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Pol de Limbourg

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A French miniaturist. With his two brothers, he flourished at Paris at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. It is believed that their family name was Malouel, or Malwel, and that they were nephews of that Jean Malouel who was employed at Dipu, at the Court of the Duke of Burgundy, and whose "Vie de St. Denis ", in the Louvre, was painted for the Chartreuse of Champmol and was finished by Henri de Bellechose. The surname de Limbourg makes it appear that they came from the region which borders on the country of Van Eyck and was in those days dependent on the Duchy of Burgundy. But it is probable that they came to Paris at an early age, and that it is they who are meant by Guillebert de Metz in his "Description de Paris ", when he speaks of the "trois freres enluminers". They must, therefore, have been already famous at the date of this book (about 1395), although it is impossible to ascribe to them with certainty any work previous to 1416. At the latter date they worked for the Duc de Berry (brother of the Duke of Burgundy and uncle of Charles VI) on the decoration of a manuscript which is still extant and which forms part of the library of the Musee Conde. This famous book is universally celebrated under the name of the "Tres Riches Heures" of Chantilly (sometimes called the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry).

Of the two hundred and odd paintings which adorn the "Très Riches Heures" only the first half are due to the Limbourg brothers; the rest were done fifty or sixty years later by a pupil of Fouquet named Jean Colomb (brother of Michel Colomb, the sculptor of the famous tomb of Nantes and of the Solesmes "Saints" ). Even in the first half of the "Heures" it is impossible to determine the share contributed by any one of the three Lirnbourg brothers. Judging by the account given in the records, Pol must have been the eldest, and head of the atelier. This being so, he was probably the originator of the designs, or themes, and his pupils were restricted to executmg them after the copy set by him. At any rate, the designer, whoever he may have been, was one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. It is a moot question whether his art was learned in Italy : on the one hand Italianisms abound in the "Tres Riches Heures" — it would be easy to point out twenty examples of Florentine or Sienese imitations; the buildings in more than one scene strikingly recall the architecture of Giotto and the taste of the Roman marmorari ; the "Presentation in the Temple " is an exact reproduction of the composition of Taddeo Gaddi ; there is a plan of Rome identical with one on the celling of a hall of the public palace at Siena. But such coincidences are not conclusive that the artist of the "Tres Riches Heures" travelled through Italy. Communication between the two countries was frequent; Paris was already cosmopolitan in the fourteenth century, and what was called the ouvraige de Rome or ouvraige de Lombardie was well known there. Besides, on more than one point the Limbourgs were far in advance of contemporary Italy. From the time of Charles V there had arisen in Paris an elegant naturalism of which numerous traces appear in the work of these three brothers. In the matter of drawing, the " Adam and Eve in Paradise ", and still more the study of an "Astrologic Man ", are examples of the nude not to be paralleled in Italy earlier than the date of the Carmine chapel (1428), nor in Flanders before that of Van Eyck's retable (1432). Other pages offer studies of contemporary costume or of animals which were not surpassed by Gentile da Fabriano, whose "Adoration of the Magi" dates from 1423. The "Coronation of the Virgin" discovers a beauty of design and a purity of sentiment which perhaps Beato Angelico himself never equalled, while for genre and the portrayal of contemporary manners, whether peasant or noble, the early pages of the manuscript are examples of an art until then without precedent and as exquisite as anything produced in later ages.

It had been usual to place at the beginning of a Book of Hours a calendar giving the principal feasts, the lunations, etc. A similar calendar was generally carved on the porch of a cathedral (see Mâle, "L'Art religieux en France au XIIIe siècle"). The months are represented in these calendars by the signs of the zodiac above a small bas-relief showing the characteristic occupations of the several seasons — for August, e.g., the harvest; for September, the vintage. These sculptures, of a classic, almost Greek, style of art, naturally did not admit of more than one or two figures, with a landscape rather suggested than expressed. The calendars of the Books of Hours were still thus conceived in the fourteenth century. For this wholly ideal conception of things Pol de Limbourg substituted one wholly naturalistic. He made the subject over anew and, retaining only the poetic theme, introduced a thousand novel developments, depicting, instead of the abstract conception of the seasons, their real, concrete aspects. Thus it is that the "Tres Riches Heures" embodies in its calendar (the month of November is by Jean Colomb) a new theory of æsthetics and constitutes the definite beginning of modern landscape art.

An innovation fraught with such important consequences for the art of painting naturally prompts the question: Whence did the idea originate? In reply, Henri Bouchat suggests this ingenious theory: It will be noticed that each of these landscapes represents one of the dwellings or châteaux of the Duc de Berry — the Louvre, Mehung-sur-Yèvre, Vincennes, etc. Each of these landscapes is made to harmonize with one of the signs of the zodiac — called the "houses" of the sun. Hence it may he conjectured that the prince himself commanded this ambitious parallel. So, too, under Louis XIV, the tapestry of "The Months" woven by the Gobelins after the cartoons of Le Brun, represents the various chateaux of the roi soleil . But whatever the origin of the idea, the Limbourgs retain the merit of having, in its execution, given the earliest and some of the most perfect models of modern landscape art. The happiness rarely accorded an artist, of having created a genre, belongs to them more than to any others. Moreover, of all the secrets of this new art — even the resources of atmosphere and of chiaroscuro — they had, if not the developed instinct, at least some presentiment. The poetry of each season, its colour, its gaiety or melancholy, the transparency of the spring air, the winter torpor of nature, are all suggested. The work of the Limbourg brothers was epoch-making, a century later it was still being imitated, and the Flemish artists of the celebrated Grimani Breviary in the Library of St. Mark confined themselves to copying it, while they modernized it and made it dull. It has elsewhere been said (see EYCK, HUBERT AND JAN VAN) how great is the historical importance of this admirable manuscript ; but, even if it did not possess in this respect a value impossible to overestimate — even if we could not trace in it the beginnings of all Northern painting, from the Maître de la Flémalle to Jean Fouquet — it would still be, with its extraordinary variety of scenes and its perfect style, one of the most precious monuments of the art of painting.

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