Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 1999
Charles Sterling, Maryan W. Ainsworth, Charles Talbot, Martha Wolff, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Jonathan Brown, and John Hayes Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Paintings in the Robert Lehman Collection: France, Central Europe, The Netherlands, Spain, and Great Britain New York and Princeton: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, 2009. 256 pp.; 60 color ills.; 97 b/w ills. Cloth $125.00 (0691006989)
Lorne Campbell The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools London: National Gallery, London in association with Yale University Press, 1999. 464 pp.; 110 color ills.; 270 b/w ills. Cloth £75.00 (185709171X)
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Two recent collection catalogues, both investigating early modern European paintings, provide an index of the state of the art for scholarship on individual museum objects. Both are splendidly produced and result from years of patient research. Both admirably adduce the latest technical investigation from the conservation laboratory and integrate it with other findings. In one case, London’s National Gallery, the credited single curatorial author, Lorne Campbell, clearly builds on the splendid precedent of the former curator, Martin Davies (to whose memory the catalogue is dedicated). In the other case, a previously unsystematic and diverse but important collection has finally received the attention it deserves—from a team of specialists whose expertise ranges across the following countries: France, Central Europe, the Netherlands, Spain, and Great Britain. For the material overlapping with Campbell’s Flemish fifteenth century, the specialist enlisted was well-versed in this collection. Martha Wolff, now curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, was formerly an Assistant Curator at the Metropolitan Museum and later co-author (with John Hand) of the definitive collection catalogue (1986) of this “early Netherlandish” period from the National Gallery, Washington, which set previous standards for these works to follow.

The scope and depth of scholarship by Campbell (and his National Gallery colleagues) is simply staggering. Perhaps the best way to review the catalogue is to start with its star entry, NG 186, Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife, by Jan van Eyck, a signed and dated work of 1434 and one of the most familiar works in the National Gallery; indeed, this was a founding picture, acquired in 1842 by the new national collection. The entry for this renowned painting runs to thirty-eight pages (with double columns and small print—no small assignment to read!) And 312 footnotes (in tiny triple columns), with eight color reproductions (two of them photomicrographs), a photo of the reverse, an x-radiograph, four infrared reflectograms, and a dozen comparisons, drawn from manuscripts, derivative paintings, and other van Eyck portraits. An almost unbroken provenance begins the entry, and extensive technical analysis underscores the portions of the panel that were altered in the process of painting from their prior underdrawings as well as those elements (including most of the items—oranges, beads, pattens, dog, chandelier, and signature—taken to be symbolic by Panofsky in his famous 1934 interpretive article!) that were added only in the latter stages of painting. “Description” is bolstered by analysis, often of contemporary documents far afield from the realm of standard art history and often more appropriate to the study of “material culture.” Here, for example, we learn that some of the items on conspicuous display in this image were very costly and indicate conspicuous consumption on the part of the sitters: polished brass chandeliers, oriental carpet, costumes, even the casually arranged oranges in the window. We are reminded that such an interior is hardly a bedroom, despite the presence of a bed, but actually a main reception hall in a period two centuries before the concept of a private bedroom ever occurred (seventeenth-century Holland and its painted interiors are the touchstone), and Campbell notes also what is not on view—the usual fireplace as well as expensive plate that usually accompanies other riches. This is clearly an artificial space rather than a literal document.

Campbell’s consummate archival researches bear dazzling—and surprising—revisionist discoveries as he probes the identity of the sitters. Discovering no fewer than five (!) residents of Bruges with the name Arnolfini, the name associated with the panel in its earliest sixteenth-century references, he even notes that among these brothers and cousins there are two Giovanni Arnolfinis, the older one Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and the younger one (usually believed to be the sitter for this double portrait as well as the older van Eyck likeness of the same face in Berlin), Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini. This latter figure was the one married to Giovanna Cenami, the purported wife in the London picture—but he did not marry her until 1447! (This bombshell document, which included a wedding gift from van Eyck’s patron, Philip the Good, duke of the Netherlands, was discovered by Jacques Paviot in 1997, cited at n. 211.) Imagine where that leaves those folks, ever since Panofsky, who have surmised that the image, clearly dated 1434, is not only “Giovanni Arnolfini” but also a marriage (or at least a betrothal, as per Edwin Hall, 1994). Circumstances actually point to the “other” Giovanni Arnolfini, Giovanni di Nicolao, as the more likely candidate for the portrait’s patron; resident in Bruges since 1419, he married the prominent Costanza Trenta in 1426, but documents also point to the fact that she had died by 1433 (n.178), and no second wife has been found to date.

Campbell goes out of his way to demolish the wedding/betrothal theory of the situation for this double portrait, but without offering an alternate interpretation for what (with the presence of two visitors, visible in the mirror) still seems to have a narrative structure within its portraiture. He shows how Panofsky had rather thin evidence for both the symbolic reading of details of the image (a point made earlier by Bedaux and Hall, among others) as well as the gesture. He points to salutation gestures in other pictures as parallel gestures; however, the combination of raised hands and joined hands, especially between figures who are clearly (and acknowledged by Campbell) to be husband and wife (or at least betrothed), never receives explanation. He argues that such a full length portrait “is not at all unusual. Such portraits occurred frequently in dynastic series.” Yet he soon acknowledges that “NG 186 may be the earliest surviving portrait on panel of two persons who were not rulers and the earliest known portrait on panel where the subjects are seen in a domestic setting.” So the reader is left rather empty-handed in terms of dealing with this primal picture in the general history of European art, and in his powerful drive towards scientific validity and unimpeachable evidence, Campbell’s entry makes little reference to a host of diverse, clever (sometimes contradictory) interpretations by recent authors (besides Hall, whose bibliography should prove useful, and Bedaux, studies by Baldwin, Harbison, Seidel, and Deutsch Carroll can be cited). Instead the entry concludes with discussion of portrait shutters and perspective and the banality that Jan van Eyck’s powerful naturalism and achievement of “immutable perfection” do not imply literalness and impassive objectivity on the part of the artist. This entry is critical, original, and absolutely fundamental as a reference work; even with this plethora of facts and appropriate critique of prior hypotheses, what it is not is a plausible or comprehensive interpretation and a basic reconsideration of why such a picture took the form that it did from an artist who was at once a courtier and a burgher of Bruges.

Campbell does full justice to the other van Eyck pictures in London, and to the numerous authentic and peripheral works associated with the names Bouts, Campin, David, Joos van Ghent, Memling, and van der Weyden, all of whom are richly represented with major touchstone works and often as well with the work of “followers.” He accepts van Eyck’s 1433 so-called Man with a Turban (which he more precisely calls a cornet wound around a chaperon; NG 222) as a “Self Portrait (?)” in more positive terms in the entry than in the label. He revisits the multiple identification of the Eyckian 1432 portrait, labeled ŒLeal Souvenir (NG 290) and denies the Panofsky-Lowinsky hypothesis of the court musician Binchois (not a cleric nor an aristocrat) along with other identities, though he follows Panofsky in inclining to view the portrait as posthumous because of its format, like a tombstone portrait, as well as the additional element of a crumbling parapet. The lost frame might have borne the identity of the sitter, who was possibly a notary and/or “minor functionary at the court.”

In a few other cases, Campbell is willing to advance his own hypotheses about the sitters or patrons of London’s paintings. Often his unmatched use of documents serves as the foundation for such arguments. For example, Bouts’s beautiful 1462 Portrait of a Man (NG 943), whose simple dress suggest connection to the University of Louvain, is posited as Jan van Winckele, a witness to Bouts’s will in 1475 and owner of two of his paintings; moreover, the year 1462 saw van Winckele appointed Notary to the Conservator of the Privileges of the University. In similar fashion, the long, richly illustrated entry (twenty-one pages) on The Exhumation of St. Hubert by “Rogier van der Weyden and his workshop” (NG 783) now has patrons and an original setting: together with its mate (The Dream of Pope Sergius, in the Getty Museum; illustrated) this panel was part of an ensemble for the chapel of St. Hubert in the Church of St. Gudule in Brussels (where it was seen by a French visitor in the 1620s). Founder of that chapel in 1432 (according to the records of a lawsuit of 1730) was Jan Vrientschap (d. 1437), a prominent and prosperous citizen of Brussels, and he is the likely donor of the work who appears in the London panel with his wife and relatives (including the first chaplain of the foundation) among the observers of the miracle. Rogier’s activity in Brussels and the timing of the chapel to the later 1430s suggest considerable participation by the master himself in the design of these works, but the technical investigation (here used to telling effect) and the wide variety of figure types suggest workshop collaboration in their production. This entry is one of the richest and best of this outstanding book, including careful attention to the unfamiliar saint’s tale and its variant sources as well as identifying iconographic details and models for tabernacle and architecture of the depicted church space.

Specifics within entries add important details to our cumulative knowledge. For example, Gerard David’s Canon Bernardijn Salviati and Three Saints is already known to come from the church of St. Donatien in Bruges (the saint on the right) and made for a sitter (identified by Weale more than a century ago) as a canon there (1498-1519), but Campbell supplies a full and rich biography, including details of Bernardijn’s mother, a burgess of Bruges from nearby. Campbell finds connections between Salviati and David as well as with the Carmelite convent of Sion, where David made a major 1509 altarpiece (now in Rouen) and another David donor, Richard de Visch van der Capelle (Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, NG 1432). But the key visual link introduced here is a diptych, marked by the landscape it shares with Berlin’s Crucifixion (taller and with a rounded top), perhaps dedicated by Salviati on his own altar in St. Donatien’s. And his archival discoveries refine the biographical frame for Memling’s Donne Triptych (NG 6275), while narrowing the livery of Edward IV to the dates 1466-83 and situating the triptych to a probable date of 1478, based on a dated old copy that probably derived from the lost frame. This conclusion accords with the frequent observation of the kinship between this smaller work and the major Memling altarpiece, The Two Saints John, for the St. John’s Hospital in Bruges.

To compare these two catalogues, some of the common artists can provide a touchstone. One issue is geographical definition. Simon Marmion, for example, is French in the Lehman catalogue but Netherlandish in London. Moreover, the split in the Lehman Collection by medium means that one essential Lehman work for comparison to its panel of the Lamentation (cat. 1), a breviary miniature of Holy Virgins Entering Paradise, probably produced for Philip the Good, is consigned to a separate catalogue (entry by Sandra Hindman and not illustrated here; this entry on the painting, by Charles Sterling, was emended by Maryan Ainsworth). Perhaps nationalisti-cally insisting on the “Frenchness” of Marmion, Sterling contrasts the quality of “restraint and quiet sorrow” of the Lehman panel with the “emphatic gestures of pathos” and “bereavement” in typical Flemish versions of the theme. The comparison to Marmion’s St. Bertin Altarpiece (Berlin-London) remains unillustrated in the Lehman entry but of course is central to the London fragment of the same ensemble. And comparison to the palette and finish in Marmion manuscript illuminations remains unvisualized. The arms on the reverse of the panel in New York, which locale and date it to the young Charles the Bold after his 1468 marriage, makes the omission of the Lehman manuscript page (cited in note 11) all the more regrettable. Similar geographical ambiguity means that the French identity of Jean Hey (the Master of Moulins) in this catalogue stands at odds with the inclusion of the same work, the portrait of the future regent of the Burgundian Netherlands, Margaret of Austria (no. 3) in the recent Metropolitan Museum catalogue of Early Netherlandish paintings in the Metropolitan, FromVan Eyck to Bruegel, by Ainsworth. Indeed, as the entry points out, placing a sitter before an architectural setting with a landscape view is “a Flemish idea whose dissemination was due mostly to the popularity of portraits by Hans Memling.” Of course, localizing these works within modern filing systems is an arbitrary exercise, and the quality of the entries can stand on their own, but the generous combination of manuscripts and paintings as well as many more illustrations in the London catalogue clearly sets it apart.

Highlights of the Lehman Collection Netherlandish paintings, catalogued with exhaustive bibliographic thoroughness (a great benefit compared to London) by Wolff, include a pair of side panels by Gerard David, the fascinating Goldsmith in his Shop (St. Eligius?) by Petrus Christus (1449), and two of Hans Memling’s finest small works. Of course, these works and the other Lehman objects of the same period also feature in Ainsworth’s From Van Eyck to Bruegel.

In the Van Eyck to Bruegel exhibition and catalogue (no. 78), Ainsworth was able to reunite the Lehman Gerard David side panels with the putative central panel, a Lamentation from their original shared altarpiece, now at the Philadelphia Museum. In this case (in contrast to the London-Berlin conjunction so convincing in the visual terms laid out by Campbell) the transitions of space and skyline are awkward indeed, even though the dimensions correspond perfectly. Ainsworth used the infrared reflectograms to emphasize this disharmony between wings and center, but Wolff responds in her entry by citing other examples from David’s oeuvre where conglomerate ensembles were produced out of disparate component parts, and she reaffirms their cohesion (a position adopted by both museums). Dating the ensemble has also been a problem, as has the larger issue of David chronology; now see the recent Ainsworth publication Gerard DavidˆPurity of Vision in an Age of Transition: Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Other New York Collections, New York, 1998 (which will be reviewed shortly at this same site). Wolff quite sensibly compares the wings to David’s dated Bruges Justice panels, but then in comparison to the angel in the reliably dated Cervara Altarpiece of 1506 (cat. no. 79 in Van Eyck to Bruegel) she sees them as more than a full decade later, around 1510, which seems forced. Here the dendrochronology is confusing. The rings of wings and center do not accord, and their dating, reported differently by Wolff (n. 21) and Ainsworth in their entries, establishes a “mean date of use (assuming ten years’ storage time)” of 1491 for the Lehman panel, in dramatic contrast to a mean probable date of 1512 for the wings. Once again, Wolff is sensitive to the manuscript tradition (where David him-self might have participated in the Ghent-Bruges productions) and cites models for the religious narratives of the Lehman wings from illuminations (one of which is illustrated as fig. 21.4).

For the Lehman Christus, Ainsworth’s own New York catalogue of the artist, Petrus Christus, Renaissance Master of Bruges (1994), offers the fullest analysis (which can now be supplemented by a revisionist text by Hugo van der Velden, “Defrocking St. Eloy: Petrus Christus’s Vocational Portrait of a Goldsmith,” Simiolus 26, 1998, 242-76). Wolff reminds us that the halo of the saint proved to be a later addition and was removed in 1993. This famous image of a goldsmith’s shop has been justly celebrated for its early contribution to the depiction of everyday subjects, and now the building consensus for “defrocking” the earlier ascription of the figure as St. Eligius (Eloy), patron saint of smiths, makes its significance and influence all the greater (Closest analogy is the van der Weyden London Man Reading (St. Ivo?), NG 6394, discussed by Campbell, where another added halo and an inscription of the patron saint of lawyers disappeared in 1971; this work is mentioned by Wolff, n. 24, but unillustrated). Wolff properly doubts whether Christus’s figures can be taken as portraits, as Ainsworth maintained in her catalogue, but the half-length format is a presentation often associated with portraits (or saintly icons). In all likelihood, this early version of a secular theme still features moral probity and professionalism and might have been created as a model vocational image for a trade guild, even if not used for an altarpiece dedicated to a patron saint.

For Memling, Wolff’s analysis of the Portrait of a Young Man dovetails perfectly with the Lehman Jean Hey portrait of Margaret of Austria, and the author is alert here to the absence of the original engaged frame, which would have completed the resting fingers and heightened the illusion of subtle extension into viewer space. Here, too, saintly markings were removed, specifically the halo and arrow of St. Sebastian. Dendrochronology (which is employed in this catalogue wherever it has conclusive results) here suggests a relatively late date in the artist’s career, during the 1480s ("estimated felling date of 1476, according to Van Eyck to Bruegel, cat. no. 28). An early Italian copy (Louvre) of the spaces of this image (first associated with this Memling portrait by Campbell in 1983), ascribed to the young Ghirlandaio in the 1470s (but not uniquely tied to this painting, however) suggest that this sitter (and surely others by Memling) was Italian; Memling was well known for his portraits and religious works produced on commission from the Italian merchant community in Bruges. Wolff dates the portrait relatively early – i.e. mid-1470s – among Memling’s sitters, even while comparing it to celebrated works of 1487, but this conclusion is not easy to reconcile with the evidence of the wood rings (Her cautionary note here, n.16, about the statistical averaging of these data is well taken, despite the increasingly large sampling, since the region of oak tree sources and possible microclimate variations are by no means firmly settled. This is an issue for much further discussion.)

One of the loveliest paintings in the Lehman Collection is Memling’s Annunciation, which revivifies the conventions, figure types and poses, of the scene inherited in Flemish art from the models of van der Weyden. The lost frame recorded a date in the early nineteenth century as either 1480 or 1482, and the angel accords well with figures of 1479 in the dated Two Saints John altarpiece for the Bruges St. John Hospital. Wolff points out the various domestic objects, most of them commonly associated with the Virgin in popular mystical writings and devotional imagery. She also notes the role of the angels as courtly attendants to the Virgin as Queen of Heaven; similar attendants frame the Madonna in representations of her heavenly role, the Assumption and the Coronation. Following a suggestion by Blum (and with comparison to a Bruges miniature by Vrelant of the Marriage of the Virgin), Wolff further suggests that this scene might also connote the theology of the Virgin as bride of Christ. In short, though her entries are more brief than those of Campbell, the spiritual content of a religious work like this one as well as the secular content of a work like the Goldsmith of Christus come to life for the scholar and specialist but also for a curious newcomer to these pictures. Indeed, these interpretive issues of the fluid boundaries between sacred and secular realms in such Netherlandish works return us to the van Eyck London double portrait in its traditional interpretations, still hungry for a bit more evocation of content and meaning in that eternally suggestive work.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.