THERE are sound arguments to support the hypothesis that the Master of the Death of the Virgin is identical with Joos van Cleve. The personality was constructed entirely from stylistic criticism and has taken full shape. But from the name alone we can establish a few dates and with them the framework for a biography. Joos became master at Antwerp in 1511 and seems to have lived there until his death in 1540. Entries in the Antwerp lists for 1511, 1516, 1519, 1523, 1525, 1535, 1536 confirm his presence there; the long gap between 1525 and 1535 is striking, and the possibility that he was absent from Antwerp for a considerable time must be borne in mind.1 C. Justi, in his clear-sighted and comprehensive way, studied the arguments in favour of the identification, first put forward by Firmenich-Richartz, but he did not reach a satisfactory conclusion.2
The arms of the dukes of Cleve which appear on a dog collar in the altarpiece of the Adoration of the Kings in the Naples museum provide us with an important piece of evidence. Whether Joos was born at Cleves or belonged to a family that had been settled for generations in Antwerp is immaterial, and in any case the arms could indicate his origin or his name, always provided that it is not an allusion to the donor of the altarpiece, a possibility that Justi did not overlook.
Quite recently an exact and careful replica of the triptych has come to light in the Emden Collection (sale in Berlin, later the property of Mr. van Gelder, Uccle near Brussels3). And here the coat of arms on the dog collar has been duly copied. As it is improbable that both versions were done for the same patron we can with increased confidence link the coat of arms with the artist or the workshop. Moreover there is a second escutcheon in the Naples picture, a cross on light ground the lower part of which seems to terminate in an anchor.
Guicciardini relates that Joos van Cleve was such an excellent portraitist that he was called to Paris by the French king François I to paint portraits. His actual words are: Gios di Cleves cittadino d'Anversa rarissimo____________________
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Publication information: Book title: Early Netherlandish Painting:From Van Eyck to Bruegel. Contributors: Max J. Friedlænder - Author. Publisher: Phaidon Publishers. Place of publication: Garden City, NY. Publication year: 1956. Page number: 85.
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