Karel van Mander’s monumental The Book of Painters of 1604 was underpinned by literary scholarship as well as a familiarity with the practice of painting. It was a winning combination. In writing the book, Van Mander set out to educate young artists who had yet to learn the trade and become its worthy practitioners. Over the years The Book of Painters became an indispensable, entertaining source of knowledge, both of the painters of the Low Countries and of their work in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Living in Italy between 1573 and 1577, Van Mander became familiar with the genre of artists’ biographies that dated back to antiquity but was given new form around the mid-sixteenth century by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters and Sculptors. Van Mander followed Vasari in combining biographies and anecdotes with descriptions of works of art. This formed the core of his work, making up three of the five volumes. He relied on traditional sources for such ancient artists as Zeuxis, Parasius and Apelles, the ‘Prince of Painters’, while Vasari was his source for the Italians, from Giotto to Michelangelo.
The main significance of Van Mander’s work lies in the volume dealing with the ‘Illustrious Netherlandish and High-German Painters’ in which, based on his own research, he tells the stories of painters and painting in the German lands and especially the Low Countries. Van Mander begins around 1420 with the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck, who created the astonishing ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ altarpiece that can still be seen in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. The author regarded them as having laid the foundations for the great tradition of Netherlandish painting.
Of the later Dutch masters, Van Mander reserved his greatest admiration for those who took their lead from the classics and the Italian Renaissance. Among them was Joannes Stradanus, who worked for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Another, Bartholomaeus Spranger, was on a par with Italian artists at the court of Rudolph II in Prague. In Van Mander’s opinion the Haarlem engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius could rival the great Michelangelo both in style and in his choice of subjects.
There is an immediacy to this volume, due in part to the painters’ own responses to a list of questions that Van Mander sent them.
The three biographical volumes of The Book of Painters are buttressed by volume one, which covers the theory and practice of the painter’s trade, and the final volume, where Van Mander reveals how painters would rely upon Ovid’s Metamorphoses for mythological themes. The book is a milestone in Dutch art historiography, with its well-documented attention to individual artists and the elevation of their trade to the status of a respectable profession. Van Mander presents extraordinary insights, personal yet based on extensive knowledge, into the artistic world that prepared the way for the famous Dutch Golden Age.