Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 10, 2012
Karolien de Clippel, Katharina van Cauteren, and Katlijne van der Stighelen, eds. The Nude and the Norm in the Early Modern Low Countries Museums at the Crossroads.. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. 220 pp.; 132 b/w ills. Paper $95.00 (9782503535692)

The nude body—simultaneously manifest as classical ideal, titillating form, creative source, and condemned subject—is so central to the history of Renaissance and Baroque art that any study devoted to the topic at large risks the pitfalls of generalization. One way to avoid this snare is to focus more narrowly on the oeuvre of a single artist, a specific theme (like the representation of Christ’s body), or even a seminal individual example such as Jan van Eyck’s Adam and Eve panels from the Ghent Altarpiece (1424–35). Another option is to localize the reception of the nude within a certain geographical region or historical moment. The impact of Michelangelo’s bodies, for instance, both in the context of the Reformation and the artistic circles of his native Florence, might almost be said to constitute an independent field of inquiry in itself.

Yet this localized approach to studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images of the body has also engendered a particularly insidious category: the so-called “northern nude.” Countering the predominant narrative of the Italian Renaissance as site of the original revival of the classical body, the “northern nude”—infamously characterized by Kenneth Clark as the “alternative convention” (The Nude: A Study in Ideal Art, New York: Pantheon Books, 1956)—has been understood in its most reductive analysis to constitute a body resistant to idealization and circumscribed by an overwhelming awareness of shame. According to this analysis, Christian morality exerted its influence far more vehemently on representations of the nude body in the north, rendering them more explicitly naked, tortured, and culpable in their potential for erotic incitement. There are, to be sure, monuments like the transi tomb in northern European art which—in presenting their funerary subjects as corpses in an abject state of decay and consumption by worms—explicitly visualize the disjunction between fleeting external beauty and internal sinfulness. But to generalize that the nude body as depicted by northern artists was freighted with an excess of corporeality and moralizing connotations is both somewhat simplistic and counter to the visual evidence. By overstating the shameful body as the dominant paradigm in the history of the “northern nude,” scholars have also reflexively relegated all too many examples of the classical body in northern Renaissance art to the status of mere derivatives from Italian precedent. Does the “northern nude” actually constitute a legitimate historical category, or is it instead the mere invention of art historians far more interested in such categories than were Renaissance and Baroque artists themselves?

The most striking lacuna in the otherwise engaging volume The Nude and the Norm in the Early Modern Low Countries is the lack of an introduction positioning its collected essays in relation to the issue outlined above. The book’s editors, Karolien de Clippel, Katharina van Cauteren, and Katlijne van der Stighelen, state in their one-paragraph introduction that the nude was a popular subject in Netherlandish art from the sixteenth century onwards, but also that, “representations of the nude were under scrutiny and met with resistance,” and that, therefore, the aim of their edited volume “consists in clarifying this ambiguity” (5). The editors also evoke without definition or commentary the old problematic distinction between the “nude” and the “naked” that likewise harkens back to Clark’s looming introduction on the subject. These catchwords aside, the editors provide little insight into what they understand to comprise the unique aspects of the history of the nude in the Low Countries. Both of their distinctions—eager artistic engagement versus critical response and the idealized figure versus the self-consciously unclothed body—surface throughout the general history of the nude as pictorial subject. There is not so much an ambiguity to be resolved here as a productive and ever-present tension underlying the subject’s very appeal.

So to what extent do the individual authors’ essays illuminate key aspects of the nude in Netherlandish art? The editors have arranged the contents of their volume under three subheadings, the choice of which might also have been explained in a more extensive introduction.

The first section, “Model & Make-Up,” is perhaps the most coherent in its focus. Eric Jan Sluijter’s opening essay—usefully condensed from his recent study on Rembrandt’s nudes and their contemporary reception in the Low Countries (Rembrandt and the Female Nude, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006)—argues that Rembrandt’s impulse to imitate nature directly motivated his non-classical but empathic approach to the body.

Sluijter is the only contributor to directly address Clark’s discussion of the “northern nude.” He writes that Rembrandt, for the greater majority of his career, appealed to his local northern audience through female nudes whose forms evoke the exaggerated and non-anatomical shape of the fashionably clothed body; only later did he turn to the actual study of live models. The scarcity of live models in the northern artist’s studio prior to the later seventeenth century is also affirmed by Erna Kok’s subsequent essay.

The section’s last two essays address the codification of knowledge about the body in pictorial and written treatises. Victoria Sancho Lobis convincingly illuminates the ways in which printed drawing books of the seventeenth century reflected the general consensus on how to educate an artist not only by providing models for anatomical study but also by illustrating a series of striking poses culled from and deliberately evocative of the practice of life-drawing. Paul Taylor’s discussion of Gérard de Lairesse’s Groot Schilderboek (1707) points to the author’s artistic training in the southern Netherlands as fundamental to his penchant for using blue pigment when painting flesh tones, and to the fact that Lairesse was recommending a southern technique in a treatise aimed at a northern Netherlandish audience. Even though the depiction of skin and correct anatomy constitute central theoretical concerns in the larger history of the nude in Renaissance and Baroque art, Lobis and Taylor have identified specific and localized responses to these concerns in the Low Countries.

The second section, entitled “Matrix,” would seem to be interested in conceptions of the nude body within the wider Netherlandish cultural milieu. Hubert Meeus addresses the problem of nudity on the seventeenth-century stage and concludes, not unsurprisingly, that despite preemptive warnings actual nudity did not figure in contemporary theatrical production. Johan Verberckmoes discusses references to nudity and sexual body parts in jestbooks from the Spanish Low Countries and queries the extent to which the jokes in these printed collections of anecdotes and witty sayings—derived both from classical sources and the present day—functioned as moralizing social commentary. Although the subheadings employed in Verberckmoes’s essay explicitly reference “naked” breasts and bottoms, the text itself employs the adjectives “naked” and “nude” interchangeably, thereby obscuring any distinction between them. Both Meeus and Verberckmoes seem to be working with “the norm of a shameful body” (104), which—as discussed above—is endemic to the study of the “northern nude.”

Whereas the first two essays under the rubric of “Matrix” treat the implications surrounding the actual nude body, the latter two contributions return to issues surrounding its depiction. Ralph Dekoninck briefly summarizes the place of the nude within the Catholic-Protestant image debate and the choice between blaming either the images themselves or instead the artists who endowed them with lascivious content. Veerle de Laet contributes one of the more informative essays in the volume, which comprises the results of her analysis of two hundred probate inventories from seventeenth-century Brussels originally drawn up to determine the inheritance passed on to relatives. Although any such study is limited by its sample pool, De Laet’s proves aware of her methodological limitations and is adept at using representative examples from individual inventories. Her conclusion that only two percent of all paintings listed in Brussels inventories were paintings of nudes—and that none of these representations were hung in the public reception rooms of their owners’ homes—is an important antidote to the scholarly fixation on representations of the nude and the tendency to explode the importance of the genre relative to others.

The volume closes with four essays under the heading “Measure” which are not clearly related in focus. Fiona Healy’s investigation of the male nude in Netherlandish painting commences with Thomas de Keyser’s 1657 Odysseus and Nausicaa, but then surveys a wide range of other works. Her references to examples from sixteenth-century Netherlandish art are especially welcome given the dominance of the seventeenth century in the volume as a whole, yet it is also unsatisfying to find important exponents of the nude such as Jan Gossart and Maarten van Heemskerck given somewhat cursory treatment. Marie Geraerts’s essay is a close historical and technical study of Peter Paul Rubens’s ca. 1637 Feast of Venus and addresses the extent to which the treatment of nudes in the painting was informed by Ovid’s description of the goddess in his Fasti. Katharina Van Cauteren presents a compelling case for understanding paintings by Hendrick de Clerck showing the goddess Diana against the backdrop of the Sonian Forest—the imperial hunting grounds surrounding Brussels—as referencing the triumph over lust and the new Golden Age established by the reigning Archduke Albert and his virtuous wife Isabella. De Clippel concludes the volume by querying the extent to which Peter Paul Rubens responded to the canonical norms established by the Council of Trent and declares the large number of nudes produced by the artist to be evidence that spiritual authorities had little impact on him.

Together with Ann-Sophie Lehmann and Herman Roodenburg’s edited volume, Body and Embodiment in Netherlandish Art (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 58: 2007–8), the interest evinced by The Nude and the Norm is highly welcome. If future studies expand the field of inquiry beyond the still-preponderant emphasis on seventeenth-century painting to better address the preceding centuries of Netherlandish art, as well as sculpture and other media, the particular history of the nude in the Low Countries—and the need to reconsider the category of the “northern nude” at large—will gradually come more fully in view.

Marisa Anne Bass
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

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