Oud Holland

Review of: 'Karel van Mander' (2023/2024)

April 2024


Review of: Charles Ford, The foundations of the noble and liberal art of painting (2010, self-published 2024 | Walter S. Melion, Karel van Mander and his foundation of the noble, free art of painting, Leiden and Boston [Brill] 2023

Walter Melion’s translation of the Grondt der edel-vry schilder-const – the long didactic poem which opens Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck (Painter’s book) of 1604 (fig. 1) – has an error in its subtitle. As the header of this review makes clear, Melion’s is not the first English translation of the Grondt. It is the first English translation to be published as a book; and it is also the first English translation with a lengthy introduction and commentary. However, in 2010 Charles Ford completed a translation of the Grondt for his students at University College London, and then sent it as an email attachment to a few colleagues he thought might be interested. The present reviewer was one of the lucky recipients, and I have been finding his translation helpful ever since. When I was asked to write a review of Melion's translation I suggested to Ford that he might wish to make his translation available more widely. He has therefore put a downloadable version on his personal website, and his translation of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, uploaded on the web in 2013, can be found at the same location.1

Understandably, Melion was unaware of Ford’s translation: the two are very different in style. I shall compare them below, but first I should say more about the rest of Melion’s publication, since his translation of the Grondt only takes up 148 pages of the 548 pages of text in his book. There is a long introduction of 155 pages, ''Pictura’s cornerstone’: Karel van Mander and his Foundation of the noble, free Art of painting'. This contains seven sections which deal with: ‘the intertextual network of dedicatory epistles and prefaces’; the sources and scope of the Grondt; a ‘comparative foundation for the Schilder-boeck’; key terms in the poem; “ekphrasis” in the Schilder-boeck; and ‘landscape and history, simulation and dissimulation’; before ending with a 34-page précis of the poem. The translation itself begins with a selection of the Schilder-boeck’s paratextual material. This includes the dedicatory prefaces by the publisher Paschier van Westbusch to the burgomasters of Haarlem, and by Van Mander to the collector Melchior Wijntgis, next to Van Mander’s preface to the Grondt; and eight of the twenty-nine poems written by Van Mander’s friends and colleagues. Ford omits the dedicatory prefaces and the poems, but translates the preface to the Grondt. After the Grondt Melion also provides a translation of Van Mander’s index that is omitted by Ford. Melion’s own book does not include an index, nor a bibliography, but since it is an open access publication, a searchable PDF can be downloaded for free, so an index is superfluous. After the translation of the index there is a 181-page commentary, which consists of a series of numbered end notes to the didactic poem.

Left: cover of The foundations of the noble and liberal art of painting

Middle: fig. 1 Jacob Matham after Karel van Mander, Title page to Het Schilder-Boeck, Haarlem, 1604, engraving

Right: fig. 2. Karel van Mander, The Continence of Scipio, 1600, oil on copper, 44 x 79 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-4690

It would need another and longer review to do justice to Melion’s introduction and commentary, which make substantial contributions to the literature on Van Mander. In this short review I shall focus instead on the two translations. These are, as noted above, very different in style, a difference which can best be brought out by comparison. The following passage is verse 11 from chapter 5 of the Grondt, dedicated to the subject of ‘Ordinanty’, which Ford translates as ‘Composition’, and Melion as ‘Ordonnance’. Neither of the English translations attempts to reproduce Van Mander’s iambic verse, which has the same rhyming pattern of ABAABBCC throughout the Grondt.

Van Mander:

Eerst suldy bevinden uyt ondersoecken

In u ordinancy welstants fundacy,

Wanneer ghy u perck alle beyde hoecken,

Bequamelijck vervult met uwen cloecken

Voorbeelden, bouwingh', oft ander stoffacy,

En dan de middelste vry open spacy,

Gh' en sult soo weynich daer niet brenghen binnen,

Of ten sal stracx eenen welstandt ghewinnen.


Firstly you must discover by trial and error

The foundations for the success of your composition,

When you fill up your scene properly

On both sides with your fine foreground figures,

Architecture or other furnishings,

Leaving the middle ground free and open,

Then the less you add the better

And it will soon produce success.


First, by investigation you shall discover

What the foundation of harmony in your ordonnance is,

When you aptly fill either side corner of your demarcated space

With sturdy foreground figures,

Buildings, or other staffage,

And afterward leave the open middle ground unencumbered;

Then nothing you insert there, howsoever small,

Will fail presently to achieve a consonant effect.

It will be clear straight away – also from the words they use to translate ‘Ordinanty’ – that Ford is aiming for clear idiomatic English, while Melion has opted for a wordier style that tries to render the exact meaning of the Dutch words. In some lines of this verse Melion does indeed achieve more accuracy. In the first line, for example, Ford’s ‘trial and error’ is a pleasingly informal translation but does not quite capture the sense of ‘ondersoecken’, which means ‘investigate’, as Melion writes. Elsewhere, though, Ford manages to be both light-footed and more accurate. In the penultimate line, Ford’s breezy ‘then the less you add the better’ is closer to the Dutch than Melion’s ‘Then nothing you insert there, howsoever small, / Will fail…’. ‘Weynich’ can mean ‘less’ or ‘fewer’, but it does not mean ‘small’; and in this context ‘small’ makes little sense.

In the fourth line Ford translates ‘cloeck’ as ‘fine’, while Melion translates it as ‘sturdy’. ‘Cloeck’ typically means ‘bold’, and Van Mander uses it elsewhere in the Schilder-boeck, in his Lives of the Italian Painters (a condensed translation of Vasari), to render the Italian words ‘fiero’, ‘animoso e fiero’, ‘gagliardamente’, ‘ingegno’ and ‘prontezza’. He also employs ‘cloeckheyt’ to translate ‘bravura’, while ‘cloeckicheyt’ is used for ‘fierezze e vivacità’. Here Ford’s ‘fine’ and Melion’s ‘sturdy’ both seem wrong. Van Mander is telling the student to paint foreground figures and objects boldly, that is, decisively, vivaciously, and also, perhaps, thickly; Titian’s late brushstrokes are characterised as ‘cloecke pinceel-streken’ in the Italian Lives.2 Given the context, with Van Mander writing about the relation of foreground to middle ground, these bold brushstrokes are clearly meant to contrast with a less boldly painted middle distance. What this might mean in practice is visible in Van Mander’s own paintings, e.g. the Rijksmuseum’s Continence of Scipio, which is used to decorate the end papers and cover flaps of Melion’s beautifully designed book. Here pure colours are applied thickly on the foreground figures, while the middle distance is painted in thinner, broken colours (fig. 2).3 In this context ‘cloeck’ may have connotations similar to those of ‘krachtig’ (forceful) and ‘geweldig’ (powerful), which were used to describe colours which seem to advance to the eye.4

A word that appears twice in this verse is ‘welstan(d)t’, a common artistic term in Van Mander and later authors on painting. Ford translates it here as ‘success’, while Melion translates it as ‘harmony’ and ‘consonant effect’. Melion gives ‘welstandt’ a four-page discussion in his introduction (pp. 61-65), arguing on the basis of seventeenth-century dictionary definitions that when applied to a whole painting, the word should be translated as ‘concinnity’, and that it takes on meanings related to ‘decorum’ in rhetoric. Ford clearly thinks that ‘welstandt’ is vaguer than that, and support for his view can again be found in the way that Van Mander uses it when translating Vasari. Sometimes when he deploys it (and its close relations, ‘welstandicheyt’ and ‘welstandige’) there is no exact corresponding word in the Italian, but when there is, it renders ‘grazia’,5 ‘vaghezza’,6 ‘vago’,7 ‘bontà’,8 ‘perfetto’9 and ‘bello’.10 This is a fairly bland collection of terms referring to attractive physical appearance, and two blander expressions of excellence, ‘bontà’ and ‘perfetto’. It seems to me that Melion’s definition of ‘welstandt’ is too precise.11 In general, for those who want to know what Van Mander is doing with his vocabulary, the Italian Lives surely provides a more accurate record of his personal intentions than contemporary dictionaries, which were not written by or for artists.

Another, very interesting passage, from the landscape chapter of the Grondt (book 8, v. 37), brings out further the difference in approach between the two translators.

Van Mander:

Al soudemen soecken op veel manieren,

nae t'leven, oft handelingh aenghename,

Ghestadelijck op grondighe papieren,

Met sap al wasschende bladers te swieren,

Hopend' ofmer al metter tijdt toe quame:

Doch, ten schijnt niet alst bemuysde lichame

Leersaem Const: want bladen, hayr, locht, en laken,

Dat is al gheest, en den gheest leert het maken.


Even if in many ways,

By following nature or pleasing examples,

One constantly tries to depict leaves

On prepared paper with ink and wash,

Hoping that in time one will achieve it:

Be aware that it is not, like the muscles of the body,

A Teachable Art: painting leaves, hair, air and drapery

Is all about spirit, and only spirit can teach it. 


But were you to test every manner,

After the life or after [another master’s] pleasant handling,

Constantly practicing on paper prepared [with a colored ground],

Fashioning leaves with swirls of ink wash,

Hoping in time to reach a good outcome:

Yet ‘twould not seem, like [drawing] the muscular body, a teachable art:

For leaves, hair, the sky, and drapery,

That is all spirit, and the spirit teaches how to fashion them.

Here Melion translates each line of Dutch with a corresponding line of English, while Ford rearranges the syntax as needed. The phrase ‘soecken op veel manieren’ in the first line is Englished by Melion as ‘test every manner’, while Ford spreads his translation over three lines as ‘in many ways … tries…’. Ford’s looseness is preferable in two respects, since ‘veel manieren’ cannot be the direct object of ‘soecken’ given the intervening preposition ‘op’, and ‘soecken’ does not mean ‘test’.12 Their translations of ‘manieren’ reveal another general difference of attitude. ‘Maniere’ can be a precise theoretical concept for Van Mander, corresponding to the modern terms ‘style’ and ‘technique’.13 Melion clearly thinks that it is being used in that sense here, whereas Ford is sceptical, and thinks that, given the grammatical context, it is meant to be vaguer. Ford is in general alert to vagueness and will not be drawn into an over-precise rendition of words if he does not think it is called for.

Ford has the advantage, as a translator of Dutch, of having worked with Jacqueline Pennial-Boer when translating Van Mander’s Lives for Hessel Miedema’s six-volume commented edition; she was always alert to the precise implications of Dutch grammar and would not have ignored the apparently insignificant ‘op’ in this passage. Melion’s text gives the impression of strict fidelity to the original Dutch, while Ford’s English sounds too colloquial to be accurate; but it is Ford who has the surer sense of the twists and turns of Dutch grammar. It would be unfair to suggest however that Ford always has the better of the comparison. In verse 12 of the eleventh chapter, on the choice and combination of colours, Melion’s research – and also his familiarity with the paratext of the Grondt – gives him an advantage.

Van Mander: 

Dit moghen wy somtijts ghebruycken mede,

My heught dat een deel jonghe Schilders wrochten

Op Beluideer, Raphael da Rezzo dede

Veel lichte graeuwkens zijn volck aen, in stede

Van schoone verfkens, die andere sochten:

maer geen honich-soeckende Biekens mochten

Hen soo rasschen nae den tijm, als ons ooghen

nae zijn dinghen voor ander lustich vlooghen.


We can sometimes do this,

I remember that a number of young Painters were

Working in the Belvedere, Raffaellino da Reggio

Painted many of his figures in light grisaille

Where the others painted in bright colours:

And no honey-seeking Bees could have

So quickly sought out the thyme as did our eyes,

Which flew to his work, before any of the rest.


We, too, may abide betimes by this usage.

I recall that a group of young Painters thus wrought

At the Belvedere; Raphael da Rezzo dressed

His figures in an array of light grays, rather than

Using the beautiful colors sought out by other [Painters]:

But little Bees, hungry for nectar, could not

Rush more hastily after thyme than our eyes

Sped merrily to his things first of all.

There is much to prefer in Ford’s easy, idiomatic translation, and on certain points he is again more accurate: for example, ‘honich’ really does mean honey, not nectar. But Melion has noticed something about this passage which Ford, staying close to the Dutch, has missed. Van Mander is not trying to say that Raffaellino da Reggio painted entirely in grisaille, but that he painted his figures’ draperies in grey tones. This is not actually stated in the Dutch of the verse, but it is asserted in the entry to the index which refers to this passage, where we read ‘Exempel van Raphael da Rezzo, van graeuw lakens te maken’, which can be translated as ‘Example of Raffaellino da Reggio, making grey textiles.’14 Melion has picked up on Van Mander’s intention and has introduced the word ‘dressed’, which expresses the idea of the index, even though there is no word in the verse which corresponds to this concept.15

This comparison could easily be extended for all 626 verses of the Grondt, but perhaps the character of both translations is already clear. Ford’s translation is generally, but not always, more accurate than Melion’s, and it is written in a lighter, more idiomatic, more modern style. Not that anyone has to choose between these translations. They are both freely available as PDF downloads, and students of Van Mander can have copies of both on their laptops.

It should be clear from Ford’s and Melion’s disagreements with one another and with this reviewer that there is, at present, no consensus on the precise meaning of Van Mander’s vocabulary. These two, very welcome translations allow Anglophone readers who are interested in Van Mander to read the Grondt from cover to cover and to understand his general attitudes and interests, but anyone who wants to translate a passage of Van Mander’s verse as part of a scholarly argument will have to make up their own minds about the meanings of the words he employs. Scholarly translations such as these make our lives easier, but they do not spare us from having to grapple with the language of the past.

Paul Taylor
Curator of the Photographic Collection
The Warburg Insitute


1. C. Ford, The foundations of the noble and liberal art of painting, completed in 2010, self-published in 2024, https://struldbrugg.org/den-grondt-der-edel-vry-schilder-const/; W.S. Melion, Karel van Mander and his foundation of the noble, free art of painting. First English translation, with introduction and commentary, Leiden and Boston 2023, https://brill.com/display/title/61758.

2.  For citations of these passages in Van Mander and Vasari see: P. Taylor, ‘Boekbespreking: Karel van Mander, The lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters. Preceded by the lineage, circumstances and place of birth, life and works of Karel van Mander, painter and poet and likewise his death and burial, H. Miedema (ed.), 6 volumes, Doornspijk 1994-1999’, Oud Holland 115 (2002), pp. 131-154 (133).

3. On the concept of broken colours, see: U. Kern, ‘The origins of broken colours’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 79 (2016), pp. 183-211.

4. P. Taylor, ‘The concept of Houding in Dutch art theory’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55 (1992), pp. 210-232 (217-218).

5. 97v; I. 143. 147r; II. 479. 158r; II. 672. I am using the pagination of the 1604 edition of Van Mander and the 1568 edition of Vasari.

6. 116r; II. 17.

7. 132r; II. 225.

8. 165v; II. 724.

9. 177r; II. 814.

10. 177r; II. 814.

11. Lyckle de Vries once took me to task for making the same mistake. L. de Vries, ‘Gerard de Lairesse: the critical vocabulary of an art theorist’, Oud Holland 117 (2004) pp. 79-98 (81, n. 11).

12. The compound verb ‘opzoeken’, which does take a direct object, is first cited in the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal in the 1620s and is not used by Van Mander. It means ‘seek’ or ‘look up’, not ‘test’.

13. H. Miedema, Theorie en praktijk. Teksten over schilderkunst in de Gouden Eeuw van de Noordelijke Nederlanden, Hilversum 2017, pp. 210-215.

14. This index entry is translated by Melion as ‘Example of painting gray stuffs by Raphael da Rezzo’. Melion writes in his commentary (p. 486), ‘I translate Laken as “stuffs” when Van Mander’s emphasis appears to fall on materials—weight, density, texture—but as “fabrics” when the emphasis shifts to the function of these materials as clothing …. Very occasionally … where the reference is clearly to the movement of cloth, I translate Laken as “drapery.”’ ‘Textile’ might have been a better translation throughout; and in Grondt 11:12, the word is clearly referring to clothing.

15. ‘Veel’ could be a third person imperfect of the verb ‘velen’, but since this means ‘endure’ it makes no sense in context. Ford’s translation as ‘many’ is surely correct.

P. Taylor, ‘Review of: Karel van Mander by Charles Ford and Walter S. Melion’, Oud Holland Reviews, April 2024.