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Dürer to Veronese is the second out of a series of four planned volumes exploring the function, meaning, and making of European paintings in the collection of the National Gallery, London. Unlike the first volume, Giotto to Dürer, covering two hundred and fifty years of pictorial production and published in 1991, the present volume focuses upon one century alone and does not include separate entries on individual paintings. The new book, written by the restorer Jill Dunkerton; the curator of early Netherlandish, German, and British painting, Susan Foister; and the Keeper and Clore curator of Renaissance Art, Nicholas Penny, contains nine chapters, of which the last four on the actual execution of sixteenth-century paintings are far superior to the ones dealing with function and meaning.
The first part of the book under review touches upon a great many points, though too often in a perfunctory fashion. It opens with some observations on sixteenth-century culture and the classical past, and proceeds to draw quick sketches of several of the principal actors upon the European stage, including Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King Francis I of France, King Philip II of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Then, the crises of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are mentioned. Next, we explore various types of sixteenth-century painting preserved at the National Gallery, including altarpieces, private devotional images, (movable) ceiling paintings, allegories and mythological scenes for the palaces of connoisseurs, furniture decorations, and portraits.
Considering the museum’s strengths, this narrative weighs heavily in favor of Italy, with the Netherlands and Germany tying in for second place. Little is said about developments in England, France, Spain, or Bohemia, where, according to the present account, foreign masters delivered the most significant work. The collection’s resources do not allow for an examination of painting in other parts of Europe. Thus, this series of essays joins previous accounts of sixteenth-century European painting, which concentrate upon the Italian Renaissance—in emulation of Vasari—while paying homage to Netherlandish and German art. Significantly, however, these authors examine a wide range of subjects across time and place, instead of delivering yet another sequence of histories of the great schools of painting in Europe. Thus, we obtain particularly revealing comparisons of pictorial practices both in different regions and at different times. The authors regularly draw upon pictures, drawings, prints, and even majolica in other collections, in order to support their arguments.
What is missing from the first part of this book, unfortunately, is a brief history of the great collections of European painting that came to form the core of the holdings of the National Gallery. One would also want to learn something about the evolution of the museum’s acquisition policies over the course of the past two centuries. Why is it that certain schools of painting are so strongly represented, while others are partly or completely ignored? Shouldn’t we start rethinking the history of painting in Europe? One would expect to find significant amounts of sixteenth-century English painting in this museum—the reason why this is not the case is never explained. Further, what role did this museum’s collection play in reinforcing the Western Canon?
This book likewise fails to take a significant amount of scholarship that has informed our understanding of sixteenth-century painting into account. Instead, it suggests that there is only one possible reading of a given image and consequently avoids testing alternative interpretations of the same painting. What is missing is the disclosure of the tensions inherent to a particular work, which different methodologies have the power to reveal. Further, little or nothing is said about the display of paintings in their original setting, how patrons used pictures, specific commissions or contractual stipulations, sixteenth-century artistic theory or the remarkable changes in the status of the artist that took place over the course of the sixteenth century. Although this book lacks footnotes or endnotes, useful bibliographies supplement the essays.
The second part of this book is, on the other hand, remarkable in almost every respect. Here we study the production of paintings from the initial drawings and the preparation of the support, to the application of successive layers of paint and the quality of the brushwork. This section is fraught with critical insight; our debt to the National Gallery’s conservator, Jill Dunkerton, is great indeed. It opens with a memorable sequential reading of the drawings preparatory for Barocci’s The Holy Family with the Infant Baptist. The authors suggest here that the palette and sfumato modeling of Barocci’s paintings may be informed by his use of colored chalks in his drawings, and that his painted compositional studies marked the development of a new type of image, in which the planned picture’s light orchestration could be tested. Somewhat further in the book, we are told that if we exclude Venice and some other North Italian cities, we may conclude that European easel paintings were generally executed upon wooden panels until the very end of the sixteenth-century. In contradistinction to earlier practice, frames were often carved separately in the period under consideration, and mounted onto the panels only once these were painted, thereby facilitating the construction of the pictorial supports. Since the planks of large panels were most often arranged parallel to the greater dimension of the picture, a limited number of planks was needed and, in consequence, fewer potentially disruptive joins appeared in the panels. Since the planks of tall panels were placed side by side instead of one on top of the other, buckling was largely contained. There are however exceptions to this rule, mostly in paintings from Venice, the immediate mainland, and the cities on the Adriatic coast to the south; these exceptions cannot always be explained. In paintings on canvas, pieces of canvas—rarely much more than one meter wide—were likewise arranged in such a way as to limit their number relative to the format of the picture, thereby limiting the amount of seams.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, certain North Italian painters began using colored grounds, instead of the luminous white gesso surfaces of earlier times. This brought about a reversal in painting techniques, since the darker areas of a picture needed no longer be carefully built up with layer upon layer of translucent glaze, while the lighter colors merely required increased opacity and a denser paint application in order to be effective. The use of colored grounds produced greater tonal harmony, which allowed for greater flexibility in the handling of paint. As a result of this, swiftness of execution and individuality of facture were increasingly revered. Sadly, the texture and finish of many sixteenth-century paintings on canvas were subsequently damaged by lining. The use of colored grounds and the desire for lasting fame led to experiments with different types of support, including stone and slick metal surfaces, which were believed to be able to withstand the test of time.
The differing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century methods of painting are brilliantly explained in this section of the book. However, we are told little about the condition of the paintings we are examining. As is well known, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne was the subject of an intensive and controversial campaign of restoration; however, nothing is said about how this intervention may have distorted the surface of the picture and may consequently affect our understanding of the image.
The photographs accompanying the essays are judiciously chosen and splendidly reproduced. Quite a number of works are shown without their frames, so that the relation of the painted surface to the complete pictorial support can be evaluated. However, since pictures were meant to be framed, more needed to be said about sixteenth-century frames. Are we to assume that all the paintings that are reproduced in isolation lack their original frames?
This book also presents extraordinary close-ups of the surface of paintings, thereby occasionally allowing for the examination of the weave of a canvas or the rings in a panel, as well as the brushwork, craquelure, and patina of a painting. We are likewise shown cross-sections of paint samples, X-rays and infrared reflectograms of paintings, the back of panels as well as the reverse of rarer pictorial supports such as a slab of slate and a sheet of copper. More importantly, we are taught how to interpret the surviving evidence. The chapters on materials and techniques that form the second part of this book are essential reading for anyone who is interested in the development of sixteenth-century easel painting.
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology
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