Jan Provoost, The Virgin and Child in a Landscape (detail), early 16th century
I managed a few minutes in the National Gallery at lunchtime yesterday resting my eyes on this landscape by Jan Provoost. Everything is softly lit, ducks drift slowly down the river and the few figures going about their business are barely visible, blending into the dark green of the grass and pale brown of the buildings. I suppose the Virgin is sitting in a walled garden, although it looks rather overgrown (it is hard to maintain a small garden when you have a young child). Jan Provoost (or Provost) is one of ten sixteenth century artists discussed in Max Jakob Friedländer's classic study, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Early Netherlandish Painting, first published in 1916. This selection, which includes Massys, Patenier and Bruegel, compares well with the book's fourteenth century line-up, ten as well if you count Hubert van Eyck along with his more celebrated younger brother Jan (the Jackie and Bobby Charlton of early Netherlandish painting). If only some publisher would commission monographs on lesser players like Provoost... all of them would be interesting to study for their treatment of landscape. Friedländer concluded that 'Provost loved landscapes planned like gardens (flower-pots, espaliers, flower beds); he avoided distant views and wide vistas.'
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this painting is the copper-gold of the Virgin's dress and hair. I came across this same golden-haired Virgin a few weeks ago in Genoa in another work by Provoost, an Annunciation. It is an interior scene with only grey light visible through one high window, but as if to compensate for the lack of a view a small unframed landscape picture has been tacked to the wall. This shows a Samuel Palmerish village in the countryside with a large tree on the left and a church spire visible against the sky. In the context of the Bible story its presence feels strange, as if the Virgin had come upon an image of a place far away in space and time, a humble rural scene whose strangeness made it seem as precious as the other more ornate objects in her room. Not long ago I wrote a post on the theme of landscape paintings within paintings, focusing on illustrations of wealthy collectors' displays and conversation pieces set in bourgeois interiors. Provoost's painting is much earlier, from a time when the idea of independent landscape painting barely existed. The tiny view in the Annunciation has writing underneath (too small to read) and looks like it might be a page from a book or calendar rather than a painting. Nevertheless I have added it to my Pinterest board on landscape paintings to be found within other paintings.
Jan Provoost, Annunciation, first decade of the sixteenth century