved in a dispute with the Ghent magistrate, who had commissioned the painting but whom Coxie felt was offering a sum that was too low for his masterpiece. Maerten de Vos and Ambrosius Francken were also chosen as the chief designers of the decorations for the 1594 Joyous Entry into Antwerp of the newly appointed governor of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Ernest of Austria. Maerten de Vos was further one of the founders of the Guild of Romanists, which was established in 1572 in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady. The Guild brought together artists, connoisseurs and humanists who had travelled to Rome and appreciated humanist culture. The diversity of the membership offered artists a good opportunity to network with potential patrons. To meet the strong demand for his work, including from foreign patrons, de Vos developed a streamlined workshop practice.




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