Anything painted directly, on the spot, always has a strength, a power, a lively touch that is lost in the studio. Your first impression is the right one. Stick to it and refuse to budge.
- Eugene Boudin
Nothing makes me so happy as to observe nature and to paint what I see.
- Henri Rousseau


Sunday, January 26, 2014

The miniature marvels of Simon Bening

Posted by Charley Parker at 11:50 pm

Simon Bening, illumination miniatures, book of hours, calendar, labors
Prior to the mid-16th century, watercolor was primarily used for the painting of miniatures in illuminated books. These hand-painted and inscribed volumes were usually devotional, but sometimes were essentially calendars.

Perhaps the greatest and last Flemish master of this form was Simon Bening. He was a member of a family of artists. His father, Alexander Bening, was a painter, his eldest daughter became court painter to Edward VI of England, and another daughter was an art dealer.

The best examples, in terms of quantity and image quality, are on the Getty Museum site. There are 90 images. While some are illuminated pages of text with images around the edges, those at the very beginning and very end of the selections are full images. Once you click to the detail page for an individual image, look for the “Download” link under the image for the high-resolution version.

These paintings, done in watercolor on vellum, occasionally augmented with gold leaf, were tiny. Those shown above, at top, first two (each shown here with a detail) were on pages roughly 7 by 4 1/2 inches (18x11cm).

At the very end of the selections on the Getty, are two horizontal images that are roughly 2 by 4 inches (5x10cm), one of which is shown above, with detail — bottom two.

My favorite series, however, is the Labors of the Months, from a book of hours and calendar, accessible on Wikimedia Commons, though the images are not as high quality or high resolution. These are essentially a wonderful series of miniature landscapes, at a time when landscape was just coming into favor as an important subject. There is information about a facsimile of the book here. It is roughly 5 1/2 by 4 inches (14x10cm).

I love the rich, painterly quality Bening achieves with his watercolor (and/or gouache, I presume), even at the restrictive size in which he was working.

9 comments for The miniature marvels of Simon Bening »

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  1. Comment by Ælle
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    2.54 cm = 1 inch 1 inches = 2.54 centimeters.
    Algebraic Steps / Dimensional Analysis Formula 1 in * 2.54 cm 1 in = 2.54 cm
    Pfff…, not my forte either, Charley.

  2. Comment by Alida
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    What I can’t help being curious about is that crane contraption illustrated in that (wine?) barrel scene. Did the people walking in that human-sized hamster wheel raise the barrels by their actions, or did they help the crane roll around the square?

  3. Comment by Charley Parker
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 8:51 am

    Thanks, Ælle. The typo is fixed. For the others, I’ve given myself some leeway by saying “roughly” for the dimensions.

  4. Comment by Charley Parker
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    That’t an interesting question, Alida. I had assumed they were operating the winch, but now that I think about it, I don’t see exactly why they would be lifting the barrels. Maybe they are taking them off of (or loading them onto) wagons that are not shown. I do love that thing, though. Never seen its like before in old paintings.

  5. Comment by Alida
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    Ah, interesting! Found it. The great crane. A good ways down this page has a shot of the painting alongside a modern reproduction of the crane. “A painting showing a man powered treadmill crane used to load and unload a cargo of Gascoigne wine from ships in very centre of Bruges and its modern reproduction on the Spiegelrei quay near Pieter van Eyck’s bronze statue.”

  6. Comment by Charley Parker
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 10:11 am

    Wonderful. Thanks, Alida.

  7. Comment by Charley Parker
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    More here:

    Apparently, Pieter Bruegel showed one in use on the side of his remarkable Tower of Babel:

  8. Comment by Seth Rosamilia
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Absolutely amazing. Having only just begun to dabble in painting, I’m blown away by the amount of detail and precision Bening captures in such a tiny space.

  9. Comment by Jay Banks
    Monday, January 27, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    I knew some of the pictures but didn’t really notice they are by the same author. What I remember most of all is the crane painting because it was used in one of my first history books, I spent countless hours staring at the pictures in my textbooks at the boring classes and now I finally know how was it with the people inside, thanks, Alida :)!
    Thank you for the article, I’m going to see some more Simon Bening now!

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