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The history of art in early modern Europe would be unthinkable without Antwerp. And yet until quite recently, Antwerp was a place that nobody talked much about. Scholarship on the southern Netherlandish city (now part of Belgium) long remained the province of local historians, the indefatigable Floris Prims notable among them. And while first Pieter Paul Rubens and then Pieter Bruegel the Elder met with increasing art-historical interest following Belgium’s assertion of independence in 1830, a dogged nationalistic approach to their oeuvres meant that the city in which they lived and worked did not generate much attention in its own right. It was the artist as Flemish genius, and not the city as stimulus, that mattered.
Today, by contrast, Antwerp’s prominence as the great metropolis of art, culture, and trade in sixteenth-century Europe is undisputed. No less recognized is its continued importance as an artistic and intellectual center well into the seventeenth century, even after the Dutch Revolt wreaked havoc on the city’s prosperity and after Amsterdam rose as the new northern hub of international exchange. Much of this progress traces back to the 1980s and the emergence of social art history, though Herman van der Wee’s foundational The Growth of the Antwerp Market and the European Economy (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963) already signaled Antwerp’s commercial formation as a crucial topic for further study. Zirka Zaremba Filipczak’s Picturing Art in Antwerp (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) and especially Elizabeth Honig’s Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) brought an awareness of the pictorial genres and attendant collecting practices that grew up in dialogue with the city’s art market, Reformation climate, and international coterie. The same decades saw publications on both Rubens and Bruegel that complemented these themes; Jeffrey M. Muller’s Rubens: The Artist as Collector (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) and Ethan Matt Kavaler’s Pieter Bruegel: Parables of Order and Enterprise (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) respectively brought the two giants of the Antwerp art world into conversation with the city’s larger histories of display and mercantile culture. Larry Silver and Filip Vermeylen, among others, have since made further valuable contributions in this vein.
What distinguishes the two recent publications under review here is their attempt to grapple with the question of why Antwerp should matter to the field at large, and they do this by engaging with two trends—the global and the material—that art historians have been batting around for some time now. Christine Göttler, Bart Ramakers, and Joanna Woodall in their edited volume of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek and Nadia Baadj in her monographic study on Jan van Kessel argue that Antwerp offers paradigms of knowledge production, material craft, and transcultural exchange that are relevant beyond the bounds of scholarship on Netherlandish and Dutch art. Before turning to a closer look at their contributions, it is worth considering just how “new” these trends really are.
The global and the material find common ground in their impetus to move beyond a history of art written predominantly around artists and within traditional borders. If the global (or perhaps still better, transnational) turn proposes an art history composed around wider geographies, neglected localities, and the contacts between them, its material counterpart situates media, craft, and physical objects themselves as agents of meaning moving within diverse cultural spheres. The discourse employed in these modern theoretical approaches would have been foreign to audiences of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. However, the notion that cities are as central to the history of art as artists themselves was already very much present in the early modern period, and so too the idea that culture was a mobile entity—inflected as much by points of origins as by wider realms of contact and dialogue.
Sixteenth-century chorographers, reviving the ancient model of Ptolemy, regarded the city (urbs) as a living entity that both shapes and is shaped in turn by its commonwealth of citizens (civitas). They perceived that cultures of art, knowledge, and belief are quite literally cultivated by the built environments they inhabited and between which they traveled. This is what Italo Calvino, in his poetic novel Invisible Cities (1972; trans. William Weaver, New York: Harcourt, 1974), means when he writes that a city consists “of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past” (10), and it is what the antiquarian scholar Daniel Rogers meant, in his 1560 poem in praise of “The Magnificent City of Antwerp,” when he wrote of the entrepôt as a “new Rome” on the banks of the Scheldt River, whose monuments—the Bourse, the Town Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady—rivaled those of its ancient predecessor. In short, the impulse to understand material and visual culture as constitutive of history, and as representative of both local and transnational narratives, existed long before the many turns of modern scholarship. The publications discussed below are at their best when they ground their theoretical frameworks in a historical understanding of their themes.
Göttler, Ramakers, and Woodall unite under the title Trading Values a diverse collection of case studies on Antwerp’s visual and literary culture. Focus on the ongoing interchange between words and works of art across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they argue, reveals a continuity that belies the traditional periodization of Antwerp’s rise and fall. The fruits and challenges of this interdisciplinary approach emerge in the editors’ introduction and the subsequent essays in which the words “trading” and “values” are stretched to their broadest range of meaning. Here “value” is more than the intrinsic, material, or appraised worth of a given cultural object, but may equally lie in its agentive function or in the “added value” (14) it accrued through the judgment and esteem of connoisseurs, art theorists, and rhetoricians alike. The “trade” in values refers to the reciprocities that underlie not just the movement of goods in a market economy but also the process of cultural transfer. Among other theoretical sources, Arjun Appardurai’s thing theory and Serge Gruzinski’s concept of “mondialisation” are evoked to describe the way objects moved and performed within a transnational commodity culture. An approach to art in terms of knowledge production looms large here, with due acknowledgement of Pamela Smith’s work on the process of making as generative of meaning. The editors and authors are more concerned with exchanges within Antwerp’s urban and transnational networks than with those between individuals. In other words, this is not a volume that addresses personal gift-giving, epistolary exchange, or the many humanist and antiquarian endeavors that were so fundamental to Antwerp’s history.
By approaching Antwerp as a “marketplace of the world” (15), the editors aim to open discussion of “lesser” artists, writers, craftspersons, and merchants and of less familiar examples of literary and material culture. Perhaps the essay that best realizes this ambition is Sven Dupré’s analysis of Antwerp’s industry of glass-making—a medium that hardly ever receives attention—which he offers as a powerful example of how artisanal knowledge and skill increasingly trumped the sheer cost of raw materials as a mode of valuation on the city’s market. Ramakers provides another original case study of the value ascribed to theatrical costumes donated to Antwerp’s rhetorician guilds in the seventeenth century, and of the ways these costumes contributed to affirming the union of poetry and the visual arts, tragedy and history painting.
Otherwise, the contributions here might be described as new twists on familiar subjects, particularly those focused on Antwerp painters. Woodall’s essay on Quentin Matsys’s Man Weighing Gold Coins and His Wife (1514) addresses the issue of currency valuation as a problem that plagued the early modern marketplace, and inventively explores the multiple systems of value—moral, material, spiritual—that exist in unstable relationship within the work. A co-authored study on the kitchen in sixteenth-century Antwerp offers a trove of archival material on the city’s domestic context but is at times forced in its effort to link this data to the well-known genre of kitchen scenes, of which Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer were the foremost exponents. Koenraad Jonckheere’s essay on Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (ca. 1563) applies Ockham’s razor to the many past discussions of the painting as complex political allegory and reveals instead its more fundamental focus on the monumental architectural project as idol, with reference both to the picture itself and to the art-theoretical debates that arose on the eve of the Revolt. Göttler, in her compelling essay on Gillis Mostaert’s scenes of fire, explores how these paintings embodied an ingenuity characteristic of Netherlandish artists in the context of their display within Antwerp kunstkammers by evoking the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch’s hell scenes, dialoguing with theories of the passions, and presenting a creative and generative antidote to the devastating “fire of iconoclasm and war” (234). Göttler’s evocative last point, presented largely as a coda, might well be pursued further. Overall, more explicit engagement with the political context of the Revolt and its aftermath—and its destabilizing of “values” of various kinds—might have nuanced the theme of the volume as a whole.
The remaining essays address the realms of book publishing, prints, and literature. Hubert Meeus discusses vernacular translations issued from Antwerp’s sixteenth-century presses and the “value added” by the printers through their selection of texts, illustrations, and typographical models aimed at a broad European audience. Stephanie Porras focuses on a rendition of Bruegel’s famous Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557) after a ca. 1580 design by Maarten de Vos, which mingles its proverbial subject with a scene of New World cannibalism, and which she understands to enact a “cultural translation” between local vernacular culture and the then-mounting critique of global Habsburg conquest that was fervent in Antwerp’s wartime climate. Ralph Dekoninck’s essay on the many lives of the Counter Reformation Images of Evangelical History (1593) offers an engaging foray into how Jesuits employed the medium of print to reach audiences from Antwerp to South America and China. Arjan van Dixhoorn’s excellent analysis of Lodovico Guicciardini’s Description of Low Countries (1567)—and its long excursus on Antwerp’s history—reveals the complex rhetoric behind this seminal chorographic and “near-utopian” project. Two final contributions by Raingard Esser and Sarah Joan Moran look at the histories of Antwerp art written in the later seventeenth century, or “post-Guicciardini period” (350); the former focuses on the Counter Reformation writings of Carolus Scribani and Daniel Papebroch and the latter on Cornelis de Bie’s The Golden Cabinet (1662). Both historiographical projects sought to reassert Antwerp’s continued prominence and vibrancy as a center of artistic production, international exchange, and collecting.
De Bie’s The Golden Cabinet, and the phenomena of cabinets more generally, are no less central to the second book considered here: Baadj’s welcome study of the Antwerp artist Jan van Kessel, a master painter of still lives, insects, and all manner of natural subjects. Baadj frames her query as one concerned most broadly with the “relative status of natural history and its representation in the seventeenth century” (16), and thus bookends her analysis with the phenomenon of collecting in the early modern period. The introduction opens with the role of nature images within a representative Flemish cabinet picture or “gallery painting” from the early seventeenth century, while the final full chapter addresses the emergence of kunstkasten (collectors’ cabinets) as sites of combinatory display that inflected Van Kessel’s serial approach to producing his miniatures. On viewing Van Kessel’s famous The Four Parts of the World (1660) series, De Bie praised the craftsmanship and luminosity of its paintings on copper, which—he notes—due to their “exceptional curiosity and consummate artistry sold for around 4,000 guilders” (120). As in Dupré’s, Göttler’s, and Moran’s essays mentioned above, Baadj convincingly shows that Van Kessel’s works were valued for their skill and ingenuity (rather than just material cost), for the judgments they incited from connoisseurs, and, finally, for their embodiment of Antwerp’s history as a global metropolis and artistic center.
Baadj is no less keen to elevate Van Kessel’s status as a witty and inventive artist who was active in the production of new natural-historical knowledge in the early modern period. At times, the pressures of this aim may push arguments too far. For instance, the assertion that “new optical technologies” (95) allowed Van Kessel to surpass his great Antwerp predecessor Joris Hoefnagel in producing lively depictions of insects—while Hoefnagel’s own miniatures remained grounded in “the tradition of Flemish manuscript illumination” and encumbered by the constraints of his humanist context (101–3)—is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence. In the case of The Four Parts of the World, one wonders whether Van Kessel really staged a conscious “paragone” (179) with the collector’s cabinet as object or whether he was instead responding with savvy business sense to the stimuli of Antwerp’s collecting practices, dialoguing with the genre of kunstkasten not so much to surpass it as to capitalize on its consumer and connoisseurial appeal. Baadj herself notes that Van Kessel would have earned significantly more for serial paintings than individual ones, and that he ran a vast and thriving workshop.
Above all, the question of the audience for which Van Kessel’s knowledge production was intended might have received more direct emphasis. References to individuals who were likely patrons of Van Kessel’s works appear scattered throughout the book’s chapters—including local connoisseurs in Antwerp as well as clients from as far away as Spain—yet the question of for whom his works were made and to whom they mattered remains somewhat abstractly defined. None of these points, however, detract from the timely contribution that Baadj has made in bringing this underappreciated Antwerp artist to greater prominence.
The question that remains for this reader, having reflected on both of these successful volumes, is what we lose in our understanding of the early modern period by looking through the lenses of the global and the material, however much both approaches aim to expand our field of vision. In the case of Antwerp, one answer is that we lose a sense of the fragility and vulnerability of the arts that was equally fundamental to its history. In celebrating the city’s flourishing trade, global expansion, and wealth of material and learned culture, the laments of the Beggar’s songs (geuzenliederen) that circulated amid the upheaval of the Revolt go unheard, as do the harsh blows of the 1566 Iconoclastic Fury, or the genuine worries expressed in the 1599 triumphal entry of Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella at a time when Antwerp was no longer the undisputed marketplace of the world. If a city indeed consists of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past, then all its past events—both generative and destructive—must be part of the histories of art we write today.
Marisa Anne Bass
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale University