Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2002
Roger S Wieck, William M. Voelkle, and Michelle Hearne, eds. The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyet New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. 208 pp.; 58 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0807614777)
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, January 23-May 8, 2001

Like Simon Marmion (d. 1489), Jean Poyet is a celebrated late fifteenth-century French painter whose documented works elude certain identification. Recorded in Tours between 1483 and 1498, Poyet was ranked with Jean Fouquet and praised for his mastery of perspective by several early sixteenth-century writers. Poyet’s reputation waxed again three hundred years later, when his name was attached to the celebrated Hours of Anne of Bretagne (Paris, BNF, lat. 9474). With the discovery in 1868 and publication in 1880 of a document that decisively identified that book’s illuminator as Jean Bourdichon, Poyet’s contemporary and chief rival in Tours, the latter painter returned to obscurity.

Poyet’s resurrection began in 1982, when John Plummer tentatively ascribed to him a body of stylistically related manuscripts that Plummer dated between about 1490 and 1500 in his exhibition catalogue, The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts, 1420–1530, from American Collections (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library in association with Oxford University Press, 1982). Plummer based his attributions in part on the fact that the assembled codices were “the only ones painted in Tours at the end of the fifteenth century that would justify the high regard in which this artist was held by his contemporaries” (86). In 1993, François Avril and Nicole Reynaud affirmed and enlarged Poyet’s putative oeuvre and established a chronology that extended from about 1485 to 1520 in their catalogue, Les manuscrits à peintures en France, 1440–1520 (Paris: Flammarion and Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1994).

In 1999 and again in 2000, Roger Wieck focused his critical eye on two individual manuscripts attributed to Poyet. In the former year, he wrote the commentary for a complete reproduction by the Faksimile Verlag of Lucerne of the Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M.50). Wieck established in his commentary that the prayer book was made between October 10, 1492, and December 6, 1495, the birth and death dates, respectively, of Anne’s son, the dauphin Charles-Orland. Wieck argued that the codex was probably painted toward the end of Charles-Orland’s short life, thus in 1494 or 1495, so that Anne could teach her two- or three-year-old son his prayers.

Turning to the painter of Anne’s prayer book, Wieck affirmed the ascription of its miniatures to Jean Poyet. After examining both the documentary and the literary record, Wieck offered a chronology for Poyet’s works that largely follows that established by Avril and Reynaud. Wieck excepted, however, two Horae preserved partly or entirely in the British Library. While Avril and Reynaud dated the first, the Hours of Jean Lallemant the Elder (Add. 39641), to about 1498, Wieck removed it to the early sixteenth century. He also reascribed the miniatures attributed to Poyet both there and in the second London Horae (Add. 35315), the latter dated between about 1515 and 1520, to Poyet’s best shop assistant, whom he dubbed the “pseudo-Poyet.” Wieck based his reascriptions not only on connoisseurial grounds, but also on chronological ones, for he believed that the literary record leaves little doubt that Poyet was dead before the second lustrum of the sixteenth century.

Wieck made two other major contributions to the scholarly dialogue on Poyet in his 1999 commentary. First, he identified the patron of the earliest manuscript ascribed to the artist, an especially inventive Book of Hours in Haarlem (Teylers Museum Ms. 78), as Guillaume Briçonnet of Tours. This identification enabled him to date the codex between 1483 and 1491. Second and more importantly, Wieck attributed to Poyet a tiny Horae leaf in the Free Library of Philadelphia (Lewis M.11.15a) with a text panel surrounded by repeated representations of the capital letter E on the recto and a full-page Lamentation on the verso. Wieck proposed that the cutting comes from the petites heures that Poyet is documented as having painted for Anne de Bretagne in 1497. As Wieck observed, “If this can ultimately be proven, any questions about connecting the body of work associated with Poyet and the artist himself become moot” (107). Wieck’s groundbreaking hypothesis invites comparison with Sandra Hindman’s proposal that two leaves once owned by Robert Lehman of New York came from the breviary begun by Simon Marmion in 1467 for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and finished in 1470 for Philip’s son Charles the Bold (“Illuminations and the ‘Art Of Painting’”, The Robert Lehman Collection: Volume IV: Illuminations, [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 1997], 60–72, cat. no. 8).

In 2000, Wieck wrote the lion’s share of the texts in The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyet. In this publication, an expanded version of Wieck’s 1999 essay on Poyet prefaces superb color reproductions of the forty-three miniatures and twelve calendar illustrations in the most copiously illuminated of all the manuscripts ascribed to Poyet, a Horae in New York (Pierpont Morgan Library H.8). Two text pages from the same book and a frontispiece of Luke Painting the Virgin from the Briçonnet Hours—the subject of the black-and-white frontispiece of Wieck’s 1999 commentary—bring the total number of color plates to fifty-eight; the monochrome figures that accompany Wieck’s essay have also been increased from thirteen to twenty-nine. This book served as the catalogue for the exhibition of Poyet’s oeuvre organized by Wieck at the Pierpont Morgan Library. The plate captions and the physical descriptions of the Hours of Henry VIII were written by Wieck together with William M. Voelkle and K. Michelle Hearne.

Wieck took advantage of the expanded format of The Hours of Henry VIII to explore more fully the connections between Poyet, his workshop, and the “pseudo-Poyet.” In the 1999 commentary, Wieck compared the free, relaxed execution of the monochrome border figures in the Hours of Henry VIII with those that he ascribed to the “pseudo-Poyet” in the second British Library Hours (Add. 35315) (119). In the 2000 facsimile, Wieck proposed that the hand of the “pseudo-Poyet” can also be found on at least two folios of a copiously illustrated Chronique martinienne of about 1500 in Copenhagen (Kon. Bibl. Thott 430 2o) (41–42). Wieck also ventured that Poyet “designed and drew most of the large [Copenhagen] miniatures and painted some (or some part) of them” (41–42). In addition, Wieck proposed that the same scribe wrote both the Copenhagen Chronique and the Hours of Henry VIII. In short, Wieck argued that the Copenhagen manuscript is the lynchpin between Poyet, his workshop, and the “pseudo-Poyet.” Given its significance, it is disappointing that Wieck was able to illustrate only one page from the Copenhagen book (fig. 38).

It is regrettable that one more gathering of color plates could not have been added to The Hours of Henry VIII, for Wieck frequently makes comments in his text about Poyet’s polychromy that the reader cannot assay. Comparative illustrations of works by Jean Fouquet and Andrea Mantegna that influenced Poyet would have been helpful as well. Wieck might also have addressed the ascription to Poyet by Avril and Reynaud (318) of the designs for two sets of stained-glass windows commissioned by the financier Jacques de Beaune, lord of Semblançay.

More importantly, this reviewer would have liked for Wieck to wrestle with the same two authors’ contention that Poyet’s earliest surviving manuscript, the Briçonnet Hours, was “without a doubt the greatest work of the artist, who never again achieved a comparable plenitude of invention or means of expression” (Avril and Reynaud 306). Referring to Poyet’s manner toward the end of the fifteenth century, Avril and Reynaud note his “predilection for dull and cold colors” and his figures’ “almost mannerist attenuation” and “puffy and slightly dilated eyes” (311–12). These observations were certainly meant to apply to the miniatures in the Morgan Hours; would Wieck agree or disagree?

These are, however, only minor quibbles. The Hours of Henry VIII—clearly and elegantly written, soundly argued, and generously illustrated—makes available in an enriched form both Wieck’s groundbreaking 1999 essay on Poyet and the glorious illuminations of one of the chefs-d’oeuvre of late medieval French book painting.

Gregory T. Clark
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of the South