Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) was a Flemish painter of prodigious energy and lively imagination. He is one of the outstanding masters of the school of Antwerp.
Jacob Jordaens was born in Antwerp. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Adam van Noort, who had been one of Peter Paul Rubens's masters. In 1615 Jordaens was admitted as a master into the Guild of St. Luke. The earliest dated extant work is an Adoration of the Shepherds, which was painted in 1616, the year he married Van Noort's daughter. Unlike Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, Jordaens did not make the journey to Italy which was regarded in his day as essential for all ambitious young painters. Indeed, except for a visit to Holland in 1661, his entire life was passed in the southern Netherlands.
The influences that shaped the art of the young Jordaens are plainly visible in the Daughters of Cecrops (1617). The impress of Rubens reveals itself in the heavy, fleshy nudes and the brilliant coloring. The realistic details and the strong side lighting, on the other hand, are derived from the Italian painter Caravaggio, whose influence reached Jordaens only indirectly, through certain Flemish artists who had visited Rome and become imitators of his style.
During the period 1620-1640 Jordaens produced most of the works which established his reputation as an artist of genius. In 1628, when the Augustinians of Antwerp required three altarpieces for their church, they gave the commissions to Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens. Jordaens's subject was the Martyrdom of St. Apollonia, and he made of it a spectacular, if somewhat overcrowded, composition. At this time his inventiveness began to express itself in the creation of new genre subjects, which he repeated with variations in numerous canvases. Among the earliest is The Peasant and the Satyr, a series of illustrations for Aesop's fable. Equally well known are his boisterous scenes of family feasts, such as The King Drinks, and the many pictures of As the Old Sang, So the Young Pipe, from the Flemish proverb, which are full of comic and trenchant observations.
When applied to biblical subjects, Jordaens's homely realism sometimes overshadows the religious narrative: even in the 17th century his painting St. Peter Finding the Coin in the Fish's Mouth was described as the "Antwerp Ferry" because of the prominence given to a boat crowded with people and animals. The artist's delight in interpreting mythological subjects in a spirit of parody is exemplified by his Nurture of Jupiter, in which the god is depicted as a squealing infant, crying for his milk.
When, during the 1630s, Rubens found himself faced with monumental projects requiring many assistants, Jordaens became one of his principal collaborators. At the time of the entry of the cardinal infante Ferdinand into Antwerp in 1635, when the streets were filled with lavish baroque decorations, Jordaens executed several large canvases from Rubens's designs. He performed a similar service a few years later by assisting Rubens in the execution of the vast cycle of pictures for the Torre de la Parada, Philip IV's hunting lodge in Spain.
Jordaens was given the lion's share in the decoration of the Huis ten Bosch near The Hague in Holland. His chief painting for this project was the Triumph of Prince Frederick Henry (1652).
In his later years Jordaens forsook the Roman Church to become a Calvinist, and Protestant Communion services were frequently held at his house. He continued, nevertheless, to paint devotional pictures for Catholic patrons, and his conversion to the Reformed Church seems to have caused him no difficulties. One of his largest and most impressive late religious works is Christ among the Doctors (1663), in which the amusing characterizations of the scribes and Pharisees listening to the child Jesus form a striking contrast to the dry and sober classicism of the composition as a whole.
Jordaens died at the age of 85. He was buried in the Calvinist churchyard at Putte just over the Dutch border north of Antwerp.
The most informative book on Jordaens in English is Max Rooses, Jacob Jordaens: His Life and Work, translated by E.C. Broers (1908), which presents a detailed and reliable account of the artist's career, with supporting documents and copious illustrations. The excellent chapter on Jordaens in H. Gerson and E.H. ter Kuile, Art and Architecture in Belgium, 1600-1800 (1960), summarizes the more recent scholarly investigations and offers a sound assessment of the artist and his work. A useful supplement is the catalog by Michael Jaffé of the Jordaens exhibition held at the National Gallery of Canada (1968-1969).
Hulst, Roger Adolf d', Jacob Jordaens, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.