The artists chosen by Jean de Berry toward 1413 to illuminate the Très Riches Heures, a Book of Hours to surpass all those he had owned until then, were natives of Nimwegen in the Duchy of Guelders between the Meuse and the Rhine. It would be incorrect to call them Flemish; at the time, Paul was vaguely referred to as "alemant", or "natif du pays d'Allemagne" ("German or a native of Germany"). Their father, Arnold de Limbourg, was a wood sculptor; their mother, Mechteld, was the sister of the painter Jean Malouel, who, trained by his father in the painting of escutcheons and banners at the court of Guelders, came to France to design heraldic materials for Queen Isabeau de Bavière and was retained as a salaried artist in 1397 by the Duc de
Bourgogne, Philippe le Hardi. Of Arnold and Mechteld's six known children, Paul
was the most famous, followed by Herman and Jean (or Jannequin), who worked with
him. All we know of the others is that in 1416 Roger was made canon of the Sainte-Chapelle in Bourges, in 1417 Arnold became the apprentice of a goldsmith in Nimwegen, and in the same year Marguerite married a tradesman from Nimwegen.
After spending their childhood in the midst of this artistic family, Herman and Jean left Nimwegen when still Jeunes enfants" ("young adolescents"), possibly just after their father's death, to serve their apprenticeship with a Parisian goldsmith, which was probably arranged for them by their uncle, Jean Malouel. According to the accounts of the Duchy of Burgundy, the goldsmith sent the boys home "pour cause de la mortalité" ("because of the plague") raging in Paris in 1399.
Unfortunately, their driver set out by way of Brussels, torn at the time by the conflict between Brabant and Guelders, and as a result the young artists were thrown into prison. After six months, local goldsmiths and painters put up bail of 55 écus for the boys, and, out of consideration for their uncle, the Duc de Bourgogne matched this sum on May 2, 1400 so the prisoners might reimburse their vouchers.
The Duke seems to have made this gesture in order to bind the nephews of his "peintre et valet de chambre" ("court artist and attaché") and, in fact, accounts for 1402-03 state that Jean and Paul were retained by Philippe le Hardi for four years at the workday rate of 20 sous parrisis (sous minted in Paris) "pour faire les ystoires d'une très belle et très notable Bible qu'ill avait depuis peu fait commencer" ("to illustrate a very beautiful and noteworthy Bible which had been undertaken only recently").
Philippe le Hardi died in April, 1404, and there is no way of knowing whether Paul and Jean stayed on in the service of his son, Jean sans Peur, as their uncle did. All trace of the three brothers is lost from 1403 to 1408, in which year it seems to have been for Paul that the Duc de Berry abused his authority and elicited the intervention of the Paris Parlement by kidnapping Gillette le Mercier, an eighteen-year-old girl of a respected middle-class Bourges family, so that she might marry against her mother's wishes "un paintre alemant qui besognoit pour lui en son hostel de Vincestre lés Paris" ("a German painter who worked for him in his mansion in Vincestre [Bicètre] lés Paris").
Since a deed dated February 1, 1434, concerning Paul de Limbourg's house in Bourges at the death of his widow refers to him in the same terms," paintre nommé Pol, natif du pays d'Allemaigne, " one and the same person seems to be involved.
We can conclude that Paul de Limbourg was already employed by Jean de Berry in 1408 for the decorations of the Chateau de Bicêtre, in compensation for which the Duke gave him, in the following year, the hostel in Bourges in front of the church of Notre Dame de l'Afflichault - a gesture that indicates how anxious he was to maintain the artist's goodwill.
In 1410 the three brothers definitely installed themselves with the Duke. On June 29, Herman and Jean gave their houses and furnishings in Nimwegen to their mother, and at the end of the year they joined Paul in the presentation of a facetious New Year's gift to the Duke, indicative of the familiar relationship they already enjoyed with their protector.
In spite of the jocular nature of their present, the brothers lavished all their artistic skill on this "livre contrefait d'une pièce de bois en semblance d'un livre, où il n'a nuls feuillets ne rien escript " ("a counterfeit book made of wood, with no pages and nothing written within") . It was covered with white velvet and adorned with a vermeil clasp enamelled with the Duc de Berry's arms. The Prince carefully preserved the inventory listing it: " lequel livre Pol de Limbourg et ses deux frères donnèrent à mondit Seigneur ausdites estrainnes (le 1er Janvier 1411) " ("which book, Paul de Limbourg and his two brothers gave to His Lordship as New Year's gift on January 1, 1411 ").
Many other references to the three brothers were to follow this one in the Duke's inventories and accounts. On January 15, 1412, Jean de Berry gave Paul de Limbourg ("Paulo de Limbourc") a diamond mounted on a gold ring; this was followed by another golden ring " où il a un ours d'esmeraude sur une terrace de mesmes" ("on which an emerald bear lies on a bed of emeralds").
At about the same time, probably when the "Très Riches Heures" was begun, the Duke gave " Paulo et duobus fratribus suis illuminatoribus" ("to Paul and to his two illuminator brothers") nine "pièces de monnoie d'or de diverses manières " ("different types of gold coin"), probably medals, including the ones of Constantine and Heraclius which served as models for the tympani of the calendar months and the figures of the Magi (folios 2r-12v, and 51v-52r).
The Duke also made numerous cash payments to the artists. On August 22 , 1415, he gave as guaranty of the payment of 1000 gold écus to "Paulo de Limbourc et Hermando et Jehannequino, ipsus fratribus et varletis camere dicti domini ducis" ("to Paul de Limbourg, to Herman and Jannequin his brothers, attachés of the aforementioned Lordship, the Duke"), a small ruby,"fait en facon d'un grain d'orge, assis sur un annel d'or" ("in the form of a barley grain set on a gold ring"), which he had purchased for 3,000 gold écus two years before. For his part, Paul had given the Duke a New Year's present of a little agate saltcellar, encrusted with gold, "dont le couvercle est d'or, et au dessus a un petit fertelet, garny d'un saphir et de quatre perles" ("with a gold cover topped with a little knob adorned with a sapphire and four pearls").
This active exchange of gifts shows to what extent the Limbourgs, especially Paul, enjoyed the intimacy and esteem of the Duc de Berry, who bestowed upon them the title of valet de chambre. The hypothesis that Paul held the privileged position as head of the workshop is substantiated by the following extract from an inventory compiled after the Duke's death which also confirms the attribution of the Très Riches Heures: "Item en une layette plusieurs cayers d'une très Riches Heures, quit fasoit Pol et ses frères, très richement historiez et enluminez " ("also in a small box several signatures of a very rich Hours richly illustrated and decorated by Paul and his brothers").
This inscription was made after the three brothers' death, which might have occurred even before that of the Duke. Two documents in the Nimwegen Archives deal with their estate: one, dated March 9, 1416, mentions the death of Jean, known as Jannequin ("Jenneken"), and the second, dated September-October of the same year, mentions Herman, Paul, and Jean.
The order in which the three are listed in the second document might indicate that Herman was the oldest; this would mean that Paul had earned the Duc de Berry's favor solely on his own merit. Although all three brothers were famous in their time (describing Paris, Guillebert de Metz named "les trois frères enlumineurs), a century later, Jean Pèlerin, known as le Viateur, cited in his De Artificiali perspectiva only one of the three - "Paoul" - as among the great painters of the past.
Beside the Belles Heures and the Très Riches Heures little is known of the Limbourgs' work. The "très belle et très notable Bible" illuminated by Paul and Jean about 1402-03 for the Duc de Bourgogne is not preserved. The paintings that we presume Paul executed in the Château de Bicêtre in 1408 perished in the fire of 1411.
This leaves a few scattered miniatures painted between 1409 and 1412: three illustrations in the "Très belles Heures de Notre Dame", a painting added to the Petites Heures, and a series of pictures at the beginning of a Bible historiée (Bibliotheque Nationale, ms. fr. 166), with a drawing that was added to it. There exist two further Books of Hours that appear to have come from the Limbourg workshop. One, belonging to the Earl of Seilern in London, has been described by Jean Porcher as almost a copy of the Belles Heures with resemblances to the Très Riches Heures: "une reproduction presque littérale des Belles Heures avec certains souvenirs des Heures de Chantilly."
The other, presently in the Musée Condé (ms. 66, ex 1383), is of an inferior quality, but its Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds, and Presentation in the Temple show extraordinary similarities with the Très Riches Heures and the Belles Heures.
If these two manuscripts are correctly attributed to the Limbourgs, it would prove that although the brothers devoted the greater part of their energies to works commissioned by the Duc de Berry, they were not above executing less important works for other collectors.