Vrancx is best known for his depictions of battle scenes and was probably the first artist in the northern or southern Netherlands to attempt this subject-matter. He was the son of Jan Vrancx and Barbara Coutereau. Van Mander’s claim that he trained as a painter with Adam van Noort seems possible but is unconfirmed. Vrancx’s earliest known work, a drawing, is closely related to the Antwerp scrollwork decorations of Cornelis Floris and Cornelis Bos. The next drawings and paintings were executed during Vrancx’s stay in Italy (c. 1596–1601) and show strong parallels with the early style of Paul Bril, who was working in Rome, and of Jan Breughel I. Typical examples are the Massacre of the Innocents and its pendant Crossing the Red Sea (both 1600; Parma; on dep. Rome, Palazzo Montecitorio); they reveal a liking for anecdotal detail and for colourfully dressed figures who move in a decorative, but conventional landscape. These features remained characteristic of his style throughout his career. The vividly gesticulating figures and the clumsy trees, which look as if they are made of marzipan, were used only in this early period, before the guild year 1600–01, when Vrancx became a free master.
Early in his career Vrancx, who later joined a civic guard company, began to paint the small-scale cavalry scenes for which he was to become well known. Notable is his untraced Battle between Lekkerbeetje and Bréauté on the Heath of Vught (1601), of which numerous versions survive, including an incorrectly attributed copy. Over half his oeuvre is devoted to this subject-matter, and, apart from Jan Snellinck, Vrancx was the principal artist to introduce the subject of cavalry battles to the Netherlands: in the southern Netherlands he was followed by Pieter Meulener (1602–54) and Jacques van der Wijhen (b c. 1588) and in France by Adam-Frans van der Meulen, who was a pupil of Pieter Snayers, himself a pupil of Vrancx. In the northern Netherlands Vrancx’s influence can be seen clearly in the work of Esaias van de Velde and Pauwels van Hillegaert (1595/6–1640). Vrancx’s cavalry scenes remained conservative, comparable with those by Antonio Tempesta.
Between c. 1602 and c. 1611 Vrancx produced his first treatments of palace architecture borrowed from Hans Vredeman de Vries, with groups of distinguished people enjoying themselves, and a moralizing undertone. The print after Vrancx by Jacob Matham of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (1606; Hollstein, xi, p. 220) is a good example, in which Vrancx organized the space according to a rigid central perspective (a recurring feature in subsequent works); another, later, example is his Interior of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp (Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum). He also applied this principle to landscape painting: his Avenue with Trees and a Country House (Hamburg, Kunsthalle; wrongly attributed to Adriaen van de Venne) is echoed in Meindert Hobbema’s famous Avenue at Middelharnis (1689; London, National Gallery). Vrancx’s trees are taller and less clumsy than before.
In 1610 Vrancx became a member of the Fraternity of SS Peter and Paul, a select society whose members included Peter Paul Rubens. In the guild year 1611–12 he was an associate dean and in the following year chief dean of Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke. In 1612 he married Maria Pamphi, daughter of an art dealer and sister-in-law of the painter Tobias Verhaecht, who later became his daughter’s godfather.
Not until the next stage in Vrancx’s stylistic development, c. 1611–25, did his landscapes and the figures in them show the clear-cut and determined handling of form characteristic of his mature style. He achieved greater control of the representation of space and of large and more complex groups of figures. In this respect, such paintings as the Siege of Ostend Seen from the Spanish Camp (1618; ex-Lord Aldenham private colletcion see Vlaamse kunst uit Brits bezit, exh. cat., Bruges, 1956, fig. 41) and the Festival of the ‘Hail-cross’ at Ekeren (1622; Munich, Alte Pinacoteca) are high-points in his oeuvre.
Vrancx’s subjects also encompass allegorical scenes, such as the Months and the Seasons, and religious and mythological subjects, which he presented as genre scenes with the emphasis on narrative detail. He was a member of the Antwerp chamber of rhetoricians, the Violieren (stocks), which had ties with the Guild of St Luke, and produced paintings for them in addition to his literary involvement. From c. 1625 to 1647 Vrancx gave greater emphasis to the space than the figures in his paintings. A refinement, which originated c. 1620 in the ‘aristocratic’ characterization of horses, became a feature of the whole image, while the painting of trees became more ‘woolly’. Vrancx continued painting until the end of his life; his final works exchange strength for gracefulness.
Vrancx often collaborated with other painters, providing staffage for Josse de Momper (e.g. Wild Boar Hunt, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), Jan Breughel I (e.g. Raid on a Convoy, Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum), Tobias Verhaecht (e.g. Hunting Adventure of Emperor Maximilian I, Brussels), Alexander Keirinck (e.g. Landscape with Chasing Horsemen, Darmstadt), Jan van Balen (1611–54) and Frans Francken II together (e.g. Rebus Arms for the Violieren, 1618; Antwerp) and Pieter Neeffs (e.g. Church Interior, 1613; Brussels). Whenever he worked with other artists, Vrancx provided the figures. However, he usually painted the landscapes in his own works himself, with typically decorative foliage.
Vrancx is represented in the following collections: Hermitage, St Petersburg; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Louvre, Paris; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts; Museum Bredius, Netherlands; National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, amongst others.