Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 1999
Jean C. Wilson Painting in Bruges at the Close of the MIddle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. 272 pp.; 79 ills. Cloth $65.00 (0271016531)

We have learned a great deal in recent years about the conditions under which images became commodities, to be dealt in, traded, even speculated in during the early modern period, from the researches of many scholars, including Michael Montias, Lorne Campbell, Dan Ewing, Lynn Jacobs, Hans van Miegrot, and Elizabeth Honig. Jean Wilson has made important contributions to this discussion with her studies of Bruges artists in the early sixteenth century. This book offers an overall synthesis of Wilson’s earlier work in articles to present a picture of the dynamics of the development of painting as an economic activity in Bruges. Readers familiar with her essays on the Pandt of Bruges, replicas, and workshop patterns will find these topics addressed in a larger framework that grapples with broad and basic questions. For example, Wilson asks, why did Bruges artists make replicas? More fundamentally, she asks, what stimulated artists to develop their techniques for making oil painting on panels in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Bruges?

The answers to both of these questions she finds in the social and cultural milieu of that city, especially the interactions of a court devoted to ostentatious display, a mercantile community which aped the court, and a large group of painters who tried to meet the demands of patrons in both classes. For Wilson, it is a case of demand and supply: the “culture of display” that shaped the patronage activities of the court was mimicked by wealthy burgers of Bruges and stimulated this group’s “desire” for visual representation; in response to this demand, painters altered their workshop practices to increase the supply. These forces combined to create a “mass market for painting.”

Wilson organizes her book into three parts, which derive from this economic framework. Part One is titled “The Desire for Painting” and examines the concept of living nobly as construed by the aristocracy and imitated by the “haute bourgeoisie.” Part Two, “From Representation to Replication,” considers the painters’ response to this demand by making copies of compositions and by altering their workshop methods to increase output. Part Three is devoted to “The Marketplace” and describes the rise of seasonal fairs and other devices to market paintings more aggressively. Wilson investigates the conditions under which this marketplace arose. Her focus is on the period ca. 1430 to 1530, and on the medium of painting alone.

Wilson argues that the crucial event in this period was Philip the Good’s establishment of a court in Bruges, and the subsequent staging there of important celebrations of his and his successors’ courts. The court offered the burghers of Bruges a model of behaviour that emphasized “making one’s resources visible,” a concept that medieval aristocrats called, “vivre noblement.” Members of the third estate who hoped to advance socially (as well as economically) imitated the culture of display practiced by the nobility to the extent that their resources would allow. Part of the argument here depends on the relative cost of painted panels compared to the jewels, brocades, and other luxury goods that the court itself preferred. While the evidence indicates that the court in the fifteenth century had little use for panel painting, this medium provided a cheaper alternative to ivories, goldsmith’s work, and other items for a “bourgeois” clientele. The urban patriciate “emulated at a reduced scale” the culture of noble display, generosity, and lineage. Their motivation was to “establish and advance the position of their families within the society of Bruges.”

In her second chapter, Wilson traces the spread of this courtly idealogy to the urban patriciate. She concedes that the duke himself and likely his closest courtiers did not seem to collect or commission many panel paintings themselves; the exception, however, was portraiture. Historians have long situated the origins of portraiture in Northern Europe to the Valois courts and the pattern continued in the court of Burgundy, from which the merchant class could adapt it. Wilson links the nobility’s interest in portraiture to their concern for genealogy, but one wonders whether the portrait had the same function for the third estate as it did for the aristocracy. Did a social group whose family trees were by definition not noble want visual representations that, in Wilson’s argument, emphasized genealogy?

If these considerations address the issue of demand, Part Two looks at the supply side, focussing on the production of images among the artists of sixteenth-century Bruges. A principal issue here is replicas, and in Chapter Three, “The Production of Replications: The Visual Evidence,” Wilson lays out the evidence she has amassed for the proliferation of replicas in works associated with Gerard David, Adriaen Isenbrandt, and Ambrosius Benson. As the title claims, this evidence is based on careful looking at the surfaces (not the underdrawings) of panels; it results in some interesting observations about the way a single motif or composition could be manipulated and at least one technique (pouncing) that facilitated such manipulation. Such processes, she argues, became more commonly practiced in the sixteenth century, as artists attempted to meet the demand for paintings by streamlining their means of production. She also stresses that workshop models could be easily copied to increase painters’ production. This chapter provides evidence that painters’ workshops used and re-used specific motifs in their images, a conclusion that will not surprise most students of the period.

Wilson then re-evaluates the relatively small body of published documentation on the painter’s guild in Bruges in this period. In her reading of the documents, she is most interested in what is revealed about the painters’ workshops: where they were located, how they were organized, what they tell us about the techniques (such as pricking of drawings for pouncing) that she finds in the works themselves? This is an interesting take on the material, which enhances and is enhanced by the economic framework constructed by the author.

The final section of the book, “The Marketplace,” consists of a chapter on “The Rise of a Mass Market for Painting,” and a conclusion that recapitulates the argument. Here we are offered a history of the market in Bruges from the death of Mary of Burgundy until the mid-16th century; the author considers the unstable economic context of the 1480s, the expansion of the fairs of Bruges and the flow of foreign merchants there, and the creation of the Pandt in the early sixteenth century. Numerous Bruges artists participated in this market, which specialized in luxury goods, and Wilson offers many insights into how this new structure for selling pictures affected both the making of and the marketing of paintings. In her view, the close proximity of painters to each other in this market setting was a stimulus to competition and collaboration, inspiring artists to emulate each other as they tried to create a product that appealed to buyers in the open market. At the same time, the wider availability of this luxury product stimulated demand among buyers.

In a field which has been dominated by questions about the making of individual objects—their authorship, authenticity, conservation, or iconography—Wilson’s study broadens our focus beyond the individual artist or patron to the larger structural forces that shaped them both. This is both the weakness and the strength of her book. Despite the many artists mentioned in passing, they are all rather faceless—some of them literally, as they are known to us only in documents. Some of the generalizations are too vague to accept with much enthusiasm; for example, the definition of the “urban patriciate” is somewhat confusing, as at times it seems to refer to noble families who chose to live in the urban context of Bruges (the Gruuthuse being the most familiar) and at other times to merchants who “attempted to enter the ranks of the nobility.” Replication may have been one workshop strategy that painters devised to increase production, but were there others? (In other industries, such as sculpted retables, we have seen a variety of technical responses to mass markets, such as specialization, pre-fabrication of parts, and even subcontracting.) Yet considering painting not as a privileged aesthetic category, but as one of many products competing on the market has many rewards; Wilson’s study elucidates the complex interaction of a variety of social, economic, and cultural mechanisms that operated in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Bruges. It is refreshing to see someone tackle the big questions, and if some parts of Wilson’s study are stronger than others, the kinds of questions she considers here are well worth the asking.

Ann Roberts
Professor, Art Department, Lake Forest College