“When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.
KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints…”
The concept of private patronage is especially important in a time when the state-controlled institutions are increasingly falling into the hands of individuals driven by politics. Private museums and collections are bulwarks against an erosion of culture. In that light, this new monograph makes valuable reading. Ulrike Müller’s At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh examines the nature and history of a famous private collection of art located in Antwerp. Although the museum seems like a burgher’s home, it is actually not a home and was built as a museum. This richly illustrated book recounts the development and character of a collection of a remarkable historical art sited in its purpose-built museum.
Belgian aristocrats Emil Mayer (1824-1879) and Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh(1838−1920) established both prestige through charitable deeds and wealth through income from shipping, distilleries and land. Emil bought some Jan Brueghel paintings and perhaps his lead influenced his son. Today, the remarkable Mayer van den Bergh Collection remains unchanged in Antwerp. With the exception of Emil’s few acquisitions, the entirety of the collection was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858−1901). Upon his sudden death (due to a riding accident) his mother Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh decided to build a suitable museum as a tribute to her son’s collection. The museum was inaugurated in 1904, with a foundation established in 1906 to maintain continuity and integrity of the collection. This volume traces how that collection came to be, what it consists of and how it remained independent as a museum.
From the start, Fritz’s collection had a consciously, unashamedly connoisseurial character. It was not planned to have a tight historical or geographical focus; it would prioritise aesthetic considerations over documentary value; it would prefer the major over the minor. In some ways, it was – and appears – wilfully eccentric, both in senses of being unusual and also off centre. There are Japanese woodblock prints, medieval carvings, Gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, Golden Era Flemish paintings, Dutch genre pieces and Nineteenth-Century Belgian society portraits. Fritz “did not limit himself to collecting art from the past; he also expressed an interest in contemporary fine and applied arts. […] The wallpaper in Fritz’s death chamber, for example, features an Art Nouveau floral motif, which, at first glance, may seem unexpected. The motif recalls the wallpaper of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement […] Fritz also actively sought out contemporary artists who shared his historical interest and aesthetic preferences.” He was not a purist other than the most essential aspect of a great collector – he cleaved purely to his own taste without consideration of outside approval or disapproval.
Fritz scoured Europe for treasures of fine- and applied-art from Flanders, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, sometimes accompanied by his mother. He bought during the great age when South Netherlandish masterpieces were in circulation following the centuries of neglect that had seen these pictures put in storage or sold for a pittance by collectors and church authorities, who considered them primitives (hence Flemish Primitives). (Read my review here.) He bought and sold from the collection, refining his holdings. Knowledge that American collectors were buying Netherlandish art on a huge scale worried connoisseurs in the Low Countries. The relatively few early paintings in private and national collections (especially Belgian museums) prompted collectors to purchase work deliberately to keep art close to the location where they were created. Fritz’s activities were an expression of taste rather than a tightly organised investigation.
At the same time as American magnates were assembling collections of European masterpieces, one Belgian was doing the same. The boom in the international art trade in the 1880-1940 period saw the massive movement of art from their places of origin to museums and private collectors, many of them in the USA.
Fritz commissioned the De Scalden artist Edmond Van Offel (1871-1959) to illustrate a collection of German legends. This book was not published until after Fritz’s premature death. The one drawing here seems derivative of Beardsley’s illustrations. The De Scalden movement (1889-1914) was a Flemish school drawing on historical roots, something like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was a Catholic movement that sought to break away from academic art. However, rather than taking the optical/Modernist road laid out by the avant-garde (Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), it sought to revive the regional, national and Gothic art. There was a clear sympathy between De Scalden and the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents. It did parallel – constituted as it was as a society – the more adventurous groups Les XX, De XIII, Les Independants, La Libre Esthétique and Kunst van Heden.
So, what are the highlights of the museum?
Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s Christ and St John the Evangelist Group (c. 1280-90) is a polychromed walnut carving. It shows the two figures in identical golden robes. St John the Evangelist rests his head on Christ’s shoulder and rests his hand in Christ’s. The portrayal catches the modern eye by St John’s apparent effeminacy in his pose. It is an unusual sculpture and it is not surprising it captured Fritz’s attention. Wilhelm Bode wanted to acquire the sculpture for the Berliner Gemäldegalerie and even wrote to Fritz about the possibility.
The Mayer van den Bergh collection houses two great paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1565). The little-known Twelve Proverbs (1558) has 12 scenes of figures illustrating common Dutch proverbs, arranged in a grid format. In 1894, Fritz bought for 300 marks a painting from a Cologne auction house. It was thought to be a fantasy painting by Jan “Hell” Brueghel. It turned out to be Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost original panel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563) – a sensational find. Bruegel’s reputation was on the rise during the period, after a long stretch of obscurity and indifference. His art was considered too grotesque, scatological and crude for most art historians. Only with the acceptance of the Romantics and the rise of Symbolism were precursors appreciated more. The rise of Flemish nationalism in the 1890s provided an impetus to greater interest in Bruegel as a great original Fleming.
The collection comprised Medieval and Renaissance art. David Teniers the Younger’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1640-60) and typical panel by Joachim Patinir are familiar sights for museum goers. Other artefacts include stained-glass windows, stone carvings of many periods, bas reliefs in metal, Japanese prints and netsukes, coins and furniture.
Within months after her son’s death, a grieving Henriëtte had commenced work on a museum to house her son’s collection. The building of the museum was finished in 1904. It was maintained by a board of regents and was initially only opened to invited guests. “After the 1880s, a large number of collector’s museums were founded, across Europe and in North America. Some of the best-known examples include the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (which opened in 1881), the Musée Condé in Chantilly (1898), the Wallace Collection in London (1900), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1903), the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (1913) and the Frick Collection in New York (1935).”
The house was built with period features, including fittings such as panelling and fireplaces that were either original or replicated. There was antique furniture also. The rooms represented different periods of Flemish history: Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Louis XVI. The rooms varied from the baronial to the bourgeois in character and size; it was not by any means a massive building, taking up only the land allotted to two adjoining residential buildings. It was a private vision of cultural history, on made without the control of state-accredited experts. Both the collector and his mother were averse to publicity and guarded their privacy actively. Few personal papers survive and there were no diaries or memoirs written by them, so there is relatively little personal information about their lives, which seems to have been their intention.
This book includes numerous photographs of the interior of the museum, both recent and vintage. It includes a selection of images of notable works in the collection but is nothing like a comprehensive catalogue. For those of deprived of international travel, this book provides a glimpse of one of Belgium’s most distinctive and original museums.
2. History in the Future
Dr Müller explains that the Ghent collecting culture of the Nineteenth Century was different from that of Brussels. Brussels collections were concentrated on art that was produced in the territories that became Belgium in 1830, and tended to be more recent in a deliberate or subconscious attempt to reinforce a national identity; Ghent (and Antwerp) collectors focused on art of Flanders, eschewing the state for the cultural nation, and preferred medieval artefacts. Reproduced in the book are photographs of the 1894 World Fair in Antwerp, which was used as a chance to celebrate Flemish culture. (Fritz was a member of a society promoting preservation and restoration of distinguished buildings and monuments.) Although Fritz was forming his collection at this time, his taste was broader than Flemish art alone. (As already discussed.) The revival of historic architecture and patriotism in this period would play a part in the building of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, which was in a historicist revival style.
Fritz’s amateur collection grew at a time when museums were becoming professionalised. The first university degrees in art history (at Belgian universities) were commenced at the time the museum opened. Fritz did research on his acquisitions, buying books and auction catalogues and subscribing to journals. He also consulted foreign art historians and museum personnel and was consulted in return, earning the respect of professionals. Fritz assisted in providing information to writers who published articles about his acquisitions but did not publish himself.
“It seems Henriëtte and Fritz were mainly interested in the archaeological and aesthetic aspects of the reconstruction of the 16th-century city centre of Antwerp. They did not identify with the dominant bourgeois Liberal interpretation of history that was so prominent in Oud Antwerpen. As members of the Catholic upper class, with strong ties to the nobility, the Mayer van den Berghs espoused very different ideals than the Liberal – and mainly anticlerical – bourgeoisie. Catholics focused on the traditional values of Christian faith and charity and on the conservation of existing societal structures. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, mainly pursued economic progress, striving to limit the Church’s interference in society and education.”
“After Fritz’s death in 1901, Henriëtte deliberately opted to establish her own foundation rather than bequeath his collection to the city, the state or another institution. She did this despite a long-standing Antwerp tradition of donations to the Museum of Fine Arts. […] Fritz and his mother did not maintain particularly close ties with members of the city’s Liberal cultural circles […] Fritz was not exactly well disposed to the Liberal municipal municipal council […]” Her caution was well deserved. In only one instance – fixed by bequest – was a donated collection kept intact by state or municipal authorities. In all other cases, the collections were dispersed.
Henriëtte wrote, “My poor Fritz would not have liked it at all that his art treasures were managed by the Liberals – whom he detested.” She established an enduring trust to preserve the museum from the city’s control. “I am mainly in favour of a tontine, to ensure that I cannot be forced to leave the collections that my son amassed to the city.” Her expressed hostility to the liberal city municipality, written into foundation documents, preserved her legacy. Namely: “The museum shall always bear the name ‘Museum Mayer van den Bergh’. The collections will remain unchanged in the state that they were upon my death. Nothing may be added or removed from the collections. No object that belongs to the collection shall ever leave the museum.”
Since that time, a compromise has been reached. Since 1974, the city employs the staff and allows access to visitors but the regents of the museum retain ownership and control of the museum and contents. Loans are rarely permitted. This is something we have seen modern authorities do repeatedly to bequests that were specifically left to be non-loan collections. (See the Burrell Collection, Barnes Collection, etc.) We should bear in mind James Burnham’s observation. “The truth is that, whatever its legal merits, the concept of “the separation of ownership and control” has no sociological or historical meaning. Ownership means control; if there is no control, then there is no ownership.” We might harshly view the regents’ position as little more than titular figureheads, politely permitted to maintain the illusion of control, while not having the capacity to pay its staff. We might generously view the compromise as maintaining the character and contents of the museum whilst permitting some useful flexibility. I recall seeing Dulle Griet in the 2018 Vienna exhibition of Bruegel.
She did not see the need or value of debasing the privacy and seclusion of her museum to the general public. Her dismissal of the possibility shows her aristocratic mindset. Did she foresee the compromises that would have had to have been made to allow mass viewership? She commissioned scholarly catalogues documenting the collection.
In early years, the number of visitors was between 30 and 50 per month. With so few visitors (almost all of them previously known to Henriëtte), the tours could be led by the owner herself. When questioned about the possibility of the museum becoming fully public, Henriëtte responded: “This depends what you mean by ‘public’. Do you mean everyone, the masses? No. Are you referring to my friends, art lovers from Antwerp and abroad, famous people or people who were recommended to me? Yes, they will have access to the museum and I will be happy that so many of them have demonstrated an interest in my artistic endeavours.”
This is a pressing issue today, as conservative and reactionary groups are struggling to re-establish core values through cultural production and collection in the face of the pro-globalist establishment which is hostile to Western values, Christianity and localism. The model of the Mayer van den Berghs could provide a profitable one for those who need to keep their culture away from the influence of an expanding state. Disappointing as the compromises since Henriëtte’s death are, conservatives have to address the issue of pragmatism. What happens if a museum is not financially viable? Who will pay for necessary repair and security measures in an old building? Can a museum be maintained in an urban district that becomes inhabited by a new population that is hostile towards the museum? Should a museum refuse a gift of a valuable complementary artefact because of its charter? All of these problems – squalidly prosaic and expansive as they are – have to be considered by collectors considering preserving their collections in toto.
Unlikely as it may seem, this book could become a handbook for cultural conservatives looking for inspiration in their quest to preserve their culture. Highly recommended.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.
A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).
The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.
Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing by Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.
Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture. Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”
The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.
The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.
The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.
The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8
This new collection gathers 10 poems and 1 essay by Alexander Adams related to art. On Art II covers subjects such as memory, history, imagination, travel and art including that by Bruegel, Magritte, Dutch painters and others. A short essay discusses the author’s life drawings, with images. On Art II is illustrated with 10 drawings, none previously published, and it follows the format of On Art (2018). Printed on cream paper, paperback, double-stapled spine, A5 size, 41pp, 128 copies in cream covers.
Alexander Adams, On Art II, Golconda Fine Art Books, 15 May 2020, paperback, 41pp, 10 mono illus., £8, ISBN 978-1-9999614-1-1
[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).
The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.
Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.
The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).
[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.
Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”
Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.
[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]
Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.
There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.
Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.
[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.
The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.
Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5
[Image: Jan Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 115 cm, The Hague, Mauritshaus. (c) Maurithaus, The Hague]
Low Countries painting from the Seventeenth Century is a high point in the arts of Western civilisation and justly called a Golden Age. A new book lavishly presents a selection of its highlights. The German art historian Norbert Wolf examines the Golden Age of art of the Seventeenth Century in the Low Countries, today the states of the Netherlands and Belgium. As befits its prestigious subject, the production of this book is lavish. The large (37 x 31 cm) format and pictorial slipcase are imposing. Wolf’s formidable historical knowledge allows us to trust his judgment as he guides us through the highlights of the century.
The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 brought an end to an eighty-year war of independence in the Low Countries. The States General of the Netherlands gained autonomy from Spanish Habsburg rule, while the South Netherlands remained under the control of the Spanish as the Spanish Netherlands and would eventually become the territory called Belgium. In the North the decline of the aristocracy, foreign control and the religious restrictions of Habsburg control fostered a burgeoning of science, commerce, global exploration and a growth of a prosperous merchant class. Independence also brought about an abrupt end to the Counter Reformation in the North.
The international commerce and colonial expansion led to war with England and a degree of uncertainty about the future. Despite this, the increase in Dutch income and the commensurate spending on the arts was prodigious. The art of the North was predominantly secular and non-religious, though Biblical scenes were made and sold. The religious climate of the North fostered principally portraiture, still-lifes, marines, landscapes and genre scenes. There was morality but it was symbolic and indirect. Wolf points out that there was a fair degree of religious tolerance in the North, with Calvinism a minority sect and diverse Protestant doctrines and Catholicism permitted to be followed by citizens in the North. The situation was less lenient for Protestants in the Catholic South.
In the North the dichotomy between the austerity of Calvinist and Puritan doctrine and the desire of the merchant class to invest (and display) their disposable wealth in the form of art is visible when we look at the art. It was a balance between conspicuous consumption and a belief in moral and aesthetic restraint. The slow decline of art in the Southern Netherlands can be attributed to the effects of its status as a possession of the Spanish crown, notwithstanding the importance of cloth and wool trade of Brabant and Flanders. Only Antwerp and Brussels were significant centres of art production in the South during the Seventeenth Century. Wolf points out that artists migrated between the two states and sought patronage from collectors outside of their home regions. He posits that a fondness for morality contained in genre and peasant scenes common between Northerners and Southerners.
It is possible to see Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) as the dividing point when Netherlandish art becomes the schools of Dutch and Flemish painting, with Bruegel becoming the first stylistically Flemish painter. For convenience we can date 1550 as the point when this division begins to occur. Baroque has a dual meaning: pertaining to Baroque character and the Baroque period. Flemish painting is of both, whereas Dutch painting proper is only Baroque in period, its austere character and lack of ecstatic transcendent religious tone prevent it from being Baroque in content. All of these gradual changes occur before the formal division of the lands in 1648.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sweetness, sentimentality and ethereal fantasies – as well as Catholic religious painting – of Jan Brueghel embody the Flemish school. His paintings of landscapes are characterised by a softness of touch and delicate graduation of depth. He was also noted for his flower pieces. He collaborated with Rubens and formed a link between the first stage of distinctly Flemish art and the art of Rubens and the Baroque period Counter Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Rubens can in some respects be seen as the counterpart to Jan’s painterly temperament.
[Image: Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c. 1636), oil on wood, 131 x 229 cm, The National Gallery, London. (c) The National Gallery, London]
The scope of the study allows the author to discuss Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), those twin pillars (or poles) of Low Countries Golden Age painting. In addition there was a wealth of art produced by artists not influenced or associated with these two artists. Consider the still-lifes of Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz, here represented by magnificent examples that are unsurpassed in deftness, clarity and impact. These are instances of the ideal of verisimilitude that Dutch art theorists of the time advanced.
Rubens was a revolutionary figure more for his landscapes than for his figure painting – although his nudes are now his best known motifs. It is curious that Wolf includes the Samson and Delilah (c. 1609?) ascribed to Rubens. This painting was recently bought by the National Gallery, London but is suspected to be a later copy, as it deviates from Rubens standard practice and its composition differs in some important respects from an early engraved copy of the original composition. (For more discussion about this attribution read this post on ArtWatch.)
Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was Rubens assistant and seen as the artist who best took the mantle of portraitist to the aristocracy. His portrait of Charles I of England is a dazzling extension of Rubens colour and sensitivity, combined with Van Dyck’s flair. Wolf explains the relative statuses of Van Dyck and Rubens as such: “[…] Why does present-day art history nevertheless place Rubens above van Dyck? Primarily because van Dyck’s œuvre does not possess the same versatility, even universality, of that of his teacher, because van Dyck achieved greatness only in the genre of portraiture, whereas Rubens excelled at the portrait as well as the landscape and animal painting, at the monumental altarpiece, as well as at mythological scenes and allegorical sequences.”[i]
Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens (1593-1678) became the painter favoured by the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands after Rubens’s death, furthering the Counter Reformation in his giant canvases. The artist’s undeniable flair for depicting flesh and various textures and for organising a composition made him a worthy recipient of patronage. Wolf illustrates a large genre painting which proves that Jordaens range was larger than the allegories, myths and Biblical scenes by him that are most prominent in museums. He notes that in these genre paintings he is the descendent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The Utrecht Caravaggisti formed the vanguard of Baroque sophistication in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, influencing following painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is little new to be said about Rembrandt. Wolf outlines Rembrandt’s principal contributions to painting, though he cannot mention his comparable innovations in drawing and printmaking. It is regrettable that for reasons of space, non-painting fine and decorative arts have had to have been excluded. The subject of painting of the period (believed to have generated the total production of 5 million paintings) is vast enough without consideration of these other arts. The size and quality of the illustrations allow readers to see Rembrandt’s daring painterly techniques and the emotional range. He rightly holds centre stage in this survey, with only Rubens and Vermeer rivalling him for significance.
Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is seen as the linking figure between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Although long believed that Fabritius – who had been one of Rembrandt’s assistants – was the tutor of Vermeer, this seems not to be the case. However, emotionally and technically, Fabritius’s brilliance, painterly restraint, technical skill, narrative reticence and subtlety lead from Rembrandt to Vermeer. If Fabritius had not been killed at the age of 32 by a giant gunpowder explosion in Delft – which also destroyed many of his paintings – he could have matched Rembrandt and Vermeer in achievement. As with the early deaths of Giorgione, Schiele and Raphael, one wonders what posterity was robbed of due to Fabritius’s untimely death.
Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) used the camera obscura in his realistic depictions of women in interiors, although he apparently deviated from the image projected by the optical device. He needed the flexibility or electing to emphasis, remove and change motifs in the images the device produced. It is the second-rate artist who fixes upon a system, device or approach and applies it without deviation. It is the great artist who knows how to apply a system and when to change it to increase the effectiveness of a work of art. It is his judgment that allows him to understand how viewers will see and understand the art and he knows when to suspend the rules he usually implements. His best works are illustrated and the reproduction of the View of Delft benefits especially from the large size allowing us to see the intricate detail so clearly.
Frans Hals is the most significant Dutch portraitist after Rembrandt. His bravura brushwork is on display in the illustrated work. Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers the Younger (son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder) and Adriaen and Isaak van Ostade are fine exponents of the genre painting of the working class engaged in drunken ribaldry. The more genteel scenes of middle-class people in domestic interiors were made by Gerard Dou, Gerard Terborch, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. These also included coded moral stories about virtues of chastity, fidelity and restraint, among others. Alongside the still-life, the moralistic genre scene is a Dutch specialisation which has become synonymous with Dutch art. Cornelis Norbertus Gjisbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten specialised in trompe-l’œil still-lifes. Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are representative of the landscape painting that proved so influential in Western and Northern European national schools. The whole of English landscape is essentially an extension of Dutch principles inflected by Italianate topographic features and light. Jan van Goyen was a landscapist who relied on the animation of his scenes with people or animals. The selection seems a touch light on still-lifes and marines and touch heavy on the portraits and figure paintings, but every readers taste will vary. By no means is this selection a distortion or misrepresentation of the character of the best art of this region and era.
[Image: Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (also called The Jewish Bride) (c. 1665), oil on canvas, 121 x 166 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. (c) Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]
Although most of the names are familiar, some of choices for illustrations are not obvious and some lesser known painters will engage readers. One of the less recognisable paintings is the brilliant Self-Portrait (c. 1651) by David Bailly (1584-1657). This large painting is unusually complex, with the seated figure of the artist placed beside an elaborate still-life with pictures, symbolic attributes, indications of his profession, references to his private life, as well as objects included for their optical variety and attractiveness. The bubbles refer to the briefness of life; the skull acts as a memento mori; the recorder indicates the sensory pleasure of music; the pipe is for the pleasure of smoking; money is the acquisition of worldly riches; the flowers are the brevity of earthly existence. The picture is playful with the complexity of symbolism, yet it is also a commentary on the deceptiveness of art. The painter is shown as a young man yet the painter was aged 67 when he made the picture. It seems that the portrait that the artist holds is not – as we might have guessed – a portrait of his father but actually a true likeness of the artist as he was at the time the self-portrait was created. It is the “real” figure of the artist that is based upon an earlier painting. The portrait of his deceased wife is placed behind the snuffed-out candle. Bailly dazzles us with his technique skill and his command of symbolism – complimenting our wisdom and discernment – at the same time he deceives us with by misrepresenting his age and thereby turning his past self into his present self.
The author concludes with discussion about the nature of the Baroque, the theatricality of painting, symbolism and concludes with some examples of the way Low Countries painting influenced art of later periods and other countries. The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting is an excellent guide to the highlights of this age of giants in the Flemish and Dutch schools.
Norbert Wolf, The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Prestel, 3 October 2019, 272pp, fully col. illus., hardback in pictorial slipcase, $140/£99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8406 1
As part of a series of events to mark the 450th anniversary of death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) (including the giant exhibition currently open at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium has published a wide-ranging study of two Bruegel paintings owned by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. The two oil paintings are Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) and Census at Bethlehem (1566), paintings that were made when the artists lived in Brussels. This book is a follow-up to the excellent monograph on Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Tine Luk Meganck, one of the authors of the present volume. (For a discussion of that book, see my review, The Jackdaw, no. 121, May/June 2015, p.20.)
This book collects essays by art historians and historians, so we get a mixture of assessment of the paintings as art and an appreciation of the actual social circumstances of the Brabant people at the time. Anne-Laure Van Bruaene has an essay explaining the distribution, functions, taxation and regulation of taverns in Brabant. There is another essay by Erik Aerts covering the census-taking and taxes. Census and taxation go hand in hand, from Roman times to today. There are essays on politics, religion and climate data.
Overall, the interpretations of Bruegel’s paintings by the contributing art historians and historians are somewhat more benign than others. They consider Bruegel less political and his moral instruction obscure. The writers state that the complexity and ambiguity of the vignettes and the rich variety of contemporary Dutch proverbs mean that Bruegel’s intentions in these paintings is unclear. There is evident wit and didacticism about Bruegel’s tableaux but the interpretations vary so greatly that Bruegel’s political, religious and social outlooks remain only partially legible to us. Perhaps his contemporaries thought the same.
Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) shows a snow-blanketed village tableau filled with human activity: people playing golf, skating, curling stones and other undertaking other seemingly unproductive activities. On leafless branches in the foreground, birds sit. To the right in the foreground is a bird trap – an old door propped up over a scattering of crumbs. The crumbs attract birds. A cord runs from the prop to the window of a nearby house where an unseen person waits to pull away the prop in order to trap birds under the falling door. This was a common and easy way of securing bird meat in inclement weather. The authors do not mention a viable interpretation: that the setter of the trap is actually absent and thereby negligent by failing to attend to the current opportunity.
At the time Bruegel lived Europe was undergoing the Little Ice Age, so severe it caused sea ice on the North Sea coast along the Low Countries, trapping and freezing to death sailors. Writers suggest that 1564-5 was the harshest winter for many years. Was Bruegel was representing the weather of that famed season in these two paintings or recreating typical scenes derived from the traditional Book of Hours illustrations? It seems that Winter Landscape was the oil painting that popularised the winter landscape in Dutch art. While there were a few earlier paintings of snow – especially in miniature illustrations of Books of Hours – it was Bruegel’s painting which proved the keystone to the genre. The workshop of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) produced many of the 131 known copies of the painting.
It is a perennial question as to how realistic this painting is. Our curiosity about the life of previous times leads us to seek out documentary proof. Bruegel would certainly have understood that his paintings used aspects of the real world without believing that the best art was realistic. The consensus is that Bruegel’s art described the real and used elements from reality without ever attempting to engage in what we would classify as Realism or Naturalism. His moral landscapes are didactic and satirical but also compassionate and generous in their depiction of the peasantry. They were not real but a reflection on the real. There are comparative images of hats, skates and mittens preserved in museums, so we can assess Bruegel’s veracity.
While Winter Landscape is a painting full of space, Census at Bethlehem (1566) is the reverse. It is altogether a more complex picture, full of incident and much trickier to interpret. Mary and Joseph arrive at Bethlehem, which is not in the Levant but the Spanish South Netherlands in Bruegel’s century. Local people gather to register for a census and pay their annual taxes. The village is deep in winter and bustling. Men are carrying sacks over the frozen river, people take part in snowball fights, sledding, curling and engage in commercial activity. Payment of taxes was done by coin and goods, including grain and animals.
The characters with broad circular hats are gypsies, with descriptions so detailed and lifelike that the painter must have recalled them from life, if not from sketches made at the time. Gypsies were considered connected to the Near East and – by extension – the Holy Lands at the time of Christ. They were also considered dangerous and untrustworthy. There official proclamations in Brabant warning the populace against the interacting with gypsies and declaring that individuals who were swindled by gypsy fortune tellers had no legal recourse. In Census a gypsy steals vegetables from the garden of a leper.
Highly placed city residents with strong connections to authority seem to have been customers for Bruegel’s paintings, whereas his prints would have been affordable for merchants and artisans. The first owner of Census was Jan Vleminck Sebastiaenszoon, Lord of Wijnegem. He was a Brabantine landowner and merchant banker, described as a Catholic and royalist, which is enlightening. One line of interpretation among art historians is that Bruegel was sympathetic to Protestant peasantry’s opposition to occupation by the Spanish crown and its Catholic supporters. While there is much to support this view, this connection with Vleminck shows that Bruegel was at least on good terms with Catholic gentry, who would have had the money to purchase large panel paintings. Interestingly, Bruegel collectors Vleminck, Granvelle, Jongelinck and Ortelius were all Catholics but reformists and political moderates who urged clemency and tolerance of the Spanish. Sadly, the Spanish did not choose this course; the Duke of Alba began a campaign of terror and repression that led to war.
The census of Bethlehem is a fascinating choice for a subject as the commissioner was a tax collector himself. That meant that the very money Bruegel received for this painting came ultimately from the taxation of the peasantry. Bruegel’s view of the census is by no means as critical as it could have been. He shows the annual tax collection as a time of communal activity, including commerce and celebration connected to the mid-winter feast. So the paying taxes is both a time of loss of money and acquisition of money, an inevitable onerous burden which must be borne with fortitude, as one endures a winter or a bereavement. Likewise, the inn had a dual function; it was the place of tax collection and of drunken conviviality.
Meganck suggests that the famous Massacre of the Innocents is not the trenchant criticism of the Spanish it is discussed as. He points out that the uniforms of the officers and soldiers in the painting are dressed archaically, so viewers of Bruegel’s day would have understood the painting referred to the past rather commenting directly on the political crisis in Brabant in 1666. Meganck’s inference is that Bruegel was making a more general statement about the abuse of power and the savagery of military force unleashed upon civilians. This reading seems fair but it will be hard to shake the political anti-Spanish interpretation as the latter has the force of undiluted moral narrative and historically satisfying collocation.
The book illustrates the drawing of a farmhouse in Brabant that Bruegel included in the Census. This drawing (at the Louvre) is apparently a copy of a lost Bruegel original. The building is a farmhouse in Wijnegem that was most likely owned by Vleminck, thus including the patron’s home in the Census painting. Other drawings, prints and paintings by Bruegel show how these two featured paintings fit into his oeuvre. There are many illustrations of details which are necessary. Bruegel trained as a miniaturist and he included a lot of detail in his oil paintings. The illustrations show us incidents that we may have previously overlooked. Other images are of rare prints, illuminations and paintings by lesser-known artists help us place Bruegel’s art in a continuum of Christian devotional image making.
Technical analysis reveals a consistency in method that indicates Bruegel had no assistants, unlike his son and grandsons who had pupils and assistants. It is notable that in this book, contrary to the catalogue for the current Vienna exhibition, there is an absence of technical scientific analysis. It would have given us a broader understanding of the two paintings if we could have seen a technical description of them, which would at least tell us if they have been trimmed, restored, altered or damaged.
We are living in a time when Bruegel studies are being pushed to new levels; based on scientific analysis, new imaging technology and archival research, our understanding of one of the founders of post-renaissance painters – a critical figure in Western art – is becoming deeper and fuller. This absorbing book is a valuable part of the research. This book is warmly recommended for art historians, Bruegel fans, painters and anyone interested in 16th Century life.
Tine Luk Meganck & Sabine van Sprang (eds.), Bruegel’s Winter Scenes. Historians and Art Historians in Dialogue, RMFAB/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, hardback, 248pp, fully illus., €54.95, ISBN 978 9462 302235