The first generation of engravers consisted of the three sons of the obscure painter Anton I Wierix:
- Johann or Jan Wierix (1549 – c. 1618),
- Jerome or Hieronymus Wierix (1553–1619) and
- Anthony or Anton II Wierix (c. 1552 – c. 1604).
Anton II's son, Anton III Wierix (1596–1624) completes the engraver members of the family, although his early death prevented him from producing a large oeuvre. All were highly productive, with 2,333 prints catalogued between them, the largest number by Jan. The group were known for their fine attention to detail and superb technique, but were not known for their originality in composition.
Jan and Hieronymus appear to have begun training together, and although Hieronymus was the younger by four years he was able to keep pace with his brother. Even for that period they were precocious, with very fine copies of other prints dated from the age of 12 in Hieronymus's case, and 14 in Jan's (as apprentices they were not supposed to sign work, but added their ages and a date). Their copies of engravings by Albrecht Dürer from this period are still valued by collectors. Who their master was is unknown – it was unlikely to be their father, who had joined the Antwerp artists' Guild of Saint Luke in 1545/6 but is also recorded as a cabinetmaker. Jan and Hieronymus first worked producing book illustrations for the large publishing concern of Christopher Plantin in Antwerp. Hieronymus was first paid by Plantin in 1570, and they both joined the Antwerp artists' Guild of Saint Luke in 1572/3.
Jan probably trained Anton II, and Hieronymus Anton III. The brothers often worked together, but Jan moved to Delft from 1577–79, probably as a result of the Sack of Antwerp in 1576, also known as the Spanish Fury. He then returned to Antwerp for nearly 20 years – perhaps his best period – and moved briefly to The Hague before settling in Brussels at about the turn of the century, where he remained until his death.
The brothers were recorded as Lutherans in 1585, but as they later did a large amount of work for the Jesuits, it seems probable they converted or reconverted to Catholicism after this date.
All three, but especially Hieronymus, were described by contemporaries as leading disorderly lives, and had long criminal records, mostly for drunkenness and the like, but Hieronymus spent several months in prison in 1579/80 for an accidentally fatal drunken assault on a female tavernkeeper. They may have been let go by Plantin for this reason, and a famous letter from him complained that they only worked for a few days to raise enough money to disappear into the taverns, where he would have to seek them out, pay their bills, and get their tools out of pawn. However the productivity and quality of their work gives a rather different picture. As they grew older they led more regular lives, all marrying with several children, and probably all running workshops with assistants – the portraitist Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt began his training with Hieronymus, although he soon moved to another master. The father of Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was another pupil of Hieronymus. Jan's pupils included Hendrik Hondius I (1573 – c. 1650). After Anton II died relatively young in 1604, Hieronymus took over his plates and his young son Anton III. Anton III's death at an even younger age brought an end to the family business, although at least one of the brothers' many daughters married an engraver.
The brothers all worked for a number of publishers, but also published their own prints, in total nearly half their output: Hieronymus published about 650 prints himself, Jan 325 and Anton II 125. Jan did more work for Plantin than Hieronymus, amounting to over 120 plates by 1576. Most of their work was based on compositions by another artist, whether a painting, drawing or print. In ambitious original compositions, the brothers could not match the work of their contemporary Hendrik Goltzius and other Dutch engravers, and they produced few works of this sort.
Their association with the Jesuits began with the illustrations for the Adnotationes et Meditationes in Evangelia, a project initiated by the order's founder, St. Ignatius Loyola before his death in 1556. He had asked the literary Jesuit Jerome Nadal to prepare the text, and 154 drawings had been produced by various artists, mostly Italian. Plantin had agreed to publish the work, but with the disruption of the Spanish Fury of 1576, had not done so by his death. After attempting to find engravers elsewhere, the Jesuits, in the person of Fr Ferdinand Ximenez (recipient of the famous character reference for the brothers mentioned above), took the brothers on. The prints were finally published in a separate volume from the text in 1593, the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines ("Pictures of the Gospel Stories") and were still being reprinted in the 18th century. They were intended as models of faithful depictions of the incidents of the Gospels, and partly as a Counter Reformation riposte to Protestant criticisms of Catholic iconographical tradition. The apparent setting of most interior scenes in a wealthy Antwerp merchant's house does not contribute to the desired effect in modern eyes. Among copies was a version made by Jesuit missionaries in China in woodblock print form, and editions presented to the Emperors of Ethiopia had a considerable influence on the iconography of local artists. Further work for the Jesuits followed. Hieronymus in particular came to specialize in small religious scenes.
Apart from religious works the Wierixs became "the leading purveyors of small-scale printed portraits in the Netherlands", although only Jan appears to have made drawings from the life, and most of his portraits are copied from paintings, drawings or prints by others (very often of international figures). Some of Jan's drawings were made to be engraved, but others were sold as finished objects. The British Museum has 44, including 19 illustrating the Book of Genesis, and a large composition of Diana surprised by Actaeon. Most are on vellum.
- ULAN entries
- Keyes, 106, referring to M. Mauquoy-Henrickx's catalogue of 1978–83.
- Keyes, 106
- Hind, 122
- Google books
- Grove , Keyes & Hind. op & pp. cit
- Wallace Collection. Confusingly, he came from a different family from Hendrik Hondius II.
- Bowen, 352. Google books
- Bowen, 354
- google books Chipps Smith, pp. 41ff
- Google books - image Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800: 1500-1800, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pp. 40-44, ISBN 0-7425-3815-X, 9780742538153
- Google books Ethiopian Art, Walters Art Gallery, p. 64, with more detail here
- Another series of 75 plates Fr Paul Begheyn SJ, 2001. 'Lasting Impressions', Company, vol. 19, No.1.
- Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum, By Julie Aronson, Cincinnati Art Museum, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Cynthia Amneus, Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-300-11580-6, ISBN 9780300115802 Google books
- British Museum main list, British Museum, Diana surprised by Actaeon
- Bowen, Karen L. and Imhof, Dirk. Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-521-85276-5, ISBN 978-0-521-85276-0. Google books - short biographies, with long lists of works for Plantin, and mentions passim.
- Chipps Smith, Jeffrey; Sensuous Worship: Jesuits and the Art of the Early Catholic Reformation in Germany, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-691-09072-6, ISBN 978-0-691-09072-6
- Grove online concise version
- Hind, Arthur M.; A History of Engraving and Etching, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1923 (in USA), reprinted Dover Publications, 1963 ISBN 0-486-20954-7
- Keyes, George S., in KL Spangeberg (ed), Six Centuries of Master Prints, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1993, no, ISBN 0-931537-15-0
- ULAN online "Wierix Family", though their dates are mixed up.
- Mauquoy-Hendrickx, Marie, Les Estampes des Wierix, 4 vols., 1983. (Full title:Les estampes des Wierix conservées au cabinet des estampes de la Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier: Catalogue raisonné, enrichi de notes prises dans diverses autres collections; Text in French), ISBN 1-55660-225-1
- New Hollstein series. Several volumes 2003-7