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Netherlandish art was a standard feature of art collections large and small throughout early modern Europe, and many masters from the Low Countries took their techniques, styles, and themes abroad. Historians have acknowledged this international dimension, from Horst Gerson’s monumental Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (Amsterdam: Israël, 1942) to the 2013 volume of the Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art (Leiden: Brill) devoted to migration. Two new books offer welcome nuances to an understanding of the movement of artists, artworks, and their viewers.
Gerrit Verhoeven’s Europe within Reach: Netherlandish Travellers on the Grand Tour and Beyond (1585–1750), based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Antwerp and translated with utmost elegance by Diane Webb, is a lively account of travelers from the Low Countries based on personal diaries. Such “ego-documents” from the period 1585–1750 describe 139 journeys by members of the nobility and the upper crust of urban society. The rich were not the only ones to cross borders, but the many workers who sought foreign fortunes for economic reasons did not write about it. Not one of Verhoeven’s source texts is by an artist or craftsman (one wonders why he ignores the account of Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten, who visited Vienna and Rome). For the leisure travelers, however, cultural connoisseurship was one of four main activities en route, besides the confrontation with historical heritage, enjoyment of landscape, and consumption of luxuries. Verhoeven thus embeds his analysis of the appreciation of paintings in a holistic approach joining recent insights from heritage, memory, and tourism studies (topped by an admirable grasp of the relevant scholarship in French). This multi-layered enquiry does justice to the complexity of the diaries, which sometimes contained more fiction than fact.
Verhoeven’s grand panorama of two centuries of Netherlandish travelers traces a “slow-burn evolution”: what started for purposes of diplomacy and education gradually turned into tourism directed at culture and reflection (26). The goal of the Grand Tour of the early seventeenth century was knowledge of politics, law, history, science, and industry. It often involved formal education, such as the coveted degree at the University of Orléans. Key sites of interest were lieux de mémoire of recent Protestant history, whereas medieval castles and Romanesque churches were treated with disdain. Culture occupied only a modest place, with the detailed descriptions of art galleries by Arnout Hellemans Hooft as the rare exception. This changed by the turn of the century. Travelers indulged increasingly in literature, music, and the arts, with an enthusiast such as Corneille van den Branden jotting down his appreciation for more than three hundred masterpieces. Verhoeven follows the maturation of the vocabulary to describe paintings, from the bland terms “beautiful” and “esteemed” to jargon gleaned from the theory of art: dessin, invention, clair-obscur. At the same time, precise attribution of paintings became a fashionable pastime. Paradoxically, the great Italian art collections did not benefit from this new sophistication. As the Dutch and Flemish urban elites had acquired clear group identities by the end of the seventeenth century, they felt less compelled to splash out on a Grand Tour and preferred shorter trips to London, Paris, and Berlin. Versailles became the new standard against which the fading luster of the Uffizi and the Vatican was measured. The palatial splendor clearly trumped resentment at the belligerence of Louis XIV toward the Dutch and Protestants in general: “Visitors from the Low Countries seldom took notice of the pure panegyric of the iconography; instead, they judged the edifice purely on its architectural and art-theoretical merits” (256).
The second volume under review, Moving Pictures: Intra-European Trade in Images, 16th–18th Centuries, examines cross-border trade in paintings. Its editors, Neil De Marchi and Sophie Raux, participated in a research group, Art Markets in Europe, 1300–1800, whose first collection of proceedings, Mapping Markets for Paintings in Europe, 1450–1750 (Neil De Marchi, Hans Van Miegroet, eds., Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), discussed more localized trade. Owing to the involvement of economic historians, we now know how refreshing it is to study artworks as no more than commodities. Yet this second volume points out the limits of such an approach and identifies interests as essential: buyers were attracted to the—real or alleged—uniqueness of individual works, foreign imports in particular.
Unsurprisingly the book gives pride of place to the Low Countries, where the free market for paintings originated. Essays by Mickaël Szanto and Raux move from Flemish dealers on the Pont Neuf in Paris to the guilds and lotteries in the densely urbanized space between Antwerp and the French capital. Antwerp, in contrast to Amsterdam, sustained an exportable surplus of artworks throughout the seventeenth century. De Marchi, Sandra van Ginhoven, and Van Miegroet calculate this surplus at around twice the local demand. The export wares traveled not only to France and Italy but also northward, as Claartje Rasterhoff and Filip Vermeylen explain in their innovative analysis of the records of the Zeeland custom stations. These stations were posited along the River Scheldt to Middelburg, the second harbor city of the Dutch Republic, to hinder and monitor the trade from the Spanish-occupied south. Some five hundred paintings per year left Antwerp, shipped in whole consignments rather than as add-ons to cargoes of bulk items. The flow continued even when Dutch demand for new paintings faltered due to the accumulated stock, which suggests that the works were forwarded, perhaps as far north as Hamburg.
The exchange with Italy comes to the fore in the chapters by Isabella Cecchini and Natalia Gozzano, who mention the “extraordinary welcome” enjoyed by Netherlandish works across wider Italy: from 1492, when forty-two Flemish paintings were listed in the Medici collection, to 1670, when Cosimo de’ Medici toured painters’ studios in Amsterdam, lodging with the slave trader Francesco Feroni (190). In the seventeenth century, the movement in new-made paintings between north and south was replaced by the movement of Netherlandish artists. In fact Italian buyers did not have to order abroad: the major cities housed immigrant artists who were able to paint in the “Flemish” style, churning out landscapes on linen or copper supports. Export from Italy to the north, especially of copies, was more substantial, catalyzed by the many existing family and trade connections. However, specialist art dealers, as known from the Netherlands, were rare among the migrants.
Gozzano provides a groundbreaking study of Messina as a destination for artists from the Low Countries. Perhaps its university’s embrace of Galilean natural philosophy made the city receptive to the northerners’ naturalism. Of paramount importance was Sicily’s strategic position in the Mediterranean at the center of the European silk trade. Trade in artworks was apparently grafted onto the trade in textiles: the art market was not in the hands of artists and art dealers but followed the “network and structure of trade in silk and fabric,” “for which close ties between Flanders and Italy had already been established as early as the fourteenth century . . . a move perhaps due to their affinity of type in the evolution of desirable furnishings from tapestries to paintings on linen and canvas” (158, 186). One of those silk traders was Don Antonio Ruffo, known for having been duped by Rembrandt with patchwork paintings; it was another merchant, not an art dealer, who mediated between the two. The ongoing war between Holland and Spain prohibited Dutch ships from entering southern Italy, and art dealers depended on merchants from Flanders. One of them, famous for his portrait done by Anthony van Dyck, was Lucas van Uffel, whose sensational collection of Italian paintings was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1639: art dealing was an occasional expediency for this ship owner and trader in silk, wool, and foodstuffs. The brothers Lucas and Cornelis de Wael, who offered “the structure of business typical of Antwerp” to artists in Rome, were exceptional as specialized artists-dealers (178). Responsibility for creating a taste and demand for northern art lay clearly with the merchants of bulk goods through their infrastructure and logistical support, knowledge and relations, and business strategies. Even the international artistic glory of Van Dyck probably owes something to the fact that his father was a silk dealer.
The two books under review happily complement each other in mapping different dimensions of early modern artistic exchange, mostly from the Low Countries to Italy. The craftsmen and traders of the Moving Images volume did not write about their travels and are therefore absent in Europe within Reach, in which, conversely, works of art appear without much agency of their own, to merely serve the self-fashioning of the honnête homme. Abroad, Netherlandish artists and amateurs seem to have lived separate lives. The north-south route between two of the most advanced commercial regions in Europe, with the trade fairs in Frankfurt and Geneva as stops along the way, involved the raw trade of salt, alum, rice, with art as a more minor addition. It almost seems like a historical contingency that it was also one of the routes taken by the Grand Tourists in search of mundane education and refinement.
Professor of Art History before 1850, Utrecht University
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