Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2006
Larry Silver Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 392 pp.; 152 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (0812238680)
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The marriage of art history and economics, consummated through the study of art markets, has engendered myriad possibilities for the investigation of early modern Netherlandish art. Encompassing a complex and varied set of methodologies, economic histories of the arts have framed compelling new questions around the activities of artists, patrons, and dealers as cultural agents that tend to locate meaning in behavior rather than visuality. Larry Silver’s entrée into the field not only builds on his own earlier explorations, but also significantly reorients the kinds of questions asked and, by extension, the nature of the answers derived from the study of markets.

The object of Silver’s study is no less than the historical genesis of pictorial genres in the context of the art market in sixteenth-century Antwerp. The proliferation of painted and printed images and their gradual differentiation into recognizable, conventional types is a phenomenon long associated with that time and that place. In fact, there is a ready consensus as to the mechanics of this process: the dynamic growth of the Antwerp economy and a steady rise in the demand for painting supplied an increasingly competitive environment where artists were forced to specialize in order to survive. Yet what Silver investigates is not simply how, but why the advent of peasant scenes, landscapes, and the like occurred when and as they did.

The sheer scope of Silver’s enterprise thus immediately distinguishes it from the vast majority of current research in the field, linking Peasant Scenes and Landscapes more readily to the foundational works that shaped the study of Netherlandish art in the early twentieth century—most notably Max J. Friedländer’s Landscape, Portrait, Still Life: Their Origin and Development (New York: Schocken, 1965). Silver revisits the origins of pictorial genres from an entirely different perspective, however. Reacting against the teleological assumptions that undergird Friedländer’s narrative, Silver structures his analysis of the problem through the imposition of evolution as a theoretical trope, a maneuver deployed to considerable effect. Specifically, he argues that the genealogy of modern genres may be compared to the process of speciation through natural selection, whereby new pictorial forms emerge via artistic experimentation conducted upon and reified by the open market. The development of pictorial types is thus construed as contingent rather than prescribed, subject equally to gradual differentiation, signal success, or categorical failure and consequent extinction, depending on the vicissitudes of the market.

The attempt to account for visual change over time that constitutes the fundamental correspondence on which this evolutionary model hinges is sketched in the introduction, “‘Cultural Selection’ and the Origins of Pictorial Species,” whose title forcefully asserts its operative premise. Silver adumbrates the critical utility of evolution as art-historical analogy in the context of a brief survey of the primary pictorial developments that characterize the visual culture of sixteenth-century Antwerp. Concentrating both on major artistic personalities, such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and on significant pictorial types, including landscapes, market scenes, and peasant revels, he plots a trajectory of formal linkages among paintings and prints, tracing the development of specific subjects and detailing the subtle shifts in form and content from one generation to the next. This arc is not uniform in either direction or rate of change; as with natural selection, changes in form are subject to chance innovation, and can occur rapidly or over extended periods of time.

Silver’s recourse to evolution not only supplies a structural analogy for the specific historical development he proposes to chart, but also leverages the opportunity to reassess broader art-historical notions of influence. His argument is framed around a fundamental tension between a traditional model of art history that focuses on a succession of innovative works comprising the canon, and what Silver refers to as a poststructuralist/postmodernist approach in which art works are regarded as collaborative creations shaped more by cultural process than individual agency. In effect, this formulation opposes notions of influence understood in terms of originality and innovation on the one hand and replication and continuity on the other. Precisely because evolution as an applied model requires careful attention to the admixture of form and content, Silver’s study treats major monuments and formulaic workshop replications with almost equal weight, evaluating their similarly balanced interaction in the cultural context of the marketplace. Silver’s evolutionary model thus establishes the open market as a cultural agent, trading in both novelty and continuity, that inherently reconciles the conflicts of influence previously identified, “enabl[ing] us to have our cake of innovation and eat it too, within the complex interaction of artwork, producer and associates, audience, and market” (14).

In chapter 2, Antwerp itself is adduced as a “cultural system” analogous to Darwin’s Galapagos, wherein Silver’s model of pictorial evolution may be readily examined. He presents a history of Antwerp’s economic development in the sixteenth century and, in particular, of the centrality of the city’s status as a global entrepôt for commodities of every variety (including art). Exploring arguments that build on those made by Elizabeth Honig in her penetrating study, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), Silver elaborates the complex relationship between the cultural consequences of Antwerp’s capitalist expansion and the visual responses, articulated in easel paintings and in prints, that both shaped and were shaped by their environment. To this end, for Silver, “social definition through cultural criticism of classes and roles lies behind most of the city’s novel sixteenth-century visual culture” (22). Following Paul Vandenbroeck (Beeld van de andere, vertoog over het zelf, Antwerp: Koninklijk Museum, 1987), this cultural criticism is characterized by negative self-definition, a social process that serves to structure several of Silver’s subsequent chapters around a variety of opposed but related pairs (“town and country,” “labor and leisure”) that might be thought to comprise the cultural system of Antwerp.

In the ensuing chapters that constitute the body of his study, Silver proceeds through a series of extended visual analyses organized by linked thematic groupings. These themes not only identify the core subjects of the nascent pictorial genres that are his central concern, but also provide the connective tissue by which the formal or visual elaboration of genres is traced. Foremost among these subjects is the expression of moral opprobrium, a topic forcefully introduced by the startling innovations of Bosch. Silver maps multiple pictorial engagements with this theme through various emergent genres and “hybrid” genres, including scenes of money changers and tax collectors, tavern scenes, market scenes, and most especially diableries—wholesale knockoffs of Bosch’s signature style (or brand, as it were) produced throughout the sixteenth century. In each case, Silver not only considers major works alongside market copies in multiple media, but links the evolving representational strategies employed by Antwerp artists over time to shifting constructions of social and cultural identity. Like Darwin’s, Silver’s arguments are highly inductive. Much of the evidence adduced comes from the objects themselves, and Silver is remarkably successful in mining a host of replicative material for the purposes of delimiting in visual terms a discrete range of critical values indexed by the pictorial developments he explores. Viewed in this light, evolution is a particularly apt metaphor in the sense that close observation of form is then considered in terms of function.

It is a commonplace, however, that all analogies eventually break down—their usefulness determined by the extent to which they maintain their critical integrity. In this instance, it is perhaps in the comparison of Antwerp to a tropical island that we see the first indication of the limitations of Silver’s evolutionary model. In his initial sketch, Antwerp is posited as an ideal environment within which to locate his study of pictorial speciation:

One of the main discoveries about speciation [. . .] is that this kind of natural expansion of types and numbers occurs most readily in a favorable but peripheral environment, such as a tropical island. . . . One wonders whether our marketplace for art in the Low Countries presents a similar situation. Isolated geographically in northwest Europe and by the dominant Protestant attitude toward art from traditional demand for works for monarchs and churches, these Dutch images (and Flemish genres other than history paintings) were reinforced chiefly by their own success and failures in the marketplace. (13)

However, Antwerp’s market in the sixteenth century was both global and permeable. As Silver himself discusses at length in his second chapter, sixteenth-century Antwerp “bestrode the economic world of Europe like a colossus” (16), the reach of its markets extending to the corners of the known world. This apparent incongruity might be a product of the seductive powers of Silver’s alluring analogy, and it should be noted that the notion of Antwerp’s cultural and geographical isolation is by no means necessary to the success of Silver’s already illuminating enterprise.

The consequences of Silver’s conception of Antwerp as an isolated entity can be tacitly linked to several significant issues that all revolve around the definition of what is local. The genres mapped by the study, with the possible exception of landscape, constitute what is conventionally regarded as the Flemish vernacular style and comprise, in effect, genre scenes rooted in the representation of indigenous cultural subjects. However, the distribution of and thus the demand for these pictorial types were international (for example, painted and printed variations in the styles of Bosch and Bruegel produced in Antwerp were exported en masse across western Europe, especially to the Iberian peninsula). Moreover, such “local” genres were only one part—however significant—of the genres developed and explored on the Antwerp market in the sixteenth century. Silver does not account either for the emergence of portraiture and history painting as autonomous genres, or concern himself with the proliferation of imported pictorial styles popularized on the market. A prime example of both concerns is figured in the work of Frans Floris, whose Italianate history paintings rivaled Bruegel’s peasant scenes in popularity, cost, and the competition for hanging space in prominent Antwerp homes. In fact, one could argue that Floris, a local artist working first and foremost for a local audience, albeit in an imported style, advanced an equally local vernacular.

That said, perhaps the most significant achievement realized in Peasant Scenes and Landscapes is that Silver is able to convincingly locate meaning in replication and thus in the market. On the one hand, in privileging the market as “cultural system,” individual agency (whether artist, consumer, or dealer) is sacrificed to an amorphous and ambiguous market: much as Darwin’s natural selection determines biological success, Silver’s conception of the market determines artistic success. On the other, Silver’s approach supplies a more inclusive picture of cultural value that succeeds precisely because it attends to a fuller range of pictorial production in sixteenth-century Antwerp. The objects of study include both canonical works and the vast quantities of mass-produced paintings and prints that dominated the Antwerp market, and it is through painstaking analysis of the myriad recastings of novel image types introduced onto and validated by the market that Silver proposes an innovative reading of response. By construing Antwerp and its visual environment as a cultural system constitutive of a definable ideological laboratory, Silver is able “to clarify a composite vision of what the images represented to their owners” (227). Significantly, his work depends less on textual support than on the visual evidence supplied by the images themselves and by the conventions articulated through their evolving replication. In so doing, Silver’s work introduces a heuristic solution to the problem of response which deftly circumvents one of the more tired epistemological debates that has dominated the field of early modern Netherlandish art history in recent decades—namely, the polemic between description and ideation.

Silver’s methodological analogy of evolution might also profitably be turned on his own arguments. If, in fact, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes represents a critical intervention into current scholarship on the history of pictorial genres, how might its arguments be applied toward further research? In this regard, his study seems almost to anticipate the questions it begs. For example, Silver notes that not all innovations succeed in the market crucible. The notion of pictorial experimentation resulting in failure has clear parallels to the phenomenon of extinction in the context of evolutionary biology. As such, might not extinction be as fruitful as genesis when examining the history of pictorial species? Alternatively, how might the revitalization of earlier styles or genres (devolution?) be understood within this model, and how do markets shape such revivals? These questions and others that suggest themselves through a close reading of Silver’s ambitious and engaging project reveal the richness and complexity of the ideas explored therein, and provide a template for further investigations into the historical intersections of style and subject enmeshed in the study of genre.

James J. Bloom
Mellon Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University

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