Oud Holland

Dec 2020: Early Netherlandish art in the long nineteenth century

New issue: Oud Holland 133 (2020) 3/4

15 December 2020

With our readers' support, Oud Holland's goal to publish more research on the art of the long nineteenth century, as well as on topics related to the Southern Netherlands and Belgium, has come to fruition. With thanks to our guest editors Alison Hokanson and Edward H. Wouk, the current double issue is entirely devoted to the reception of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art of the Low Countries in nineteenth-century art and art history.

Also, this issue is testament to our new policy to open the pages of Oud Holland to guest editors to focus on particular themes. We invite you to submit new topics that reflect upon important debates in our field. Articles in these special issues will undergo the same double-blind peer review process as other submissions.

After helping us with the process of transition, Volker Manuth has stepped down as editor. We thank him for his energy, inspiration and wisdom, which he has generously shared with the editorial team and the authors of Oud Holland for more than 20 years.

We are also delighted to announce that Tico Seifert, senior curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, has agreed to join our team, putting his broad expertise, special interest in Rembrandt and his circle, and his museum and academic experience at the disposal of our future authors and readers.

Theme issue: Early Netherlandish art in the long nineteenth century

Alison Hokanson & Edward H. Wouk – The past is always present: The image of early Netherlandish art in the long nineteenth century – pp. 146-154


This special issue of Oud Holland offfers new perspectives on the 'rediscovery' of early Netherlandish art in the long nineteenth century. It probes the intersection of creative and scholarly practices that helped to establish the importance of this corpus of artwork, produced between about 1420 to 1550 in the Burgundian (and later Habsburg) Low Countries, and to secure its status as a cultural landmark and a distinct field of art historical inquiry. Investigating topics ranging from Karl Schnaase's pioneering writings, to Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin's influential designs, to James Ensor's radically unconventional imagery, the six essays in this volume explore specific cases in the appropriation, reception, interpretation and promotion of early Netherlandish art – particularly painting – in a range of cultural practices and circumstances. Topics addressed include art criticism and exhibitions, architecture and design, painting and drawing and the emergence of 'reproductive' photography.
The essays expand upon such foundational studies as Francis Haskell's History and its images (1993), which demonstrated how the surge of interest in the work of the Van Eyck brothers and their compatriots was inextricable from the evolving national identity and cultural politics of the modern nation-state of Belgium. While the Belgian context is central, several contributors enlarge the scope of inquiry with projects rooted in England and German-speaking regions, which forged strong intellectual and political ties with Belgium and engaged enthusiastically with its artistic heritage. Collectively, the essays advance new insights into the evolution of art history as a discipline, the complexity of artistic modernism(s) and revivalism(s); the role of nationalism and religion in nineteenth-century cultural life; and some of the myriad ways in which the artistic past and present inflect one another.


I Documenting the past

Sandra Hindriks – Present or absent? Jan van Eyck and the 1549 goblet of the Antwerp painters' guild – pp. 155-164


In 1549, the Antwerp painters' guild of Saint Luke received a large gilded silver cup that was decorated with the portraits of famous ancient and modern artists. Immediately after the goblet’s destruction in the late eighteenth century a confusion arose among Antwerp's scholars regarding which modern painters had actually been depicted on the precious metalwork. While some descriptions mention Raphael and Albrecht Dürer as leading artists respectively of the Italian and Northern schools of painting, other accounts claim that the modern painting tradition was represented from a decidedly Northern perspective, namely by Jan van Eyck and Dürer as the protagonists of early modern Netherlandish and German painting.
Taking a closer look at the divergent descriptions and taking into account the reception of Jan van Eyck both in the sixteenth and in the early nineteenth centuries, this article aims to unravel the origins of this confusion and to clarify whether Van Eyck, the founder of early Netherlandish painting, was in fact part of the goblet’s iconographic program or not. By pursuing the thesis that Van Eyck was actually not part of the portrait series, this case study argues that the tradition of identifying Van Eyck’s presence on the cup was not simply based on misinformation, but rather also deeply rooted in sentiments of (proto-)nationalist and regionalist pride evolving in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the context of an emerging artistic patriotism, the erroneous assumption that Van Eyck appeared next to the German forefather Albrecht Dürer was invested with special significance by a nineteenth-century Antwerp scholarship that was increasingly concerned with notions of historic identity and interested in questions of artistic heritage and its custodianship.


Érika Wicky – Detail and texture: Edmond Fierlants' reproductions of the 'Flemish Primitives' and their reception – pp. 165-179


As soon as it emerged, the medium of photography seemed to be endowed with great potential for reproducing artworks. The study of the critical reception of these images – based upon the large corpus of texts on nineteenth-century photographic art reproductions – reveals the specific stakes related to photography in the field of art reproduction. Until the advent of photography that task had been reserved for engraving, which long retained dominance in the field. The present article highlights the expectations raised by the emergence of the new medium of photography. It reveals the ideas that motivated the use of photographic images rather than engravings in the study of the visual arts.
By focusing on the critical reception of Edmond Fierlants' (1819-1869) photographic reproductions in the 1850s and 1860s, this article throws new light on the advantages that enabled photography to meet the requirements of a project to reproduce the young Belgian nation’s cultural heritage – in particular paintings by the Flemish 'Primitives'. Focusing on the notion of detail in popular and academic reception of these images reveals both why photography emerged as the preferred medium, and, in turn, how this choice influenced the reception of the works of Flemish Primitives during the nineteenth century. It also unveils the dynamic interplay at work between photography, the recently founded Belgian nation and the art of the Flemish primitives, which crystallised around the notion of detail.


II Appropriating the past

Douglas Brine – 'Beautiful authorities': Augustus W.N. Pugin and early Netherlandish painting – pp. 180-197


In 1843, Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), the leading architect of the Gothic Revival in early Victorian Britain, wrote of his plans to "work all day" at the museum at Antwerp, "where I shall find the most Beautiful authorities". The result of his visit was a series of drawings, now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University, which record Florent van Ertborn's collection of early Northern paintings, bequeathed in 1841 to what is now the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp. Pugin's drawings of the Van Ertborn pictures attest to a keen interest in early Netherlandish painting, which is also reflected in his writings and in his own art collection.
Taking the drawings as its starting point, this article examines Pugin's engagement with early Netherlandish painting. It assesses the importance for him of such pictures – experienced both at first hand and through reproductions – and their impact on his impassioned revival of the Gothic style. Pugin's enthusiasm for early Netherlandish art was fuelled by his Catholic faith and by his priorities as a designer in search of 'authorities' to inform his work, especially in stained glass and book illustration. His experience of the Van Ertborn pictures is placed in the context of other collections he knew that featured 'Flemish Primitives', including that of his patron, Lord Shrewsbury, and the influential Aders collection in London, from which he purchased some pieces. The article concludes with consideration of Pugin’s abiding impact on the study of early Netherlandish painting through his influence on W.H. James Weale, whose pioneering research forms the bedrock of modern scholarship in the field.


Susan M. Canning – Ensor's flandricisms and the cultural politics of Belgian identity – pp. 198-214


This article discusses the art practice of James Ensor (1860-1949) and late nineteenth-century Belgian cultural politics, in particular debates over national identity and the legacy of Flanders to modern Belgium. Flandricism, a linguistic term for the intermixing of Flemish idioms in Belgian Francophone texts, serves as a means for discussing Ensor's creative engagement with these debates and their impact on contemporary Belgian society.
While Belgian national identity was the subject of much debate, that nation's Netherlandish and Flemish heritage remained central to its legitimacy, viewed by most as the legacy of a continuous and consolidated Belgian culture. Ensor’s practice provides evidence of his own involvement with these discussions and as well his identification with and ties to this artistic inheritance. Indeed, even as he sought public recognition through his modernist art practice, informed by current Realist theory and technique, Ensor was inspired by and indebted to the art of Flanders. Quoting Bosch, Rubens and other Flemish artists, incorporating motifs, conventions and subject matter from early Netherlandish art and architecture, Ensor created paintings and prints that make evident his own identification with his artistic heritage. At the same time that he joins his practice with this historical legacy, Ensor uses citation and copying to acknowledge his bond with contemporary Belgian artists who similarly turned to Flemish history for subjects, inspiration and cultural critique.
Ensor’s flandricisms are deployed in multiple ways in his art practice: as homage to the cultural and artistic heritage of Flanders; as a compositional frame invested with personal meaning; and as a provocative sign of political activism and critique. They can be seen as a validating marker of legacy that also sustained his artistic identity and status as a modern Belgian artist.


III Interpreting the past

Henrik Karge – Karl Schnaase's Niederländische Briefe (1834): Early Netherlandish painting in European perspective – pp. 215-230


Karl Schnaase's first book Niederländische Briefe (Letters from the Netherlands), published in 1834, played a major role in the formation of the new discipline of art history in Germany. It is a series of fictional letters that recount the memories of its author from a journey through Belgium and the Northern Netherlands in the revolutionary year 1830, combining his observations on architecture and painting in the Low Countries with general reflections on the history of art and its theory. In contrast to the books on early Netherlandish painting written by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Heinrich Gustav Hotho, and to Schnaase's own Geschichte der bildenden Künste (1843-1879), his letters do not exhibit textbook-like coherence. Rather, they comprise a web of individual themes.
Schnaase's thoughts about the development of painting in the Low Countries are particularly interesting because they do not follow the traditional polarization between the classical and the romantic ideal. Instead, he alternates between various protagonists, works and genres of Netherlandish painting from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, thus creating a mosaic of art historical phenomena as valuable testimonies to their respective times. On the one hand, Schnaase describes the position of early Netherlandish art – especially the paintings of the Van Eyck brothers and of Hans Memling – in comparison to the school of Cologne, and on the other hand, he traces the development of Netherlandish painting in the sixteenth century (Quinten Massijs, Frans Floris, Maerten de Vos) in an interplay with Italian models. Schnaase’s main achievement is to describe a complex history of artistic developments in the late medieval and early modern period which considered internal artistic processes as well as their cultural and religious contexts in the north and the south of Europe, without the restrictions of national perspectives.


William J. Diebold – 'A fashionable sickness': Paul Clemen on the early twentieth-century 'preference for the Primitives' – pp. 231-245


This article examines a text by Paul Clemen (1866-1947), the curator of the 1904 art-historical exhibition in Düsseldorf, to account for his era's preference for the 'Primitive' painters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Clemen’s Düsseldorf exhibition featured paintings from the Rhineland and is closely comparable to slightly earlier and contemporaneous shows in Bruges, Paris and Siena. Clemen, his contemporaries and current scholars have all seen this interest in the ‘Primitives’ as characteristic of the period immediately after 1900. Clemen explored several possible reasons for the popularity of these artists, including that it might be a "fashionable sickness". He explicitly discounted the favored explanations of modern scholars for the "second rediscovery of the Primitives" around 1900: nationalism and a perceived affinity between the late medieval and early modern Primitives and contemporary avant-garde art in Europe.
Insight into Clemen's ideas comes from an analysis of his text and of two accompanying paratexts: an epigraph from the mid-nineteenth-century English poet Robert Browning and images of two paintings that had been made canonical in writing by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. With these appeals to the first half of the nineteenth century, Clemen expressed an anti-modern conservatism, a melancholic desire to go back to a time when the late Middle Ages could be appreciated without worrying about such modern, metropolitan things as fashion. This article juxtaposes Clemen’s account to one written by his fellow curator, Henri Kervyn de Lettenhove, the organiser of the 1902 Bruges exhibition. Kervyn had a definitive explanation, explicitly gendered female, for the appeal of the Primitives. Clemen’s position was more nuanced, but he also suspected that these artists had a particular appeal to groups outside the dominant ones in his society.