Herri became the artistic successor of Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480–1524), the inventor of a type of landscape painting known as Weltlandschaften (‘World Landscapes’) characterized by their sweeping vistas and narrative subject accessorizing the foreground; until then, landscape had been mostly relegated to the backdrop of religious paintings. The typical Blesian landscape, such as the Landscape with the Good Samaritan (musée des Arts anciens du Namurois, Namur) preserved many of Patinir’s formulae of craggy rock formations and richly saturated layers of brown, green and blues, however, remarkably, Herri met de Bles was among the first to paint landscapes without the vestige of religion. His inventive approach and secular interest paved the way to the advent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–69) a generation later, but even more so on the artists to follow, namely, Jan Brueghel (1568–1625), Paul Bril (1554–1626) and Roelandt Savery (1576–1639).
Despite the abundance of posthumous documentation by the likes of Guicciardini (1567), Vasari (1568) and Karel van Mander (1604), the identity of Herri met de Bles remains an enigma as almost no information about the artist survives from his lifetime. Born in either Bouvignes or Dinant, he is thought to be the same as Herry de Patenir, possibly a relation of Joachim, who entered the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1535. Among the earliest paintings ascribed to Herri is a Landscape with Copper Mine recorded in the Medici inventory of 1589, which remains in the Tribuna of the Uffizi today. The Mosan region, where the artist came from, was rich in coal and metal; it was also at the crossroads of trade routes that connected the ports of Antwerp with the metal-rich Tyrolean Alps which in the sixteenth century saw an expanded interest in mining and metallurgical technology. Such subjects were highly prized, and versions can be found in the Liechtenstein collection, Národní Galerie in Prague, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum in Budapest, among other collections.
In Antwerp Herri ran a successful workshop with students including Frans Mostaert (ca. 1534–60), often producing variations of his favorite themes. Some were considered eccentric, among them: Earthly Paradise, the Good Samaritan or the Sleeping Peddler Robbed by Apes. The highly original Paradise (ca. 1541–50) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) depicts an extensive world landscape encircled by two concentric bands representing the celestial bodies and the oceans. It is painted in the tondo format that was popular for the depiction of mystic visions. The explosive popularity of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1453–1516), much propelled by Hieronymus Cock’s prints, introduced an element of fantasy to Herri’s late repertoire. Hell (ca. 1540/50) (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) exemplifies his adoption of the Boschian language of catastrophic nightmare. Herri met de Bles also partakes in a long tradition of anthropomorphoses which embrace the coincidental resemblance of a rock, root or clouds that resembles a figure. The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by Apes (ca. 1550; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) is emblematic of his interest in the inclusion of a hidden message for initiated minds. These playful mind games were picked up by the Surrealist movement, and Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim series clearly echoes the anthropomorphic landscapes of this earlier Flemish tradition.
Paintings by Herri met de Bles works entered aristocratic collections of the sixteenth and seventeenth century reaching as far as Emperor Rudolf II of Prague, and his work was particularly popular in Italy where he is fondly known as Civetta (Italian for ‘little owl’) on account of the owl he used to sign some of his paintings. According to his biographers Lozazzo and Guardini, Herri is thought to have crossed the Alps and worked for the d’Este court, eventually to be buried in Ferrara.
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Books on Herri met de Bles
Michael Weemans, Herri Met de Bles : Les Ruses du Paysage au Temps de Bruegel et d’Érasme, Paris, 2013.
Alain Tapie, ed., Fables du paysage flamande: Bosch, Bles, Brueghel, Bril, Paris, 2012.
Autour de Heni Bles, musée des Arts anciens du Namurois, Namur 2000.
Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, 1603/4, trans. Hessel Miedema, Doornspijk, 1994