Oud Holland

Review of: 'Lucas Gassel van Helmond: Meester van het landschap' (2020)

November 2021

Review of: Anna Koopstra (ed.), Lucas Gassel van Helmond: Meester van het landschap, Zwolle [Waanders] 2020| 10 March 2020-30 August 2020, Museum Helmond, Helmond

This book was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Museum Helmond, which officially took place from 10 March-7 June 2020 – though was extended until 30 August, due to the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19. As of 2020, it has been about 450 years since Lucas Gassel died (c. 1488-1568/69). For Museum Helmond, it was this occasion that heralded the first retrospective exhibition on the work of this landscape painter, who spent his youth in the city. Although the painter was probably born in nearby Deurne, archival documents show that at a young age, he moved with his family to Helmond; a small city within the Duchy of Brabant. That he was known among his own contemporaries as being from Helmond and thought himself to be Helmondian; it is also shown within the addition to his name: Lucas Gassel van Helmond. Little is known of his life after he left Helmond.

Gassel may have lived and worked in Antwerp for a period before settling in Brussels, where he also died. Along with his contemporaries, he played a major role in the development of the landscape genre during the sixteenth century; from a mere 'backdrop' for religious stories, to a full-blown independent category. The starting point of the research for this publication was the approximately 15 signed and dated paintings by the artist, two signed and dated drawings, and three prints bearing an LG monogram. As the book’s editor and guest curator Anna Koopstra notes, “by returning to the core of the oeuvre and studying Gassel in the context of his time… we get a clearer picture of the artist.”Thankfully, this exhibition and its richly illustrated accompanying catalogue and publication have succeeded in doing exactly that.

The book, which was beautifully designed by Gijs Matthijs Ontwerpers, consists of well-written texts: a preface, three introductory essays and a catalogue section – in which all the exhibited objects are included and illustrated, with, here and there, a supporting image.The layout, with its wide margins and one column for the essays, and two columns for the catalogue entries, makes for pleasant reading. The paintings by Lucas van Gassel, with their many minute details, lend themselves to the abundant and largely printed reproductions. The IRR images show the entire composition, which has its advantages – if depicted large enough (which is not the case) – but makes it difficult to see and understand the details discussed in the text. The choice of the signed and 1544-dated pane, The copper mine – from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Brussels – on the book’s cover, is a happy one: as it gives quite a good idea as to the strength and characteristic features of the artist, including his typical green-brown color palette. The front cover shows a detail of the panoramic landscape with a castle (perhaps that of Tervuren, the residence of the Dukes of Brabant, close to Brussels), and a city in the background.On the back of the book is a detail of groups of larger figures, which are equal to the rest of the work, in terms of both their quality and level of finish.

In the first essay, Annemieke Hogervorst and Anna Koopstra sketch a picture of the factual biographical data concerning Lucas Gassel. It offers a historiographical overview that starts with the descriptions of Domenicus Lampsonius (1572) and Karel van Mander (1604), and then jumps to the mentions of Van Gassel,such as publications focused on Helmond.In 2001, Gassel's relationship with Helmond was examined anew, though it was the extensive archival research of Hans van de Laarschot and Ger Jacobs (2019), which lead to new insights into the relationship between the painter and city.The surviving archival documents examine the importance and development of the city of Helmond, from the thirteenth century, and more specifically, in regards to Gassel's family in the city. However, archival sources on the artist after his departure from Helmond are lacking. That is why the authors emphasise that the artist, “can only speak through his oeuvre”,which is the focus of the following essay, ‘The oeuvre of Lucas Gassel, painter of landscape and hut’, by Anna Koopstra. 

Lucas Gassel occupies a unique position within Dutch landscape painting. Because of his long life, he witnesses, and contributed to, the shift from landscapes with purely religious motifs, to landscapes with profane subjects. Along with Joachim Patinir (1475-1524) and Herri met de Bles (c. 1500/10-c. 1550/67), Gassel was responsible for the development of landscape painting as an independent genre. However, Gassel’s role in this has long been under-recognized, due to the fact that Van Mander suggests the artist from Helmond only belongs to a second generation, after Joachim Patinir and Herri met de Bles. This is due the fact that Gassel’s preserved work, both signed and dated, covers a period of 30 years from 1538-1568, which makes him seem to belong to a later generation. His career overlaps with Patinir and Bles; yet he survived them both. The knowledge maintained, until now, that he didn’t make works (before 1538), as they were formerly attributed to both Bles and Patinir.

Left: Cover of Lucas Gassel van Helmond: Meester van het landschap.

Middle: fig. 1 Lucas van Gassel, Landscape with the sacrifice of Abraham, 1539, oil on panel, 35.5 x 53.3, Museum Helmond, Helmond, inv 2020 001 (cat 14)].

Right: IRR from detail of fig. 1.

From the years 1538 and 1568, signed and dated works survive (except from the years spanning 1544-1548). In the publication, the following questions are asked about that four-year lacuna: “Did Gassel stay elsewhere for several years during this period?”Could it perhaps have had something to do with the religious unrest?The simplest and perhaps most obvious explanations for the lack of signed and dated paintings from this four-year period are not explicitly mentioned. After all, it is possible that no signed and dated works left the studio during this period; that they have not survived; or that they are unknown to us today. Given the delineation of the research for both the exhibition and publication, the authors focused primarily on the artist's own work. Little is known about the artist's studio, and the nature and extent of its production – attributed by the author, in part to the lack of archival documents.

Koopstra mentions that the workshop would have been less tightly organised as, for example, that of Herri met de Bles – whose production of master and studio staff, was immediately recognisable. The paintings that left Gassel's workshop were more diverse, both in terms of their subject matter and execution, and as a result, Gassel's name (that is, his own 'brand') was actually little known during his own lifetime, as well as in subsequent decades.10 The chapter concludes that Gassel may have been a, “painter's painter” and that we now know him mainly through his fellow painters, and a selected group of art lovers.11 But is this really the case? Without further elaboration, the possibility is pointed out that Gassel's workshop staff may have produced landscapes, to which figures were then added by other artists, outside of the studio. This was a more common practice in the sixteenth century; the so-called 'prestige collaboration', in which artists combined their specialties in order to produce the best possible work.12 Perhaps the most famous example of this is the painting of The temptation of Saint Anthony with the figures by Quinten Massys (1466-1530), and the landscape done by Joachim Patinir.

Very often, painted figures still determine an artist’s attribution issue; it’s thus quite possible that some landscape paintings by Gassel and his studio have been assigned to the oeuvre of other painters, or that they have simply been labelled as anonymous ‘Antwerps’. However, the basis that is laid down within this publication, to the core oeuvre of the landscape painter, offers quite a good foundation pointing toward new possibilities for further Gassel research – including his own workshop practices. The essay 'Observations on Lucas Gassel's working methods', by Anna Koopstra and Luuk Hoogstede, argues for workshop practices that also point toward the participation of studio workers within Gassel’s core oeuvre. As the authors concluded, the research that was conducted on Landscape with the sacrifice of Abraham (cat. 14, fig. 1) and Flight into Egypt (cat. 17), supplemented by IRR records of five other works from the oeuvre, provide an impetus for future study of other signed and unsigned works – to gain more insight into Gassel's working methods, and those of his studio collaborators.

The chapter starts with the description of the technique of the Sacrifice of Abraham and the Flight into Egypt. In the case of the Sacrifice of Abraham, it is noted that there are, “several straight lines (in red chalk), possibly construction lines.”13 Only seven pages further, in the description of the Parable of the weeds, a note suggests that the Sacrifice of Abraham could also be squared for transfer.14 This seems very plausible, since it was a common method of transferring existing compositions, such as, for example, a model drawing (of which landscape painters made great use). The character of the underdrawing of the landscape, with the buildings of the Landscape with the sacrifice of Abraham, seems to confirm this.

Even though the authors describe Gassel's drawing as, “very sketchy and free”,15 the background of the Sacrifice of Abraham has a schematic appearance (and deviates from the other paintings studied and depicted), which can be explained by the reproduction method used. The buildings are indicated with very direct contour lines; no shading was done, and there seems to have been no search for the correct composition of the town. However, the fact that during the application of the paint layers, the underdrawing was not painted in exactly, and that the necessary adjustments and changes were made, does seem to point, as the authors note, to Gassel as the responsible artist. It would be interesting to know whether a similar working method occurs in works attributed to Gassel, to learn more about the possible presence of assistants.

The catalogue section conveys the versatility of the artist, and the placement within a broader historical context – as reflected in the exhibition. Some of the unsigned works attributed to Gassel and his studio, such as the Courtly grounds with scenes from the story of David and Bathsheba from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford – as well as several other landscape painters, as Joachim Patinir (cat. 24) and Herri met de Bles (cat. 28) – are also featured. The drawings and prints in the exhibition and its publication, are a welcomed addition since they expand our understanding of Gassel’s artistic production. The signed drawings and prints are important independent works of art and these cannot be separated from the production of painted landscapes. The relationship between drawing and signing can also provide guidance for future attributions. The fact that prints with an LG monogram were produced, has certainly contributed to the fact that we now consider and appreciate, Gassel as a painter of decisive importance, in the development of landscapes as an independent genre. 

Personally, I would have liked to have learned more about Gassel as a draughtsman and a print designer, in a separate essay. In addition, I also find the aspect of figures added to the landscape by others (studio staff or painters outside Gassel's studio) – as underexposed. The great difference in the execution of the figures – compare, for example, the holy family on the panel with Flight into Egypt with Landscape with the sacrifice of Abraham, both in the signing phase and in the execution in paint – makes one curious about the exact division of studio labour. However, that isn't exactly the purpose of the research that was carried out into Lucas Gassel for this exhibition and its publication. The authors and the creators of this well-researched exhibition strive to keep us continually curious about what else there’s to discover about this artist – originally from Helmond – and his studio. And in this, they have succeeded.

Micha Leeflang
Curator of Old Masters/Middle Ages
Museum Catharijneconvent

1 A. Koopstra (ed.), Lucas Gassel van Helmond, Meester van het landschap, Zwolle 2020, p. 24.

2 Graphic design by Gijs Mathijs Ontwerpers, Amsterdam.

3 Koopstra 2020 (note 1), p. 104.

4 J. J. M. Heeren, Biographisch woordenboek van Helmond bevattende de beknopte levensbeschrijvingen van inboorlingen, die hier of elders een belangrijke functie hebben bekleed en van de personen, die in deze gemeente min of meer belangrijke rol vervulden, Helmond 1920. 

5 M. Frenken, Helmond in het verleden, Helmond 1928-1929. The author based his data regarding Gassel, on the aldermen's protocols.

6 P. H. Janssen and N. Haasbroek, Panorama on the world: the landscape from Bosch to Rubens, Zwolle 2001. G. Jacobs and H. van de Laarschot, Lucas Gassel: Meester-schilder uit Helmond, Helmond 2019.

7 A. Koopstra and L. Hoogstede, ‘Observations on Lucas Gassel's working methods’, in Koopstra 2020, p. 13.

8 Koopstra 2020 (note 7), p. 28.

9 Koopstra 2020, p. 31.

10 Koopstra 2020, p. 32.

11 Koopstra 2020, p. 32.

12 Koopstra 2020 p. 32. Among others: M. Leeflang, Joos van Cleve: A sixteenth-century Antwerp artist and his workshop, Turnhout 2015, pp. 60-63.

13 Koopstra/Hoogstede 2020, p. 39.

14 Koopstra/Hoogstede 2020, p. 46 (and, note 27).

15 Koopstra/Hoogstede 2020, p. 45.

16 Koopstra/Hoogstede 2020, note 37 (p. 55).
Micha Leeflang, ‘Review of: Lucas Gassel van Helmond: Meester van het landschap’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2021.