Truly bright and memorable: Jan de Beer's Renaissance altarpieces on view at The Barber Institute

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Truly bright and memorable: Jan de Beer's Renaissance altarpieces on view at The Barber Institute
Jan de Beer, Joseph and the Suitors, about 1515/20. Oil on wood. Plinth only 85 H x 185.8 W x 82.3 D. Frame only 158 H x 161.8 W x 13.3 D. Total height, plinth & frame – 243cm" © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

BIRMINGHAM.- Famous in his lifetime and for several generations after his death for his stylish and elegant paintings, Antwerp’s Jan de Beer (c. 1475 – 1527/28) created spectacular altarpieces that appealed to churches at home and abroad, copyists, patrons and collectors. However, his star subsequently waned, and by the end of the 19th century he was virtually unknown.

This autumn’s major exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Truly Bright and Memorable, seeks to restore de Beer’s reputation – not just as one of the Low Countries’ greatest painters, but as one of the most talented European artists of the Renaissance.

The Barber Institute, based at the University of Birmingham, has developed a reputation for reappraising less well-known aspects of the work of key artists – and shining a light on those who are not household names – by presenting new, high-level academic research into their lives and practices.

Truly Bright and Memorable is the latest in the Barber’s Masterpiece in Focus series of exhibitions, each of which explores a key work from the gallery’s own collection by placing it in conversation with major loans from public and private collections in Britain.

It is also only the second exhibition ever devoted to the artist – and the first in the United Kingdom.

Jan de Beer’s work is distinguished by his refined and vibrant use of colour, along with emotional and psychological depth. It is also characterised by the incorporation of elaborate Gothic architecture, expressive figures and richly detailed costumes. Experts in the early 20th century begun to tease out his identity as a member of the group of artists now known as the Antwerp Mannerists. These artists broke with the tradition of early 15th-century Netherlandish art by introducing figures in lively and dramatic poses, set within complex architectural spaces.

De Beer’s reputation was founded on his devotional paintings and altarpieces, which form the majority of his known oeuvre of about 40 works. The Barber’s recently restored double-sided Joseph and the Suitors / The Nativity is a masterly, if fragmentary, example. Although the panel itself is whole, it would have been just one part of a huge compound altarpiece with tiers of individual panels surrounding a central carved shrine. This panel will form the centrepiece of Truly Bright and Memorable, along with six further works, together representing the entirety of de Beer's work in the UK.

Two closely-related Adoration of the Magi panels from private collections (both now dated to the 1510s) have never been publicly displayed before. They represent de Beer's most popular and successful subject, reproduced in numerous copies during his lifetime. They will be joined by an imposing triptych, the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints and Angels (?1515, Longford Castle Collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London), probably originally made for a church in Venice and thus demonstrating de Beer’s fame across Europe. Three drawings from the British Museum include the Sketch of Nine Male Heads (c.1515-20), de Beer's only signed work around which his corpus has been reconstructed, a model for a stained-glass roundel, Saint Luke painting the Virgin (1509?), and a Saint Jerome in Penitence, unique for its landscape setting (c.1515-20).

The exhibition’s curator and Deputy Directory of the Barber Institute, Robert Wenley says the highly focused exhibition offered a unique opportunity to demonstrate how de Beer worked in diversemedia and on a variety of scales: “Jan de Beer was a brilliant artist whose lively compositions, bright colours and exquisite detailing still speak to us today. His paintings were evidently popular across Europe, with some compositions spawning multiple replicas, produced both within his workshop and elsewhere. They were often large, complex and costly constructions made for wealthy patrons, but many have been lost through the ravages of time. We are particularly delighted to be able to bring together all of his paintings and drawings in the UK, reflecting this country’s long appreciation of his work.”

The Barber Institute’s Director, Nicola Kalinsky, said: “It is extremely exciting to see Jan de Beer back in the spotlight nearly 500 years after his death, and interpreted for modern audiences. The impressive double-sided altarpiece at the Barber looks magnificent after its recent conservation and it will be fascinating to consider it alongside other important examples of de Beer’s oeuvre. Artists working outside of Italy during the Renaissance (approx. 1300 to 1600) are too often overlooked in favour of their Italian counterparts, but de Beer merits far greater recognition for his considerable talent.”

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