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Getting to Know Pieter Coecke van Aelst

Portrait of Pieter Coecke van Aelst

There are many rewarding aspects to curating an exhibition, but one perhaps less universally acknowledged—on the public platform at least—is the advantage of getting to know one's colleagues better by working so closely alongside them. In the case of Grand Design, I benefited immensely from time spent comparing ideas and testing theories with my co-curators, Maryan Ainsworth, who assembled Coecke's paintings included in the exhibition; Nadine Orenstein, who tackled his printed projects; and Stijn Alsteens, who worked on his drawings. Likewise, it was fascinating watching our designer, Dan Kershaw, finesse the incredibly daring and successful floor plan from which our exhibition derives its distinctive character. There are countless other Met colleagues with whom I worked on this exhibition as well. But perhaps the person whom I have come to know best is Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550) himself.

Left: Jan (Johannes) Wierix (Netherlandish, 1549–1615). Portrait of Pieter Coecke van AelstPublished by Theodoor Galle (Netherlandish, 1571–1633). Engraving; Plate: 8 1/8 x 4 3/4 in. (20.6 x 12 cm); Sheet: 12 3/8 x 7 7/8 in. (31.5 x 20 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, A. Hyatt Mayor Purchase Fund, Marjorie Phelps Starr Bequest, 1983 (1983.1115.5)

Though Coecke's artistry came as no surprise, the five years I spent gleaning and reuniting his far-flung contemporary biographical records brought this individual to life. My awareness of his artistic oeuvre was complemented by a growing comprehension of his career path, which blazed a spectacular, if short-lived, trail through Flanders during the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Detailed in the timeline in the exhibition's catalogue, we can shadow the young Coecke as he left Aalst, the small town in which he'd grown up, and journeyed to Antwerp, the affluent port city and great center of panel painting. Interspersed between the better-known, auxiliary facts, such as the date Coecke registered in the city's painters' guild, we witness the ambitious young artist marrying Anna—hopefully a love match but certainly a canny move, given that her father, Jan Mertens van Dornicke, was one of the most successful painters working in the city. Hot on the heels of the birth of their two sons, Pieter and Michiel, tragedy struck as Anna died just as Coecke began to enjoy professional success with the painting of the incredibly well-received and subsequently immensely influential Last Supper.

In his thirties, Coecke continued to flourish professionally, receiving important commissions for stained-glass window designs, perfecting his reputation as a tapestry designer with his popular Seven Deadly Sins, Joshua, and Julius Caesar series, continuing to rise in Antwerp professional society as dean in the guild, and even finding time to travel across Europe to Constantinople. But again, as is less well known during this period, we see Coecke the widower setting up house with Anthonette van der Sandt, whom he never married but with whom he had a daughter, Antonette, and at least one son, Pauwels. The 1530s also saw Coecke witnessing the death of his acquaintance and apparent friend, the important painter Joos van Cleve.

By the 1540s, Coecke, wealthy enough to be included in a group of Antwerp citizens obliged to contribute to a civic loan to Emperor Charles V, was recognized by the Antwerp magistracy for his contribution to the city's artistic growth via his activities as cartoon painter, and became beneficiary of two regular stipends, from Mary of Hungary and from her brother, Charles V, for services as a court artist. At the same time, he was busy with his remarkably far-reaching project publishing Dutch, French, and German translations of Serlio's architectural treatises, occasioning business contact with the printer Cornelis Bos. But we can also trace his biography on a more personal level: Coecke's companion, Anthonette (deceased? deserted?), was superseded by his second marriage, to the printmaker Mayken Verhulst, with whom he had two more daughters, Katelyne and Mayken, and a son. This youngest son was also given the name Pauwels, even though Coecke's elder son Pauwels, from his relationship with Anthonette, was still living. 

In 1550, Mary of Hungary called on Coecke to assist with (and, we believe, breathe some life into!) Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen's Conquest of Tunis tapestry project, at which point his incredibly full life was suddenly cut short. Coecke was in Brussels, perhaps visiting commercial contacts, perhaps in connection with the Tunis cartoons, or perhaps—as some believe—having set up a secondary workshop (although there is no documentary record to support this). Given that two of his youngest children, Katelyne and the younger Pauwels, both died at the same time, it is conceivable that all three family members were victims of one of the vicious epidemics that plagued the period.

Tempting as it is to embroider narrative between the facts, I would like to believe that Pieter Coecke van Aelst was a lovable individual: his widow, Mayken, chose to describe herself on his epitaph as "very sad for her late, much-loved husband"; three years after his death, she enabled more of his inventions to reach the world, releasing his Customs and Fashions of the Turks designs in a remarkable woodcut frieze. For years afterwards, she continued to publish re-editions of her husband's translations of Serlio. Whether or not they were held by bonds of love, which is entirely conjectural, Coecke's surviving family—though the fruit of three different relationships—continued to interact, joined by the firm tie of Coecke's recognized and acknowledged blood. His goods and investments were divided between his widow, Mayken, and Anna's sons, Pieter and Michiel. Antonette, Coecke's eldest, and illegitimate, daughter was named as beneficiary, alongside her younger, legitimate sister, Mayken, to a pension paid by the city of Aalst to Coecke's widow.

Perhaps most strikingly, Pieter and Michiel later actually acted as official guardians of the interests of their two illegitimate younger half-siblings, Anthonette's children, Antonette and Pauwels, and acquired a hereditary annuity on their behalf. And at least three of Pieter Coecke van Aelst's offspring also opted to remain in the same professional sphere, with both Pieter and the elder Pauwels becoming painters, albeit less remarkable than their father; it was the marital union of the youngest child—Mayken's daughter, Mayken—that truly made a fitting next chapter in the family's biography, by marrying the young Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and in doing so bringing forth the next great development in the history of Flemish painting.

Young visitor in the exhibition

A young museum visitor comes face to face with a monster in the Pride tapestry from a set of the Seven Deadly Sins. Designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, ca. 1532–34. Woven under the direction of Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, before 1544. Wool, silk, and silver- and silver-gilt-metal-wrapped threads. Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso (TA 22/1, 10004091). Photograph by Eileen Travell

Visitors to the Grand Design exhibition, and readers of the accompanying catalogue, can engage with the different faces of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whether talented draftsman and pioneering designer; striking panel painter and remarkable cartoon painter; or Coecke the traveler and entrepreneur, extraordinarily intelligent in his response to contemporary Italian innovations. But as we come to appreciate the arresting artistry of Pieter Coecke's work, it is, perhaps, almost as rewarding to remember Coecke the family man, husband, and father, with a household of young children, born over the course of two decades, who perhaps took as much delight in the fantasy of their father's inventions as young visitors continue to do today.

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