Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is the only museum in the Netherlands with a collection of paintings by Jheronimus Bosch. It also has several of his drawings, including The Nest of Owls, one of the most beautiful of all. Bosch was a celebrated artist in his own day, with works in the collections of aristocrats and high-ranking dignitaries. The Archduchess Maria of Austria possessed a painting by him, and in 1504 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, ordered a triptych of The Last Judgment.
Bosch was born in about 1450 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where he lived and worked all his life. He came from a family of painters. Not only his father, who was presumably his teacher, but also his brother, a cousin and several uncles worked in the family studio in the market square of ’s-Hertogenbosch. One of his important clients was the Confraternity of Our Lady. Bosch made several works for the redecoration of their chapel in Saint John’s Cathedral. He also advised the brothers regarding assignments to other artists and craftsmen, and was sometimes called upon to appraise the work they submitted.
Even during Bosch’s lifetime, artists were copying his work. They imitated his style and some sold their paintings under his name. Soon after his death, collectors were warned about the many forgeries in circulation. Worldwide, no more than about twenty-five panels are accepted as authentic. The museum’s Wedding at Cana was long accepted as a genuine Bosch, until a study of the annual growth rings in the panel revealed that the wood could only have been harvested in 1544—twenty-eight years after Bosch’s death. The painting is probably a copy after a lost original by the master.
However beautiful Bosch’s fanciful paintings may be, art historians are still often uncertain as to what they mean. Many of them, like the painting of Saint Christopher, depict bizarre worlds and creatures. Fish with legs, along with demons and monsters are recurrent motifs in Bosch´s oeuvre. On more than one occasion, Bosch is known to have drawn inspiration from contemporary sources like the popular Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant. The iniquity of humankind is a central theme in many of his works. The famous Pedlar is a case in point. Though opinions differ, it is generally believed to represent man’s journey through life. The pedlar in the painting is interpreted as Man, weighed down by the burden of sin on his back, endeavouring to live his life without succumbing to earthly temptation. Temptation is represented here by the brothel in the background.