Biography of Hieronymus Bosch
Jheronimus Anthonissen van Aken was born sometime between 1450-56 (his date of birth remains a matter of speculation but has been estimated from a self/portrait dated around 1508) to Antonius van Aken and, his wife, Aleid van der Mynnem. He was born in his grandfather's prosperous household in the affluent, and culturally and intellectually rich, town of s-Hertogenbosch, of the Duchy of Brabant, located in the low regions of the Netherlands. His grandfather, Johannes Thomaszoon van Aken was amongst the most important painters in early fifteenth century s-Hertogenbosch and, in the words of the art historian Stefan Fischer, created a "painter dynasty of five children", four of whom became painters (including Antonius).
Little else is known about Bosch's early years apart from the fact that, in 1463, some 4,000 houses in s-Hertogenbosch were destroyed by a catastrophic fire. As art historian Claire Selvin put it, "It is believed that the artist bore witness to this disaster, which was perhaps one of the most devastating events of his early life. It's possible that the catastrophic incident influenced Bosch's later works, some of which include blazes raging in the background".
The young Jheronimus later adopted the name Bosch (pronounced "Boss" in Dutch) as tribute to his hometown that was known locally as Den Bosch (the forest). Next to nothing is known of his training, since he left behind no notebooks, letters, books, or any other such artefact. However, in s-Hertogenbosch town records dated 1475, Hieronymus is listed as a member of his father's workshop and it is assumed (quite reasonably) that his father, and possibly one of his uncles, taught him to paint. This knowledge doesn't bring us any closer, however, to understanding the sources of Bosch's remarkable imagination.
Between 1480-81, Bosch married a merchant's daughter named Aleid van der Mervenne. Some years older than him, Aleid was heir to a generous inheritance, including a family property in the adjacent town of Oirschot, where the couple settled. It is thought that Bosch never travelled or strayed any further from the immediate area of his hometown. According to Salvin (through Fischer), "Bosch benefitted from the funds, land and status that came with the union, and he established his own workshop soon after the pair married. At this point in his life, Bosch became an artist in his own right, and he was poised to make meaningful connections with influential royal patrons". Indeed, a citation of his name and profession appears in s-Hertogenbosch's town records in 1486 listing him as Insignis Pictor (Distinguished Painter).
One can speculate that because s-Hertogenbosch fell under the governance of the Roman Empire, it is likely that Bosch was fully conversant with the art of the Renaissance which was influencing the Flemish painters. Indeed, in 1488, which ages him around 40 years old, Bosch joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady, an archly conservative religious association made up of some 40 of 's-Hertogenbosch's most influential citizens, and a further 7,000 "outer members" scattered across Europe. The Brotherhood (for which Bosch's father had once acted as artistic adviser) was devoted to the Virgin and was widely respected throughout Catholic Europe. It is believed that some of the artist's first devotional commissions came through the Brotherhood, though it is not known for sure if any of these works have survived.
Commenting on one of his earliest known works, Crucifixion with Saints and Donor (c. 1485-90), Fischer writes that, "while it remains unknown where it was originally displayed, the painting, like many other devotional images of the period, was created to ensure salvation for the soul of the donor depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross. Crucifixion with Saints and Donor is something of an outlier in a body of work that favors eccentric, dizzying, and disconcerting compositions, and Bosch would later project his idiosyncratic style onto various religious subjects". But, as art critic Tim Smith-Laing counters, "For all the singularity of his work, there is no evidence to suggest that Bosch was, in any sense, an outsider. While some generously speculative research in the 1940s attempted to link him to an heretical sex cult called the Adamites, and while the 1960s zeitgeist had him hallucinating on ergotic wheat, mainstream academic opinion offers a much tamer picture [...] nothing suggests that Bosch was anything other than a prominent, prosperous citizen, an orthodox Catholic, and a devotional painter much in demand among patrons".
Whereas other northern European artists were also focused on producing biblical narratives, Bosch was interpreting the same subject matter in way that was so peculiarly original it fully jarred with the harmonious and dominant Flemish style. He filtered these stories through his imagination, transforming religious parables into extraordinary new fantasy worlds dense with absurdity and ecclesiastical symbolism. It was in his very loosely defined "middle period" that Bosch's iconic style - featuring contorted and distorted body shapes, vivid coloring, oversized and menacing foliage, and various devils and reptiles - starts to reveal itself through a series of pictures of saints. Pieces such as St. Jerome at Prayer (c. 1485-90), St. John the Baptist in Meditation (1490) and an altarpiece, St. John on Patmos (1490-95), that was possibly commissioned by the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady.
But it was his Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (1494) that is often cited as his first true masterpiece. Commissioned by Peeter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme of Antwerp, the work, which shows the Mass of Saint Gregory, effectively secured the artist's reputation, even if in later years it did not fit well with Bosch's "brand recognition". As Smith-Laing noted, "When Bosch died in 1516 he was already one of the best-known painters of his time; he soon became one of the most copied and imitated. By the 1530s [...] there had emerged an entire school of painters in Antwerp dedicated to exactly that - it is with them that Bosch's visionary image began to crystalise". The point Smith-Laing makes is that when "modern marketing professionals" took an interest in his work they were talking about Bosch exclusively in terms of "a purveyor of hellish diableries" and that "stilly [sic] contemplative" works such as the Adoration of the Magi went largely ignored.
As the end of the fifteenth century approached, an influential German astrologer had warned that the "end of the world", which would be brought on by catastrophic flooding, would occur precisely on February 25, 1524. The idea of the Last Judgement took hold in society with Albrecht Dürer producing a famous watercolor recording a dream in which he witnessed the final apocalypse (as water crashing down from the heavens onto earth) and Bosch painting The Last Judgement, which covered the same subject but with an image of Hell populated with fantastical devils, evil spirits, metamorphized creatures, and erotic symbolism. Between them, Dürer and Bosch (and lesser luminaries no doubt) would have sent shock waves of anxiety through the ranks of the Devoted.
Since none of his works carry dates, one cannot be sure when Bosch finished The Last Judgement (though it is estimated that it was completed between 1482-1505). But Selvin writes, "Bosch started employing at least one assistant by 1499 [and that] he was able to hire an assistant at all was a sign that he achieved success". Indeed, with his The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (c. 1500) - another piece on the theme of the Last Judgement and painted on a tabletop that was meant for a sinner to reflect on before entering the confessional booth - has been attributed, in part at least, to the hand of an assistant. Around this time Bosch produced the masterpiece, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (C. 1500), a triptych that celebrates St. Anthony's strength of faith under intense coercion from the forces of evil (he would return to the story St. Anthony throughout his later career). By now Bosch's vision was becoming more magnificently expansive. His figures became more lithe; his colors more understated, while the fantasy worlds he presented offered apocalyptic scenes juxtaposed with biblical landscapes of almost idyllic innocence.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) is unquestionably Bosch's greatest masterpiece and his most iconic work (indeed, many know his name only through this work). His style had by now reached full maturity with his earthly paradise, featuring the creation and temptation of woman perfectly juxtaposed with deeply distressing images of the world of debauchery and pleasure-seeking.
The painting's dreamlike/nightmarish quality has become the stuff of mythology and features any number of tiny naked human figures, misshapen animals and ominous creatures thought to have been conjured directly from the artist's boundless imagination. However, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists states that while works such as The Garden of Earthly Delights have "an extraordinarily vivid imaginative power and the subjects are heavily embroidered with subsidiary narratives and symbols [...] the basic themes are sometimes quite simple and much of the imagery can be explained in terms of the popular culture of Bosch's age, notably proverbs and devotional literature". It adds that "In purely visual terms, the monsters he painted have analogies in the strange creatures often seen in the margins of medieval manuscripts and in the gargoyles of Gothic architecture [and that even] the cathedral at 's-Hertogenbosch has some fine examples [of these gargoyles]".
Aside from Bosch's fixation on the evil and the beauty of God's universe, he demonstrates a great skill for compositional harmony and a fastidious eye for detail that matched that of the Renaissance painters. Indeed, citing The Garden of Earthly Delights, the famous art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote: "For the first and perhaps only time, an artist had succeeded in giving concrete and tangible shape to the fears that had haunted the minds of man in the Middle Ages. It was an achievement which was perhaps only possible at this very moment when the old ideas were still vigorous and yet the modern spirit [of the Renaissance] had provided the artist with methods of representing what he saw".
In The Ship of Fools (believed originally to be one panel from a triptych) is thought by most scholars to be a response to the publication in 1494 of Sebastian Brant's hugely popular satirical book of the same name. Like Brant, Bosch used the ship (which is in fact a small boat) and its passengers and hangers-on as a metaphor for a debauched society as a whole. The gathering of overexcited revelers reveals again Bosch's association between sin and music, although for reasons that are unclear, the musical entertainment is being provided here by a monk and a nun. The ship's overlong mast is topped by a large branch on which is perched an owl, another Boschian motif that signifies the attendance of sin.
Historians have speculated that the figure of the "Tree Man" in the Hell panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights was in fact created in the image of the artist, but the 1508 self-portrait drawing is the only confirmed self-portrait of the artist. It was thought to have been drawn eight years before his death, and it is feasible that Bosch deliberately "exaggerated" his age. In any case, the drawing would seem to foretell Bosch's need to give a face to his legacy, possibly in the knowledge that he was in the latter stages of his life. It was recorded by the Brotherhood of Our Lady that Bosch died in 1516, and that a funerary service was held on the 9th of August in the Church of Saint John in s-Hertogenbosch.
Although his place in the history of art is beyond question, Bosch's oeuvre is represented by only around 25 paintings and eight drawings. One reason for this meagre return stems from a period in the 16th century in which members of the Protestant Reformation destroyed many works deemed immoral. Six of his works were bought or confiscated by Philip II of Spain in the end of the 16th century (now owned by the Museo del Prado in Madrid), and others emerged across Europe which has left a rather piecemeal and potted history of one of the most unique artists in the pantheon.
The Legacy of Hieronymus Bosch
During his lifetime, Bosch's work was collected in several countries throughout Europe, and he was widely revered and imitated by students and followers; not least Pieter Bruegel the Elder - the "Second Hieronymus" as he was nicknamed - who was significantly influenced by Bosch's approach to painting landscapes. Although interest in his work dropped off (except in Spain) he emerged as a force again in the modern era where he exerted influence on the Surrealist movement and artists including Max Ernst, René Magritte, and especially Salvador Dalí, who claimed in fact that Bosch was the first modern artist. The unusual rock formation resembling Dalí's face in his famous painting, The Great Masturbator (1929), was inspired by a similar formation in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Leonora Carrington, too, who encountered Bosch's works in Museo del Prado in 1939, drew inspiration from Bosch's most famous composition. In The Giantess (1947), for example, Carrington places hunters in an uncanny landscape featuring winged fish and seafarers floating in an ocean-like sky that forms the landscape on which her cloaked female giant stands.
The art critic Alastair Sooke states, "It is easy to understand why Bosch continues to fascinate us today: the apocalyptic tone of his work resonates during our era of global conflict and international terrorism" and direct references can be found in examples from film, television, video games, books and even fashion collections. The art critic Tim Smith-Laing adds that "few, if any, of Hieronymus Bosch's contemporaries can claim a similar level of continuing fame. He is a major draw at museums, but his reach extends far beyond: in addition to the standard books, T-shirts and postcards, he has been treated to accessories ranging from tote bags to mousepads and phone cases. There are even Dr. Martens boots with his work printed on them".
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 15 Jan 2018. Updated and modified regularly