Cleef, MARTIN VAN, Flemish painter, b. at Antwerp in 1520; d. in 1570; was the son of the painter William (the younger William) and was throughout his life closely associated with his brother Henry, who exerted great influence over his artistic career. Des-champs asserts that Martin and Joost were brothers, but the majority of writers on Flemish art agree that Joost was the son of the elder William. Martin studied under Franz Floris, “the incomparable Floris”, and at first exhibited a strong predilection for landscape work. Later on, however, persuaded by Henry, he devoted himself wholly to figure-painting. Historical subjects were his favorites, but he also achieved great success in genre painting. The latter has been stigmatized as vulgar and suggestive, but while coarse, and reflecting the peasant life of the Flemings, it differed but little in this respect from the canvases of the great Dutchmen. After a few early attempts in large compositions after the Italian manner of Floris, he painted small pictures only, and these with great spirit and thorough technic. His work is delicate and refined in treatment, harmonious in color, and excellent in draughtsmanship.
Martin van Cleef painted in the landscapes the figures of many eminent contemporaries, Gilles and Franz Floris among them, and he continually collaborated with his brother Henry in that way. Henry reciprocated and added to Martin‘s figure-pieces landscape backgrounds charming in color and design, and harmonizing well with the rest of the picture. On many of his works Martin painted, as a mark, a small ape—playing thus on his name—and in consequence is frequently called the “Master of the Ape”. He was admitted to the Antwerp Academy, and in 1551 became a member of the St. Luke’s Guild of Artists. He never traveled from his native Flanders, and died of gout at the age of fifty, leaving four sons—all of them painters.