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Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Life of the Virgin

Adriaen Isenbrant (Netherlandish, active by 1510–died 1551 Bruges)
after 1521
Oil on wood
Central panel, overall, with engaged frame, 12 3/8 x 10 1/8 in. (31.4 x 25.7 cm), painted surface 9 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. (23.2 x 17.5 cm); each wing, overall, with engaged frame, 12 3/8 x 5 in. (31.4 x 12.7 cm), painted surface 10 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (27.3 x 8.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1913
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 626
One of Adriaen Isenbrant’s earliest works, this small, portable triptych was intended for private devotion. Both the exterior and interior scenes were meant to engage the viewer in an empathic contemplation of the Life of the Virgin. The outside grisaille wings, which depict the Annunciation and Visitation under elaborately carved canopies, are executed in the fashionable Antwerp Mannerist style and reveal a knowledge of Albrecht Dürer's popular engravings. The more traditional interior panels, representing the Adoration of the Magi, the Nativity, and the Flight into Egypt, recall paintings by the celebrated Bruges artist Gerard David.
This portable triptych, which shows scenes from the life of the Virgin, is one of the earliest works attributed to Adriaen Isenbrant, a follower of Gerard David. The exterior consists of two grisaille wings depicting the Annunciation and the Visitation. The grisaille is painted in a monochrome brown palette rather than the more common gray. Both scenes are set within an interior space which is topped by an elaborately carved canopy in the mannerist architectural style that became more popular in early sixteenth-century Flemish art. The panel with Gabriel appearing to the Virgin derives from the Annunciation scene in Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut series, The Life of the Virgin, which was published in 1511 (MMA 18.65.16). When the altarpiece is opened, the three interior panels are visually unified by a continuous landscape. The central Nativity scene is loosely based on David’s Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (MMA 49.7.20a–c). The motif of the infant Christ lying naked on a cloth on an upside-down woven basket, serving as a make-shift altar, alludes to the eventual sacrifice of Christ and the sacrament of the Eucharist. The scene on the left wing is influenced by David’s Adoration of the Magi from circa 1490 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels). The Flight into Egypt, as shown on the right wing, was a commonly painted theme by Isenbrant. It was also particularly popular during the early sixteenth century due to the prevalence of the Modern Devotion, a religious movement that focused on empathetic responses to the suffering of Christ and the Virgin, and which encouraged the devoted viewer to follow along on the family’s arduous journey as they fled persecution by King Herod. The architecture in the left and central panels is Italianate in style. The landscape evokes the distinctive style of Joachim Patinir, and its high horizon allows for a vast expanse including varied landmasses, trees, buildings, and distant figures. While these images derive from traditional compositional models from sixteenth-century Bruges and Antwerp, they are matched with newly fashionable styles and motifs, such as the mannerist architecture on the exterior and the influence of Italian style on the interior. Furthermore, the format of the altarpiece, with the wings significantly taller than the central panel, is a triptych design that became more common in the early sixteenth century (Sintobin 1998).

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012]
Friedrich Lippmann, Berlin (by 1898–d. 1903; his estate, 1903–12; his estate sale, Lepke's, Berlin, November 26–27, 1912, no. 42, for 52,000 marks to Seligmann); [Jacques Seligmann, Paris, 1912–13; sold to MMA]
Berlin. Kunstgeschichtliche Gesellschaft. "Ausstellung von Kunstwerken des Mittelalters und der Renaissance aus Berliner Privatbesitz," May 20–June 25, 1898, no. 58 (as by "der sog. Jan Mostaert [the so-called Jan Mostaert]," lent by Friedrich Lippmann).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 100.

Max J. Friedländer in Ausstellung von Kunstwerken des Mittelalters und der Renaissance aus Berliner Privatbesitz Veranstaltet von der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft . . . 1898. Berlin, 1899, pp. 14–15, ill. p. 5, as among those pictures that have been erroneously ascribed to Jan Mostaert.

Eberhard von Bodenhausen. Gerard David und seine Schule. Munich, 1905, p. 214, no. 67, ascribes it to Adriaen Isenbrant, calling it an especially fine work by the master.

Max J. Friedländer in Sammlung . . . Friedrich Lippmann. Lepke's, Berlin. November 26–27, 1912, pp. 10, 24, no. 42, ill. (including exterior wings), ascribes the picture to "Adriaen Isenbrant," noting that his artistic personality is clear, while his name is uncertain.

B[ryson] B[urroughs]. "A Triptych by Adriaen Isenbrant." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (April 1913), pp. 67–69, ill.

Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, p. 303, as Isenbrant; praises the picture.

Max J. Friedländer in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme. Vol. 19, Leipzig, 1926, p. 246, lists it with the works of Isenbrant.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 11, Die Antwerpener Manieristen; Adriaen Ysenbrant. Berlin, 1933, p. 128, no. 124.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 99–100, ill.

Erwin Panofsky. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Cambridge, Mass., 1953, vol. 1, p. 448 n. 6 (to p. 218).

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 82, 126, fig. 26.

Germain Seligman. Merchants of Art: 1880–1960, Eighty Years of Professional Collecting. New York, 1961, p. 120.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 11, The Antwerp Mannerists, Adriaen Ysenbrant. New York, 1974, p. 80, no. 124, pls. 101–2.

Elisa Bermejo. "Nuevas pinturas de Adrian Isenbrant." Archivo español de arte no. 189 (1975), p. 8.

Joz. De Coo. Museum Mayer van den Bergh. Catalogus 1: Schilderijen, Verluchte, Handschriften, Tekeningen. Antwerp, 1978, p. 80.

John Oliver Hand. Letter to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann. January 18, 1979, compares the central panel with their recently acquired "Adoration of the Shepherds," observing that the figure of Joseph is quite similar, as is the device of placing the Child in an overturned basket, which seems to be peculiar to these two paintings.

John Oliver Hand in John Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. Washington, 1986, pp. 121–22, notes that Isenbrant used the general design of the Adoration of the Shepherds in the National Gallery in several other Nativities, including the one in our triptych.

Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke in Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 340, no. 270a,b, ill.

Jean C. Wilson. "Adriaen Isenbrant and the Problem of His Oeuvre: Thoughts on Authorship, Style, and the Methodology of Connoisseurship." Oud Holland 109, no. 1/2 (1995), pp. 10, 12, 17 n. 43, figs. 12–13 (overall and exterior wing with Annunciation).

Véronique Sintobin in From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 322, 370, 372–73, 376, no. 100, ill. (color), dates it after 1521.

Kunstmuseum Basel. Die Sammlung Max Geldner im Kunstmuseum Basel: Vermächtnis und Ankäufe der Stiftung. Basel, 2000, p. 42.

Michaela Krieger in Genie ohne Namen: Der Meister des Bartholomäus-Altars. Ed. Rainer Budde and Roland Krischel. Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 2001, p. 238 n. 44, comments on the carefully depicted grisaille wings of the private altarpiece in the background.

Lynn F. Jacobs. Opening Doors: The Early Netherlandish Triptych Reinterpreted. University Park, Pa., 2012, pp. xiv, 241–45, 248, 334–35 nn. 77–78, 80, 83, figs. 119–20 (interior and exterior).

Hilliard T. Goldfarb. "The Donation of Old Masters in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts's New Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace." Burlington Magazine 159 (October 2017), p. 867.

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