CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

De zotte schilders

The comic painters Exhibition: 4 April - 4 May 2003


Jan op de Beeck

Museum information

Looking at 32 original paintings from the period between 1500 and 1650, the larger part of which has never been exhibited, the visitor will meet on his tour more than 350 monstrous creatures and extremely weird people.

An art-historical approach by Drs. Jan Op de Beeck

It is no mere coincidence that the paintings presented here date from between 1500 and 1650. A lot of paintings from this period had a moralizing bias. In the first place this was down to the social changes. In addition to the clergy and the nobility the middle classes became a new clientele. Because the Christian and middle-class morality were analogous to each other the painters could easily meet the needs of this middle-class market. The middle-class commissioners were looking for a new and more secular pictorial language, based on prevailing convictions. This led to a slow shift in the subject matter from the beginning of the 16th century on. Particularly the pictorial language of these moralizing representations is changing then. A good example is the increasing success of themes such as the Prodigal Son. Although the inspiration retained a religious character and the moralizing undertone is kept, these paintings become more profane, due to the fact that the artists are focusing on the brothel episode of the biblical story.

It stands to reason that the title De Zotte Schilders (The Comic Painters) should not be taken literally (in Dutch zot means ‘foolish, crazy’). These painters were definitely not social outcasts or fools, but rather schooled intellectuals. Neither is this title meant to be deprecatory. In our opinion this name can be used in a proper way to distinguish these masters from the so-called genre painters (mostly active after 1650), who did not want to convey a moralizing message in their work. If it is no problem to refer to painters such as Van Eyck and Memlinc as Flemish Primitives, only because of their (deliberately) wrong use of perspective, then the name Zotte Schilders for the artists discussed here, doesn’t seem unfit at all.

An iconographical approach by Dr. Eric De Bruyn

The pictorial language used by late-medieval painters in general and by Hieronymus Bosch in particular is often difficult to interpret. Quite a number of Bosch’s motifs can also be found in contemporary literature, though, and the more often these motifs occur, the easier it becomes to understand them. Furthermore, a lot of Bosch’s motifs also turn up in contemporary iconography. Again the same rule applies: the more iconographical material one has at his disposal, the sooner a correct interpretation will be arrived at.

In this respect the immense collection of 16th- and 17th-century Bosch copies and imitations offers an extremely interesting field of research. This field is still largely unreclaimed. The study of the Bosch followers, whose works are not only numerous but often also hardly accessible in private collections, still shows large gaps, especially in the field of iconographical interpretations. In this respect the exhibition De Zotte Schilders and its accompanying catalogue should be seen as a further step in the right direction: 32 16th- and 17th-century pieces, painted under the influence of Bosch (some to a high, some to a lesser degree) and belonging to private collections in Belgium and Holland, are brought together here, thus offering material for further research. The adjective zotte in the title De Zotte Schilders is derived from the late-medieval rhetoricians who divided their poems in three genres: vroede or serious poems, amoureuze poems dealing with matters of love, and zotte or comic poems. This last type of poem was meant to entertain the reader, but at the same time it often contained a moralizing, satirical message. A similar mixture of pleasant form and moralizing contents is present in the figure of the fool or jester (sot in Middle Dutch), who frequently satirizes foolish human behaviour in 15th- and 16th-century literature and iconography. The paintings of Bosch and his followers are also characterized by this blending of solemnity and mirth, especially when it comes down to the ingenious depiction of devils, monsters and ugly faces. This comic aspect of Bosch’s pictorial language was already recognized by his early commentators and was also adopted by his 16th- and 17th-century followers.

It is something of a puzzle that while paintings of this type are rather rare in present-day public and private collections, they are listed in large numbers and in great variety in old inventories. We have only been able to come up with one way of accounting for this. In the 18th and 19th centuries they must have been considered old-fashioned and foolish. The message was certainly not well understood. In the century of the Enlightenment it was not done to have such vulgar paintings in your home. Many will have suffered from poor treatment and have been discarded in the course of time.

The exhibition assembles original paintings by the following artists, among others: Jheronymus Bosch, Jan Wellens de Cock, Hans Baldung Grien, Jan Mandyn, Frans Verbeeck, Jan Massys, Maerten van Cleve, Pieter Bruegel de Jonge, David Teniers, Sebastian Vrancx, Joos van Craesbeeck, Jan Steen and Adriaen van de Venne.


Eric De Bruyn and Jan Op de Beeck, De zotte schilders: moraalridders van het penseel rond Bosch, Bruegel en Brouwer, Gent (Snoeck) 2003.260 p. Richly illustrated. Summary in English.
ISBN 90-5349-424-3 (paperbound).

ISBN 90-5349-425-5 (hardbound).


Liedekens rond de Zotte Schilders (16th- and 17th-century music).