Having been dealt a strong blow by the economic crisis of late 2008 and 2009, the owners of this painting had no choice but to sell some of their treasured art possessions. When the painting was acquired at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2003, it was catalogued as ‘Circle of Michiel Coxcie’. The owners wanted to know from me whether it would fetch a decent price if put on the market and, if so, how to proceed. I was impressed by the painterly quality and excellent condition of the work and wanted to find out more about its attribution. Was there any reason, I asked myself, why it couldn’t be a work by Coxcie himself?
I discovered that the renowned art historian M. J. Friedländer had already looked into this question in 1940, concluding at the time that it was an autograph work by Coxcie. He stated this unequivocally in a letter to the then owner. I also learned that the literature on Coxcie was rather thin, with the exception of the papers from the 1992 Mechelen colloquium on the artist and his family. These included a particularly interesting contribution by Coxcie expert Bob van den Boogert which led me to call Bob and ask if he would be interested to see the original painting. My request did not fall on deaf ears: Bob responded with immediate enthusiasm!
And so, one autumn afternoon in 2009, we went to the owners’ house to view the painting. After careful examination of the panel, Bob agreed that it had all the hallmarks of a real Coxcie. In particular the modelling of the head, he commented, was very typical and reminded him of other works by the sixteenth-century artist. Bob was furthermore able to tell us that afternoon that Coxcie had taken his composition from a painting, now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, long believed to be an authentic work by Raphael. Travelling south from his native town Mechelen, Coxcie arrived in Rome in 1530, ten years after Raphael had died. Then as now, Raphael’s art was much revered, and the young Coxcie must have been deeply impressed when he first saw the Italian master’s work.
The painting of a landscape with Saint John the Baptist reflects the strong admiration Coxcie must have felt for Raphael. Bob briefly wondered whether it dated from the artist’s Italian years, but this was ruled out after dendrochronological examination of the oak panel by Peter Klein. The earliest date the wood could have been used as support for the painting turned out to be 1545. This indicated firmly that Coxcie painted the scene after his return to Mechelen, probably around the time his first son (named Raphael!) was born.
Michiel Coxcie was the first northern artist to fully fathom Italian Renaissance painting and a pivotal figure in the development of painting in Flanders. He became so steeped in the southern idiom, that when he returned to his native country, the artist’s biographer Vasari, who had met Coxcie in Italy, wrote that Coxcie ‘portò in Fiandra la maniera italiana’. Vasari meant that Coxcie’s work was the first example of true Renaissance art by a northern artist. Until then only certain stylistic elements had filtered through into northern painting, as, for example, in the work of Barend van Orley.
Thanks to his ‘Italian manner’, Coxcie became a much sought after painter by courts in the Southern Netherlands, where international style was deemed important, not least because it provided status and prestige. Coxcie thus entered into the service of Mary of Hungary, Governor of the Netherlands, and also received commissions from her powerful brother Charles V. It remains unknown whether the youthful John the Baptist was also painted for a royal patron. It seems more likely that it was made by the artist for himself, or for his immediate circle. Armed with all this information we were able to present the panel as an undisputed Michiel Coxcie. The result was magnificent: the painting sold for twice the price realised in 2003!