Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2017
Elizabeth Alice Honig Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale Penn State Romance Studies. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 288 pp.; 75 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth $84.95 (9780271071084)
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In the opening pages of Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale, Elizabeth Alice Honig describes Jan Brueghel as a cataloger of nature’s variety, an analogy of the artistic process that is a leitmotif of the volume. Honig’s own engagement with the foundational, yet far from fashionable, scholarly practice of cataloging poetically echoes this reading of Brueghel’s work, for the book relies on the online database created by Honig and a team of technical and art-historical specialists (www.janbrueghel.net), an ongoing critical catalogue of over 750 paintings and 350 drawings by, after, or attributed to Brueghel. The decade-plus process of defining Brueghel’s oeuvre underpins Honig’s interpretation in Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale of the artist’s working methods, his relationships with patrons, and responses to his family’s legacy. That is not to say that one needs to spend time with the website to read the book, but the website is a shadow companion to the volume that offers additional (if at times underutilized), interpretative weight to Honig’s text.

Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale is copiously illustrated, and the figures are used strategically: numerous details support Honig’s reading of Brueghel’s working methods; some of Brueghel’s miniatures are reproduced at full-size, allowing the reader to appreciate fully the artist’s dexterous skill; while other illustrations are paired and scaled to reflect their size in relation to one another, aptly reflecting the “senses of scale” referenced in Honig’s title. It is a volume with which one can envision the clear potential of a digital edition—where one could zoom in; connect to entries on individual paintings at www.janbrueghel.net; and in some way mimic the tactile, interactive processes of these pictures’ original viewing conditions. Honig’s clever use of illustrations reinforces her reading of Brueghel as an artist who espoused an alternate form of visuality (7), a distinct aesthetic related to contemporary modes of cognition and analysis.

Honig’s volume reasserts Brueghel’s place in the understanding of Baroque painting, where the figures of Peter Paul Rubens (with whom Brueghel collaborated) and Caravaggio (with whom Brueghel shared key early patrons) loom large. The introductory chapter sketches out what can be surmised about the artist’s training and early career. Interrogating Karel van Mander’s oft-repeated assertion that Brueghel trained with his grandmother Mayken Verhulst, Honig points out that Brueghel lived in Brussels until his 1583 move to Antwerp. He managed to survive the 1585 siege of that city, but was in Naples by 1590 and soon traveled to Rome, working for Egidio Colonna as well as Cardinals Federico Borromeo and Francesco Maria del Monte. Despite his evident success there, Brueghel returned to Antwerp around 1595. Honig suggests this sudden move back to the still-recovering city may have been motivated by familial obligation—perhaps to assist his brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who was running up debts.

The remainder of the introduction details Brueghel’s working methods and the materials of his workshop, particularly his use of previously published prints and his own stock of oil sketches and drawings. Apparently, he began several versions of a composition at once, so that multiple variants could be finished later by the workshop. Honig’s text invokes an ideal image of a map of his studio works, charting pictures made “at a greater or lesser distance from Jan himself” (31). The online catalogue at www.janbrueghel.net is referenced minimally here, despite the fact that when searched by topic it produces something akin to this map, a list sortable by attribution (securely given to Brueghel, produced inside or outside his studio). For readers unfamiliar with the website, a reference containing such a sample query would have been helpful.

Though Honig focuses on the comparison between Brueghel’s and Rubens’s working methods, the Antwerp workshop of Maerten de Vos may also have been a crucial antecedent for Brueghel’s diverse artistic production and his repetitive use of models. Both artists returned again and again to successful compositions in different formats and media, so that later works often bear a recursive trajectory, apparently absent a coherent stylistic evolution. Friends with Brueghel’s father, De Vos operated Antwerp’s most successful workshop in the 1580s and 1590s, cultivating an international market for his work. Brueghel, as Honig notes, drew inspiration from De Vos’s successful print products, like his 1585/6 series of Hermits. Brueghel’s understudied history paintings, the subject of Honig’s third chapter, also had an Antwerp precedent in De Vos’s numerous allegorical and mythological works of the 1580s and 1590s, although Brueghel’s small-scale works clearly addressed Roman tastes in particular.

Chapter 2, “Hands-On Art: Brueghel, Francken, and Habits of Collecting in Rome and Antwerp,” interrogates the haptic experience of Brueghel’s patrons, particularly focusing on contemporary Aristotelian debates about the nature of sight and touch. Honig convincingly argues that Brueghel’s miniatures were designed to be physically manipulated, picked up, and examined; the artist developed types of imagery, like garland paintings (as Honig’s choice of details powerfully illustrates), that reward such visual and tactile probing. Honig discusses the recorded acquisitions of various collectors of Brueghel’s works, most notably Cardinal del Monte in Rome. Honig makes some reference to Brueghel’s paintings in early seventeenth-century Antwerp inventories, but Northern collecting practice is primarily discussed via the fictive painted collections made in Antwerp, most notably those by Frans Francken II. While Honig’s central thesis—that Brueghel’s works were designed to operate in precisely these kinds of densely displayed collections—is convincing, more could be done here to productively interrogate the differences between Brueghel’s collectors in Rome and Antwerp, particularly in regards to their varying social and economic status.

Honig’s third chapter, focusing on the artist’s miniscule historical narratives, aims to resurrect Brueghel’s reputation as a history painter. Honig stresses the Italian origins of Brueghel’s interest in history painting, but much of his inspiration, as she amply demonstrates, derived from Northern prints. Honig suggests that after his return to Antwerp, Jan produced antique histories primarily for export to Italy. Yet it is also possible that such works found a wider local and international market. Antwerp’s existing artistic export market extended much farther afield, with particularly strong links to Spain and the Spanish viceroyalties via the port of Seville. By the 1630s, the Spanish taste for copies after Brueghel was such that his son, Jan Brueghel the Younger, entered into an agreement to produce painted versions of his father’s and his own compositions for the Flemish merchant Chrisostomo van Immerseel based in Seville.

The question of family legacy and the taste for Bruegelian pictures is the subject of the book’s fourth chapter, though works by Jan’s famous father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, appear throughout the volume. Honig compares how Bruegel the Elder’s two sons, Jan and Pieter II, each utilized materials inherited from their father’s shop. For Honig, Jan’s cultivation of a markedly different style allowed him to separate himself from his father’s artistic reputation. Honig acknowledges the stylistic dominance of the elder Bruegel ca. 1600 in Antwerp; in her account Jan refashions his father’s image (157). In this reading, Jan is understood as one of Harold Bloom’s “strong poets,” a producer of almost anti-emulative copies that insist on their stylistic difference from the model. Undoubtedly Jan was more talented than his brother Pieter, and Bruegel’s two sons had the advantage of inheriting materials from their father’s workshop. But Honig could do more to stress how Jan’s nuanced refashioning of his father’s models also capitalized on a broader nostalgic interest in Antwerp’s prewar past, and the resurgence of Bruegelian style and topoi in both the Southern and Northern Netherlands around 1600. For example, Honig does not engage with Larry Silver’s broader treatment of the Bruegelian inheritance in his Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) (click here for review), a surprising oversight.

The book’s final body chapter considers Jan’s extraordinary practice of artistic collaboration, working with nine different artists over his lifetime. Honig argues that Brueghel transformed what had been merely a commercial relationship into an intellectual, collaborative act of friendship. While acknowledging that all collaboratively produced paintings did not necessarily operate conversationally, Honig explores how Brueghel’s coauthored paintings record artistic, intellectual, and social exchanges. Here, the voice of the patron takes something of a minor role, leaving one to wonder what, if anything, buyers saw as uniquely valuable in such collaborative works. More could be done to link this final section with the earlier chapter on gallery pictures and collecting practices, the conversations between artists and viewers, and the question of Brueghel’s distinct style. Ultimately it is a mark of Honig’s success that the reader is left wanting still more of Brueghel as the volume draws to a close. Her careful weaving of connections between Antwerp and Rome, patrons and artists, the practices and intellectual ambitions of artistic creation, and collectors’ haptic and mental engagement with Brueghel’s work means that the artist emerges from this highly readable yet densely packed account as more than his father’s son and Rubens’s collaborator, but a key figure of early Baroque art.

Stephanie Porras
Assistant Professor, Newcomb Department of Art, Tulane University

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