Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2017
Hannelore Magnus and Katlijne Van der Stighelen, eds. Facts and Feelings: Retracing Emotions of Artists, 1600–1800 Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. 228 pp.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $123.00 (9782503554860)

The history of emotions, their cultural expression, and their representation in the arts of early modern Europe are currently a subject of much interest. In recent years, exhibitions and collaborative research projects from the Netherlands to Australia have been devoted to this theme. The fourteen essays gathered in Facts and Feelings: Retracing Emotions of Artists, 1600–1800, edited by Hannelore Magnus and Katlijne Van der Stighelen, are the product of a symposium held at the University of Leuven in December 2012. The goal of the book is not to gauge the expression of emotion in art, but instead to plumb the emotions of artists themselves. A venerable tradition links the two, originating in the Horatian dictum that an artist or orator who wants to represent and elicit emotional response from an audience must first experience it personally. In this volume, however, the visual record is mostly avoided in favor of documentary sources that find artists in emotionally charged situations. Contexts range from Reformation Germany (Leo De Ren on architecture in Mainz) to Georgian England (Andrew Graciano on Joseph Wright of Derby), but most of the case studies are situated in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Flanders.

The introduction by Magnus and Van der Stighelen succinctly summarizes the theme and the content of the assembled studies, but could have done more to explain the rationale for the topic: Why do artists as a cultural class merit, or show fruitful potential for, this kind of inquiry? Were their emotions particularly sensitive or powerful? And how can we, in fact, know what they were feeling? One of the most insightful chapters is Nils Büttner’s survey of the historiography of responses to the art of Hieronymus Bosch. Büttner shows that at least since the seventeenth century, Bosch’s extraordinary imagery was interpreted as evidence of a tormented imagination. Yet, as Büttner rightly concludes, this tells us more about the interpreters than about the inner thoughts of Bosch himself, who left no literary record and led the life of a respected and prosperous burgher. In the cases of Peter Paul Rubens (addressed by Leen Huet) and Wright of Derby (Graciano), we are better furnished with the artist’s own thoughts as expressed in letters. Yet, as Huet points out, Rubens and his learned correspondents understood letter writing as a rhetorical performance more than a transparent expression of feeling. Thus, the emotional sleuth must read between the lines. In most of these essays, however, the authors stop short of explicitly trying to deduce what emotions are being expressed in a given case. Conversely, as will be seen below, they are often ready to note when the situation seems to support artistic stereotypes well established through the work of Rudolf and Margot Wittkower (Born under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution, New York: Norton, 1963) and Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz (Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment, New Haven: Yale, 1979).

Several chapters demonstrate that tense relations between artists and their patrons could lead to wounded pride. As Gaëtane Maës recounts, Jean-Baptiste Descamps manufactured an anecdote attributing this emotion to Anthony van Dyck, contributing to its status as a topos of artistic identity. Indeed, pride of one kind or another seems to be the most common emotion addressed in these studies. Lara Yaeger-Crasselt views Michiel Sweerts’s effort to establish a drawing academy in Brussels as evidence of pride in his profession and his city (including its renowned tapestry industry), while Kerry Gavaghan Bourbié frames Adriaen van der Werff’s self-portraits within the conventional ranking of love (connoting both professional pride and familial affection) above honor and profit as motivating factors for art. In the case of Flemish civic-guard portraits (Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey), it is not the artists but their patrons, jockeying for position both on and off the canvas, whose pride is at stake.

While some results of these inquiries seem predictable, Astrid Slegten and Koenraad Brosens have to admit that their raw material—the business records of two Brussels artists—turns out not to be a rich source for deducing family grief (they do point to more fruitful sources). Things heat up in the middle of the book with two studies of the surprisingly fraught world of Flemish Baroque sculpture. In Mechelen in 1633, Maria Fayd’herbe (a member of the family of sculptors that also included Rubens’s acolyte Lucas Fayd’herbe, her nephew) insulted several male members of her guild by calling them dozijnwerkers (hacks), whereupon they challenged her to a competition. While the outcome of this challenge is unknown, Klara Alen takes the case as an opportunity to examine gender relations in the guild system. In Antwerp in 1654, Jerôme Duquesnoy (brother of François and son of the sculptor of Brussels’s famous Manneken Pis [ca. 1619]) was tried and sentenced to death for repeatedly abusing two young boys in a chapel in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, where he was at work on the tomb of Bishop Anton Triest. Van der Stighelen and Jonas Roelens present the sensational trial documents in full for the first time, and while they reconstruct a disturbingly graphic account, they remain circumspect about the emotional undercurrents of the situation, instead placing Duquesnoy in the long tradition of “deviant conduct” as a topos of the artistic personality.

An important aspect of Facts and Feelings, and of its interest for readers outside the specialist community of historians of Flemish art, is the methodological self-scrutiny of the editors and their contributors. They are well aware that the study of emotions is difficult and complex, and are well versed in the canonical texts and theories that have evolved around it. An introductory essay by Toon Van Houdt surveys the history of psycho-social analysis of “cultural scripts,” while Eddy Put discusses “archival intelligence”: how documents have been used and what they may and may not reveal. Several of the case studies also reflect on the practice of archival research. As digitization begins to transform archives and their uses, methodological questions take on a renewed importance. This volume provides a rich and thought-provoking inquiry into how the established practice of the case study can continue to maintain its value in the age of “big data.”

Stephanie S. Dickey
Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON