Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 14, 2019
Thijs Weststeijn, Eric Jorink, and Frits Scholten, eds. Netherlandish Art in Its Global Context Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2016. 296 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $154.00 (9789004334977)
Stephanie Schrader, ed. Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. 160 pp.; 138 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9781606065525)
Getty Center, Los Angeles, March 13–June 24, 2018

“Is there such a thing as ‘global Netherlandish art’?” is the ambitious question with which Netherlandish Art in Its Global Context opens (7). A cohesive model of early modern art of the northern and southern provinces of the Netherlands is elusive to begin with, and the dimensions and significance of the global have been the subject of discussion within the humanities for decades now. If the question that informs this volume is unanswerable, the attempt is nonetheless interesting. Netherlandish Art in Its Global Context offers a lively array of essays that should interest readers in early modern art history generally, as well as a test case in how to write global art history. Each carefully researched and amply illustrated, the nine essays travel the globe in various directions and to different ends, all compelling. Ultimately, though, the lack of an underlying thesis or logic, or of common points of reference, renders the opening question moot.

Thijs Weststeijn’s introduction, “Global Art History and the Netherlands,” moves at a gallop, alternating between individual cases and wide-ranging observations. A diplomatic gift presented to the Chongzhen emperor in 1640 of miniature paintings by Chinese artists after Netherlandish prints exemplifies the translation (or “transmediality”) of images and pictorial traditions, and a number of paintings made in the Netherlands that feature foreign (“global”) motifs illustrate artistic interest in diverse (material) cultures and signal social and political dimensions of exchange between the Netherlands and the world of trade. Rather than engaging in a diachronic analysis that obscures power relations and asymmetries, Weststeijn emphasizes the necessity of accounting for political, social, and economic factors in the making of the early modern (global) world, although these factors do not systematically animate the individual essays. To the question of whether a “global Netherlandish art” exists, the volume does not seek an answer in horizontal connections between Netherlandish art and arts of other regions, along the lines of “the old tradition of comparative art history that explores commonalities in artworks on a global scale,” à la David Summers (11). The commitment to historiographical abstractions in the introduction results in a curious negligence of individual agency—in the production of images and objects, in their transport and exchange, and in the persons depicted. This seems glaring in the case of the depiction of black servants, as illustrated in the Juriaen van Streek painting Still Life with a Moor: their role in the production of early modern global culture is constitutive—though mentioned only in passing here. The conjunctive “and” in the subtitle of the introduction is symptomatic of its logic, which is additive rather than analytic.

Nicole Blackwood’s essay, set earliest in time and coldest in climate, describes a series of portraits painted by Cornelis Ketel in the context of the founding of the Cathay Company. Only one of the fifteen works Ketel made in England in connection with three voyages to the Canadian territories survives: a portrait of the merchant-voyager Martin Frobisher (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford). In addition to gold, the company in 1576 brought to England the first New World native to reach those shores alive in more than forty years. Payment records show that Ketel was commissioned to make in duplicate “a greate picture of the whole bodye / of the strainge man in his garments” and another in English apparel (36). Remarkably, the “strainge mans pictures” were sent to Baffin Island, making “Ketel’s paintings the first full-length portraits to reach the northern shores of the American continent, and the first representations of an Inuk man ever to be received by the Inuit” (39–40). Though its focus is on English global relations, Blackwood’s retelling illustrates well themes recurrent in the volume, including the transcultural circulation of images and conceptions and misconceptions about them.

In “Going Viral?” Stephanie Porras examines the circulation of images made in Antwerp: the composition of a painting by Maerten de Vos, St. Michael the Archangel (1584), and of an engraving by Hieronymus Wierix after it was reiterated in subsequent works made in Peru, the Netherlands, and the Philippines. To account for the global movement of images and their “transformation into various media,” and for the role of prints in global circulation and across confessional divides, Porras adduces the modern concept of virality. Porras’s considered alternative to a model that insists on identifying images as either original or derivative is refreshing, but the effort to map contemporary understandings of virality onto early modern circuitry feels labored. And with regard to Latin America, the work of Serge Gruzinski, who has argued that “the image can be a vehicle for all types of power and resistance” (Images at War [Duke University Press, 2001], 3), is curiously absent. The dynamics of translation are promising for tracing connections between the local and the global, ideally considered in relation to actors’ categories. Ching-Ling Wang’s essay, “A Dutch Model for a Chinese Woodcut,” treats the circulation of printed images along a different global vector. The monumental eighteenth-century Suzhou polychrome woodcut Herding a Bull in a Forest is an extraordinary image in scroll format: over one meter in length, it comprises an extensive text by its author; a printed image featuring a cow appropriated from an early seventeenth-century engraving; and a blank area. In the printed inscription the artist, Han Huaide, specifies that he has followed the “authentic Western method,” such that his animals look “vivid” and “lifelike”; Western principles are integrated in an effort to outdo Chinese models, also cited in the text. This unique image is a terrific, if isolated, case in point for how art responded to the global traffic of images and how newly conceived works addressed new audiences.

The movement of images and objects across the global horizon is integral to many of the volume’s essays. Barbara Uppenkamp uncovers links between accounts of the East Indies known to Peter Paul Rubens and his depictions of Saint Thomas’s execution in India and Saint Francis Xavier’s miracles in Asia. Uppenkamp ably demonstrates that fascination with idols—which figure in Rubens’s depictions of the saints—aligned with conceptions of Christian devotion. Demonstrating filiations with works in Rubens’s library and printed, illustrated travelogues, Uppenkamp’s essay accounts for how the pictor doctus converted ethnographic description into Counter-Reformation propaganda.

In an essay coauthored with Lennert Gesterkamp, Weststeijn boldly proposes to identify the person depicted in Rubens’s drawing Man in Korean Costume, in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. A subtle portrayal of a man with East Asian facial features and costume standing on a shore with a ship in the distance, the drawing is a potent emblem of early modern global encounters and was the subject of a splendid, focused exhibition and intricately researched publication, Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013). Rubens did not travel east, but he was closely involved with Jesuits who did. Citing a drawing in an album amicorum dated 1601 (published by Leonard Blussé in 2016) of a Chinese merchant who traveled to Zeeland, the Netherlands, Weststeijn and Gesterkamp declare Rubens’s drawing a copy. The album amicorum drawing and inscription are fascinating documents, but the authors venture their interpretation without having seen the album itself; it is in a private collection, and the article cites an eighteenth-century transcription of the critical text, which is on the verso of the page illustrated. Inexplicably, the authors also omit the fact that at least one inscription in the album is dated 1613, which bears on their argument that it predates Rubens’s drawing. Bypassing substantive discussion of the close relationship between the Getty drawing and Rubens’s portrait drawing of Nicolas Trigault in Asian garb, in roughly the same dimensions and technique (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the authors abruptly suggest that the Getty retitle its work Portrait of the Chinese Merchant Yppong to reflect their interpretation. This unilateral approach to scholarship on early modern global exchange seems unnecessarily isolationist: the matter of identification across cultures depends on dialogue at least as complex as that which our early modern forebears engaged in and witnessed.

Uppenkamp’s essay introduces the important question of how a European painter knew what Indian idols looked like, and Christine Göttler’s distinguished contribution explores the circulation of Indian objects, some of which bore idols, and the culture of collecting. “‘Indian Daggers with Idols’ in the Early Modern Constcamer” traces the itineraries of Javanese krisses, elaborately crafted hand daggers with sinuous blades and hilts often carved in the forms of idols. Such exotic weapons were exchanged as diplomatic gifts and made their way from the Indies to northern Europe, where they were avidly collected. With a focus on seventeenth-century Antwerp, the essay reflects on how the significance of a material object shifted as it was “contextualized” in collections and in images alike. Deftly working through obscure and important sources including travelogues, paintings, and inventories, Göttler offers a range of subtle observations on the imbrication of material culture and religious belief in the figure of the troubling and in some cases broken idol.

Two essays examine intercultural objects and techniques: Sri Lankan ivory chests made for the Dutch market and Dutch imitation lacquer, respectively. The fascinating decorative carving of Sri Lankan ivory chests, in circulation in Europe from the sixteenth century, features local motifs and, under specific conditions, European iconography. Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis identifies local workshop traditions and the pressures on production over the course of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The persistent association of Sri Lanka with Adam and Eve is given special emphasis, as it informed the production of items for export. Lustrous Asian lacquerware inspired European emulation, one instance of which is the primary focus of Annemarie Klootwijk’s article. Extrapolating from the single case of a Dutch-made varnished cabinet in the Rijksmuseum, Klootwijk addresses the broader matter of taste for chinoiserie and japanning. The Dutch angle on these objects is understandable, but especially in the case of lacquerware, comparative analysis of other European patterns of consumption and production would be enlightening. What is distinctive about Netherlandish global taste?

In the only essay that addresses contact with Africa, Julie Berger Hochstrasser presents an extraordinary collection of drawings of the Khoikhoi, the aboriginal people of the Cape of Good Hope, dated circa 1700. Her essay, “A South African Mystery,” patiently and compellingly surveys the contents, production, and relevance of fifteen sheets containing vibrant sketches of the aboriginal people of the Cape. The gracious narrative is worthy of the best microhistory: the reader is drawn along as the author explores and uncovers the subjects, annotations, and “originality and freshness of vision” (201) of these important depictions of Khoi society. Asking how and why some images make it into familiar “iconic circuits”—these drawings did not—Hochstrasser examines a variety of accounts of Africa and its people, carefully weighing out the interests of those involved and situating these works within the development of Dutch colonial endeavors.

The concluding essay by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann offers an important meditation on how to write a history of globalization by way of the historiography of Netherlandish art. Toggling between conceptions of the local and the global, it considers the working concepts of diffusion, mediation, and circulation. Rather than offering a summation of the volume, however, DaCosta Kaufmann presents fascinating new material on the Dutch artist Philips Angel to demonstrate his thesis that “the local is entangled with the global in Netherlandish art history” (289). Ultimately, the volume suggests that the only way around the question of whether there is “such a thing as ‘global Netherlandish art’” is through it—in individual efforts to come to terms with works produced and exchanged in the moment of global diffusion, prioritized over shared precepts for how to write such a history.

The 2018 Getty exhibition and corresponding publication Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, edited by Stephanie Schrader, offers a vibrant counterexample of a focused study of Netherlandish art in the context of the expanding early modern world. The stunning exhibition brought together nearly all of the twenty-three extant drawings by Rembrandt inspired by Mughal paintings and displayed them alongside paintings such as those Rembrandt had at hand when he made his own creative copies. His nimble sketches, all of them on Asian paper, record the artist’s intimate encounter with artworks that registered in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam as “curiosities.” They depict Mughal rulers, courtiers, and other figures, but curiously only seven of the twenty-three contain any color beyond brown ink and wash. What did Rembrandt see in the marvelous foreign paintings notable for their jewel-like coloring and exquisite detail? Previously, Rembrandt’s “Indian” drawings had been accounted for with reference to his own work: scholars have focused on what the Dutch master learned from a foreign mode of picture making. Instead, the Getty exhibition and volume present both Dutch interest in exotic art and Mughal patterns of production and consumption within the global horizon of trade and diplomatic encounter and the material traces thereof.

One of the most salient aspects of early modern interest in the far-flung, the exotic, and the global is the sort of collections referred to in the literature as Wunderkammern and in the early modern Netherlands as constcamers. These microcosmic collections play a cameo role in Netherlandish Art in Its Global Context; they are site, symptom, and sometime surrogate for exploration of the newly global dimensions of aesthetics and knowledge practices of the time. Rembrandt’s “Indian” drawings are widely thought to have been inspired by drawings from India he kept in his own constcamer. Such works were collected and appreciated in the company of exotic shells, feather work, porcelain, and other works of art—and not, the historical record shows, deemed aberrations or incomprehensibly foreign. A poem by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Willem Schellinks, whose paintings feature Mughal subjects, expresses the highest praise for the art of India, as “more wondrously noble / Than an artist’s brush ever made.” Schellinks speaks for the reception of Indian art in Rembrandt’s time when he writes: “All Christendom rightly gapes / Astonished and struck dumb” (quoted in Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, 14). It is to this moment of global interconnectedness and mutual interest that the uniformly deeply researched, scintillating essays in Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India are devoted and that they bring to life. Without asserting cultural or artistic preeminence, the book—not a catalog—offers a wealth of information about Mughal artistic practice, the transmission of imagery across the globe in both directions, and Rembrandt’s global connections and material techniques. The essays on Rembrandt’s work and on Mughal artistic practices by eminent scholars in each of these domains (Schrader, curator of the exhibition; Catherine Glynn, scholar of Mughal art; William W. Robinson, emeritus curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings; and Yael Rice, historian of Islamic art) should serve as a touchstone for how to write a history of global artistic encounters.

Claudia Swan
Department of Art History, Northwestern University

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