Spotlight on Joos van Cleve

‘Leonardo of the North’: from tradition to innovation

This Spotlight delves into the artistry of Joos van Cleve (c. 1485–1490 – 1540/1541), a pivotal painter of the Northern Renaissance, who features prominently in The Klesch Collection with one of his most accomplished compositions, The Madonna of the Cherries (1520s).

Believed to hail from the lower Rhinish city of Kleve, Joos van Cleve is known to have settled in Antwerp around 1511, when he was registered as a master at the Guild of Saint Luke. This harbour city was on the verge of becoming the continental centre of commercial and artistic activity, with goods flowing through the city from far-reaching regions within the Habsburg Empire and beyond. At the time of Van Cleve’s arrival, Antwerp’s artistic scene was a melting pot of artistic influences, yet to coalesce into a unified ‘school’ of art. During his initial years in the city, Van Cleve continued to draw inspiration from early Netherlandish artists such as Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) and Hans Memling (1430–1494), whose impact on painting in the Lower Rhine region had already made its mark. As Van Cleve’s career progressed, he absorbed influences from contemporaries such as his fellow townsman Joachim Patinir (c. 1480 – before 1524) and the Italian Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Raphael (1483–1520), whose artistic ideas permeated Europe. By the time Van Cleve painted the Madonna of the Cherries in the 1520s, he had established himself as an artist attuned to his complex surroundings. His distinctive style, blending traditional and more progressive elements, mirrored Antwerp’s varied artistic landscape in the early 16th century.

Joos van Cleve, The Madonna of the Cherries, 1520s

Believed to hail from the lower Rhinish city of Kleve, Joos van Cleve is known to have settled in Antwerp around 1511, when he was registered as a master at the Guild of Saint Luke. This harbour city was on the verge of becoming the continental centre of commercial and artistic activity, with goods flowing through the city from far-reaching regions within the Habsburg Empire and beyond. At the time of Van Cleve’s arrival, Antwerp’s artistic scene was a melting pot of artistic influences, yet to coalesce into a unified ‘school’ of art. During his initial years in the city, Van Cleve continued to draw inspiration from early Netherlandish artists such as Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) and Hans Memling (1430–1494), whose impact on painting in the Lower Rhine region had already made its mark. As Van Cleve’s career progressed, he absorbed influences from contemporaries such as his fellow townsman Joachim Patinir (c. 1480 – before 1524) and the Italian Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Raphael (1483–1520), whose artistic ideas permeated Europe. By the time Van Cleve painted the Madonna of the Cherries in the 1520s, he had established himself as an artist attuned to his complex surroundings. His distinctive style, blending traditional and more progressive elements, mirrored Antwerp’s varied artistic landscape in the early 16th century.

Van Cleve’s Leonardesque paintings gained significant popularity among the Antwerp elite, and it was due to compositions such as The Madonna of the Cherries that he became known as the ‘Leonardo of the North’. The work drew inspiration from a lost prototype by Leonardo, known through a copy by his student Giampietrino (active by c. 1495 – c. 1553), and scholars have speculated that Van Cleve may have owned a traced cartoon of this composition. In Van Cleve’s interpretation, he skilfully translated the Italian composition into the northern vernacular through the use of brighter colours, the addition of decorative architectural elements and the Flemish style of ‘world landscape’ devised by Patinir — a panoramic landscape showing mountains, lowlands, water and buildings from an elevated viewpoint. The subtle play of blue and violet shadows on the Virgin’s face and the Child’s body demonstrates Van Cleve’s understanding of the sfumato technique, where the gradual transition between colours produces softened outlines or hazy forms. Yet, the artist opted for silvery instead of the typically Italian soft brownish tones. Van Cleve enriched the sober Italian backdrop from Giampietrino’s version through the addition of coloured stone and meticulously painted architectural detail. The landscape seen through the window, with the meandering river disappearing into the far view, is a clear reference to the works by Patinir. By creating his own version of The Madonna of the Cherries, Van Cleve devised a formula that would become one of his most acclaimed compositions. His celebrated hybrid style garnered royal attention from abroad, leading to portrait commissions from both Francis I of France (1494–1547) and Henry VIII (1491–1547) of England.

Spotlight on Joos van Cleve

‘Leonardo of the North’: from tradition to innovation

This Spotlight delves into the artistry of Joos van Cleve (c. 1485–1490 – 1540/1541), a pivotal painter of the Northern Renaissance, who features prominently in The Klesch Collection with one of his most accomplished compositions, The Madonna of the Cherries (1520s).

Joos van Cleve, The Madonna of the Cherries, 1520s

Believed to hail from the lower Rhinish city of Kleve, Joos van Cleve is known to have settled in Antwerp around 1511, when he was registered as a master at the Guild of Saint Luke. This harbour city was on the verge of becoming the continental centre of commercial and artistic activity, with goods flowing through the city from far-reaching regions within the Habsburg Empire and beyond. At the time of Van Cleve’s arrival, Antwerp’s artistic scene was a melting pot of artistic influences, yet to coalesce into a unified ‘school’ of art. During his initial years in the city, Van Cleve continued to draw inspiration from early Netherlandish artists such as Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) and Hans Memling (1430–1494), whose impact on painting in the Lower Rhine region had already made its mark. As Van Cleve’s career progressed, he absorbed influences from contemporaries such as his fellow townsman Joachim Patinir (c. 1480 – before 1524) and the Italian Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Raphael (1483–1520), whose artistic ideas permeated Europe. By the time Van Cleve painted the Madonna of the Cherries in the 1520s, he had established himself as an artist attuned to his complex surroundings. His distinctive style, blending traditional and more progressive elements, mirrored Antwerp’s varied artistic landscape in the early 16th century.

Van Cleve’s Leonardesque paintings gained significant popularity among the Antwerp elite, and it was due to compositions such as The Madonna of the Cherries that he became known as the ‘Leonardo of the North’. The work drew inspiration from a lost prototype by Leonardo, known through a copy by his student Giampietrino (active by c. 1495 – c. 1553), and scholars have speculated that Van Cleve may have owned a traced cartoon of this composition. In Van Cleve’s interpretation, he skilfully translated the Italian composition into the northern vernacular through the use of brighter colours, the addition of decorative architectural elements and the Flemish style of ‘world landscape’ devised by Patinir — a panoramic landscape showing mountains, lowlands, water and buildings from an elevated viewpoint. The subtle play of blue and violet shadows on the Virgin’s face and the Child’s body demonstrates Van Cleve’s understanding of the sfumato technique, where the gradual transition between colours produces softened outlines or hazy forms. Yet, the artist opted for silvery instead of the typically Italian soft brownish tones. Van Cleve enriched the sober Italian backdrop from Giampietrino’s version through the addition of coloured stone and meticulously painted architectural detail. The landscape seen through the window, with the meandering river disappearing into the far view, is a clear reference to the works by Patinir. By creating his own version of The Madonna of the Cherries, Van Cleve devised a formula that would become one of his most acclaimed compositions. His celebrated hybrid style garnered royal attention from abroad, leading to portrait commissions from both Francis I of France (1494–1547) and Henry VIII (1491–1547) of England.