A few days ago, MutualArt.com posted a feature on lesser known artistic relatives of famous artists. It includes, among others, Gustav Klimt’s younger brother Ernst, Claude Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche, and Pablo Picasso’s father José Ruiz Blasco. The piece ends with the question: “Do you know of other artistic relatives of famous artists?“
Now, this is a question you shouldn’t ask someone like me who works mainly on 14th and 15th century art, because back in those pre-modern times, there wasn’t such a thing as an art academy or autodidact artists. While the Romantic notion of the medieval artist as a humble artisan isn’t exactly accurate, painting and sculpture was indeed practiced as a craft and organised accordingly, i.e. with workshops lead by a master who employed one or more apprentice(s). And for the obvious, practical reasons, quite often a painter/sculptor would take on his own son(s) and, occasionally, daughter(s) as apprentices, thereby creating a veritable family business. So, do I know of other artistic relatives of famous artists? Well, how much time have you got?
Seriously, the late medieval/early modern era is so full of artistic fathers, brothers and, occasionally, sisters that they’d really make a loooooooooooong list. So, I’m going to limit myself to naming just ten of the most famous ones from the period of c. 1300 to c. 1500. Also, I’m going to limit myself to painters and leave out sculptors which means no Niccolò & Giovanni Pisani, no Pierpaolo & Jacobello delle Masegne, no Embriachis, etc. etc.
So, here’s the list…
Pietro & Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Together with Simone Martini, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti dominated Sienese painting from c. 1320 to 1348, the year they both fell victim to the plague. Both brothers’ work was equally innovative and, judging by the commissions they received, both were equally succesful. While each brother’s individual style is clearly distinguishable, their work also has a lot in common, and occasionally they would even collaborate like in the frescoes on the facade of the Ospedale della Scala in Siena. Those frescoes, unfortunately, are lost but some early modern writers have copied the signature that once adorned them, naming both Pietro and his brother Ambrogio (PETRUS LAURENTII ET AMBROSIUS EIUS FRATER) as authors of the paintings. Incidentally, if it wasn’t for the wording of that joint signature we probably wouldn’t even know they were brothers at all!
Gaddo, Taddeo & Agnolo Gaddi
The Gaddis are something like the ideal case of a dynasty of painters: The painter Gaddo Gaddi (1260-1332) was the father of the painter Taddeo Gaddi (1290-1366) who, in turn, was the father of Agnolo Gaddi c. 1350-1396). In a way then one could say that the Gaddi dynasty was one of the dominant forces in the art of their hometown, Florence, throughout the entire 14th century. There is, however, a twist in their story: While Taddeo seems to have received his first training as an artist in his father’s workshop, he went on to join the workshop of the most famous Florentine painter of his time, Giotto (who, supposedly, was Taddeo’s godfather). Taddeo Gaddi thus became one of Giotto’s most important followers and a key figure in passing on the Giottesque style to the following generation(s). This also means, though, that in the eyes of the world Taddeo was and probably will forever be standing in the shadow of Giotto. What’s more, many would argue that he was also overshadowed by his son, Agnolo. Well, as Dante used to say: Oh vana gloria de l’umane posse!
The di Cione Brothers
The Gaddis weren’t the only family of artists in 14th century Florence, though… From c. 1340 to c. 1370, there was a high probability that any artistic commission in town would go to one of the di Cione brothers. The most prominent among them was certainly Andrea di Cione (c. 1308-1368), better known by his nickname Orcagna (“the Archangel”), a painter, sculptor, architect and, presumably, author of a number of sonnets, in other words: The closest thing to a Michelangelo you could possibly find in the 14th century… In his sculptural work, most notably the marble Tabernacle in Orsanmichele, Orcagna was often aided by his brother Matteo di Cione (1330-1380), while in his paintings he would sometimes collaborate with his two other brothers, Jacopo (c. 1325 – after 1390) and Nardo (died c. 1366) – both of whom had highly succesful careers of their own.
Jean Malouel & The Limbourg Brothers
I wasn’t sure whether to include the Limbourg Brothers in this list or not, since their’s is not a case where you could say “Did you know that X also had an artistic brother, Y?” Rather they were the Bee Gees of medieval painting: Three brothers – Paul, Herman and Johan – who always worked as a team while none of them had what you’d call a solo career. They even all died in the same year, 1416, presumably of the plague. Anyway, as court artists of Jean, Duc de Berry – one of the richest man of the early 15th century and probably the most important patron of art of his time – they had a stellar career as a trio and are now counted among the most eminent exponents of the International Gothic style.
The reason I included the Limbourg Brothers here anyway is that they weren’t only incredibly talented themselves but also had an artistic uncle. It would be wrong though to call him “lesser known” because he was none other than Jean Malouel (c. 1365-1415), court painter of the Dukes of Burgundy and every bit as brilliant and famous as his nephews.
Jan & Hubert van Eyck
Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) is one of the greatest names not only in the history of 15th century painting but in the history of European art as a whole. His older brother Hubert (c. 1370-1426), on the other hand, is one of art history’s greatest enigmas. Jan served as court painter first to the Count of Holland and later to the Duke of Burgundy, and was famous all over Europe even during his own lifetime, his paintings being highly praised and sought after even by Italian collectors – humanist writer Bartolomeo Facio calls him the greatest painter of his age. Now, the problem is that Jan’s largest surviving work, the Ghent Altarpiece, bears the following inscription: “The painter Hubert van Eyck – there never was one greater than him – began this work, and his brother Jan – second in art – completed it (…) on the sixth of May .” So, who is Hubert? And could he possibly have been an even greater artist than his brother? Looking at Jan’s extant work this seems virtually impossible, but then who knows? But considering that the altarpiece was only completed six years after Hubert’s death, how much could he have contributed to it anyway? The problem here is that the Ghent Altarpiece looks so much like Jan’s other surviving work that, if it wasn’t for the inscription, we wouldn’t hesitate to ascribe it entirely to him alone. At the same time, while Hubert’s name is mentioned in a small handful of other documents, no other works can be attributed to him with any degree of certainty so we simply have no idea what his paintings might have looked like other than “presumably a lot like Jan’s”…
On a side note, Hubert and Jan van Eyck seem to have had even more artistic siblings: According to documentary evidence, a younger brother, Lambert, appears to have been a painter too, though no works of his survive. Even more interestingly, 16th century sources also mention a sister, Margaret van Eyck, and by those accounts she was a painter as well.
Ok, I’d say this post is long enough as it is, so I guess I’d better call it a day for now and present you five more artistic families in a separate post in a couple of days or so… So, as one would say on the radio, stay tuned for Part II!
All images in this post from Wikimedia Commons