Oud Holland

Review of: '"Pictura" in den Niederlanden' (2022)

August 2023


Review of: Sophie Schnackenburg, "Pictura" in den Niederlanden. Studien zur Personifikation der Malerei. Ihre Genese und Entwicklung vom 16. bis zur Mitte des 17., Hildesheim/Zürich/New York [Georg Olms Verlag] 2022

Art itself as the subject matter of artworks is not an unusual phenomenon. The number of early modern paintings which emblematically reflect not only on the artist’s self-image, but on painting in general, is remarkably high. Among such artworks, there is a multitude that personify the art of painting in different modalities. Since the early sixteenth century, ‘Pictura’ has been depicted regularly, mostly as a young woman with brush and palette. Her appearance and attributes vary, as she frequently blends with other allegories, and her meanings depend very closely on her specific context and setting. How wide-ranging the iconographic spectrum of ‘Pictura’ allegories can be is examined in Sophie Schnackenburg's recently published book on the subject – a trade edition of her dissertation, Niederländische Pictura-Allegorien, which she completed in 2016 at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn under the supervision of Hans-Joachim Raupp.

Schnackenburg’s study focuses on the emergence and development of allegorical representations of ‘Pictura’ in Netherlandish Art. She mainly addresses works of art from c. 1560-1660, a period for which no comprehensive study existed so far. Schnackenburg's object of research and methodology are more specific than the book title might at first suggest. The author exclusively examines personifications of ‘Pictura’; hence human figures that are explicitly designed to represent the art of painting. Subjects such as the artist’s studio, St. Luke painting the Madonna, or allegories representing architecture, sculpture and painting together are only considered if they display ‘Pictura’ in an innovative or otherwise significant way. Likewise, neither are ancient artist legends addressed, like those of Pygmalion, Zeuxis, or Apelles. Schnackenburg’s thematic concentration, however, is not a limitation, but provides scope for well-founded observations that would hardly be possible in a more general study. Thus, the book offers a specific and detailed contribution to a broader complex of issues concerning the self-referentiality of painting, which partly extends beyond her ultimate subject.

After a brief but profound introduction on the meaning and concept of allegory – emphasising its significance for the humanist and artistic circles – her study is divided into three major chapters dedicated to Italian, Flemish and Dutch art. Schnackenburg examines multiple case studies, which are discussed broadly in chronological order. The author primarily focuses on the iconography of the selected a, and questions concerning authorship, dating and style are rarely dealt with. However, since mostly signed and secured works are treated, such questions are indeed not urgent. What makes this book particularly comprehensive, is the fact that it not only examines the field of painting, drawing, printmaking and numismatics, but also provides a thorough analysis of literary and theological texts regarding personified representations of the art of painting.

The first chapter focuses on the emergence of depictions of ‘Pictura’ in Italian art of the Cinquecento and artists’ wish to be granted a place among the ‘Artes liberales’. Schnackenburg establishes that the allegorical appearance of ‘Pictura’ was already discussed in the writings of humanists and poets such as Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and Francesco Lancilotti (born 1472) long before it was first depicted by artists – a situation she later attests for the Netherlands, as well. Schnackenburg herself states that much research has already been devoted to this field, and she is well advised to treat the early representations of ‘Pictura’ by Parmigianino (1503-1540) and the workshop of Raphael (1483-1520) rather briefly.1 Looking at the frescos of his residences in Arezzo and Florence, as well as his Vite, Schnackenburg also discusses Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) role in establishing the theme in Italian art theory. In even greater detail, she next deals with Cesare Ripa’s (1555-1622) Iconologia, whose lemmas for ‘Pictura’ are quoted in their entirety in both the Italian version of 1593 and the Dutch translation of 1644. Although the text has been studied in the past,Schnackenburg is able – for the first time – to convincingly demonstrate the influences of Plutarch (c. 45-120) and Cicero (106-41 BCE) and manages to identify the main aspects of Ripa’s ‘Pictura’, which are beauty, nobility, intellect, fantasy, melancholy and ‘imitatio’. Her thought-provoking analyses of these characteristics prove to be of great value in later chapters where, she interprets various Netherlandish artworks.

Cover of: "Pictura" in den Niederlanden

Middle: fig. 1, Gerard van Honthorst, Allegory of painting, 1648, oil on canvas, 138 x 113 cm., Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, inv. 998.10

Right: fig. 2 Philips Galle, After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Temperantia, c. 1559/60, engraving, 22.3 x 29.1 cm., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 26.72.43

Schnackenburg then turns to the Southern Netherlands, where ‘Pictura’ appears in texts and images especially in Antwerp during the second half of the sixteenth century. Based on written sources such as those of the Antwerp Landjuveel from 1561, poems by Eduard de Dene (1505-c. 1586) or Lucas de Heere (1534-1584), Schnackenburg shows that, as in Italy, the desire arose to include ‘Pictura’ in the canon of the ‘Artes liberales’. Regarding Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c. 1525/30-1569) Allegory of temperantia of 1560, one of the earliest northern images to depict ‘Pictura’, she points out that the artist relates the art of painting to the activities of measuring and counting, and thus considers it as intellectually demanding as, for example, arithmetic (fig. 1). The Temperantia, which was printed by Phillips Galle (1537-1612) as part of Bruegel’s famous series of the seven virtues seems to mark something like a starting point for the appearance of ‘Pictura’ in the Netherlands. In the chapter on Frans Floris’ (1517-1570) Awakening of the arts, Schnackenburg argues that the Antwerp painter depicted amongst the ‘artes’ a personification of ‘memoria’ as well. An observation that shows how artists like Floris were indeed concerned with their own artistic ‘memoria’. The growing self-awareness of Antwerp artists in the subsequent years was probably nowhere more visible than on the façade of Floris’ residence, which the painter decorated with a large-scale allegory. The depiction, which is today only know through one drawing, several prints, as well as written accounts, featured a representation of ‘Pictura’. Among the extensive literature on the subject, Schnackenburg has taken into account the newest publications of Edward Wouk, which were published after her dissertation.3 Floris depicts ‘Pictura’ sitting behind an easel, looking over her shoulder and facing the audience. Schnackenburg recalls an older reading by Hans Joachim Raupp, who has interpreted the outward gaze as a gesture of artistic ingenuity.4 Her convincing support of this reading does not challenge existing research, but rather enriches it, by emphasising that, ‘idea’ and imagination were perceived as something uniquely artistic.

The author’s main interest, however, lies in the art of the Northern Netherlands, and as such, her final chapter, is notably more extensive than the previous ones. Although in the northern Netherlands, too, efforts were already being made in the late sixteenth century to place the arts alongside the Artes liberales, Schnackenburg demonstrates with the following case studies that 'Pictura' would not gain a prominent status in the north until the seventeenth century. First, she discusses the lesser-known portrait medal designed by Steven van Herwijck (c. 1530–1565/7) for Anthonis Mor (1519-1575), which shows ‘Pictura’ in a studio before an easel, surrounded by objects that refer to artistic and humanistic topoi. Regarding its iconography, the medal is closely related to printed artists’ portraits, which Schnackenburg later addresses; a single section is devoted to them. She thoroughly deals with the personifications appearing in the framework of such portraits and with their allegorical correlations. ‘Pictura’, ‘Disegno’, ‘Exercitatio’, ‘Virtus’, ‘Occasio’, ‘Memoria’ and ‘Fama’ – to name but a few – appear frequently and are emphasised to varying degrees. Her comparisons of these images are incredibly telling and vividly reveal the emblematic potential of theses printed portraits, which are often illustrated but little explored in modern publications. They are closely related to the field of printed title pages, which Schnackenburg explores in the same manner. This affinity is illustrated by Hendrick Hondius’ (1573-1650) title page of Samuel Marolois’ (c. 1572-1627) La Perspective, which repeats the framing of a printed portrait of Tintoretto (1518-1594), designed by Lodewijk Toeput (c. 1550-c. 1605), as the author demonstrates. This shows how much the allegorical portrait, and the title page, are similar in form as well as in meaning. In both prints ‘Pictura’ appears as a woman with brush and painting palette, also wearing a helmet and armour, which at the same time identifies her as Minerva. The figure of ‘Pictura-Minerva’ combines aspects of the arts, academia as well as virtue, which made her an ideal cover girl for scholarly books, as Schnackenburg explains in detail. The compilation of the two chapters is very wide-ranging and coherent, as the author examines architectural and perspective books as well as painting and drawing treatises.

Hendrick Goltzius' (1558-16178) Venus/Pictura, one of the artist's first paintings, serves Schnackenburg as a starting point in the chapter, to reflect on different qualities of ‘Pictura’ personifications in general. Guided by thematic questions, such as the depiction of the flesh or the seductive power of painting, she includes other works by Goltzius, Aegidius Sadeler (II) (1570-1629) and Hans von Aachen (1552-1615), for example, into her discussions. Another paragraph is devoted to the seldom-treated iconography of ‘Pictura’ as nymph, which refers not only to the sensual qualities of painting, but to the humanist concept of the cosmos. Schnackenburg points out that Natale Conti (1520-1582) and Karel van Mander (1548-1606) emphasised both the earthly and the heavenly aspects of nymphs. She draws on their texts to elaborate on drawings by Friedrich Sustris (1540-1599) and Pauwels Franck (1540-1596), which she does quite convincingly. Regarding a drawing by Werner van den Valckert (c. 1580-1627) in which the seductive ‘Pictura’ becomes the victim of a lascivious satyr, she remains entirely focused on the iconography. A look at other mythological raptus depictions might have been interesting since Van den Valckert’s composition is indebted to them. Furthermore, the question arises as to why ‘Pictura’ nymphs were mainly executed in the medium of drawing.

The literary portrayal of painting in Karel van Mander's (1548-1606) Schilder-boeck is meticulously examined and turns out to be quite ambivalent. On the one hand, Van Mander uses the personification of ‘Pictura’ to embellish his text rhetorically and on the other hand he depicts ‘Pictura’ as queen and motherly nurturer of the arts. She appears as a beautiful, noble and seductive young woman, but it is above all her portrayal as the mother of the arts that emancipates Van Mander’s ‘Pictura’ from Vasari’s ‘disegno’ theory. The autor demonstrates how Van Mander emphasises the sensual appeal of colour to characterise painting as beautiful and intellectual. Schnackenburg's chapter on the feminine side of 'Pictura' in Van Mander's work is particularly thought-provoking. Topoi such as genealogy, nobility, beauty as well as procreation and birth are carefully analysed. A single chapter is devoted to Frans van Mieris the Elder’s (1635-1681) Pictura executed in 1661 (fig. 2). The painting closely follows Ripa’s description of ‘Pictura’ but offers some iconographic peculiarities (fig. 3). Schnackenburg argues in favor of the recently debated view that the painting shows Van Mieris’ wife, righly pointing out the portrait character of the composition, and describing the artwork as a fusion of portraiture and personification. Not only Ripa, but also Philips Angel’s (1616-c. 1683) Lof der schilder-konst – whose title page is also discussed – influenced Van Mieris depiction. This is convincingly demonstrated in Schnackenburg's chapters on the use of colour and the rendering of the incarnate by Van Mieris.

Left: fig. 3 Simon Frisius, Portrait of Adriaen de Vries, Part of: Hendrick Hondius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium […], 1610, etching, engraving, 20.5 x 12.3 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. RP-P-OB-55.197

Middle left: fig. 4 Hendrick Goltzius, Exemplar Virtutis, 1578, engraving, 16.4 x 18.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. RP-P-1885-A-9314

Middle right: fig. 5, Reinier van Persijn, After Adriaen van Nieulandt, Title page for: Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 1644, engraving, 20.7 x 15.7 cm, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1884-A-7928

Right: fig. 6 Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pictura, 1661, oil on copper, 12.7 x 8.9 cm., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Low Angeles, inv. 82.PC.136

Schnackenburg’s book is a welcome addition to earlier studies on similar issues by Catherine King, Claudia Andratschke and Elisa Winkler, who were less concerned with ‘Pictura’ in works of art from the Northern Netherlands.5 Schnackenburg doesn’t hesitate to cite their studies frequently, which, especially when the same works are examined, is very insightful and makes her book an excellent starting point for future research. For instance, unlike most researchers, the author does not interpret Gerrit van Honthorst's (1592-1656) Allegory of painting from the Crocker Art Museum as a depiction of 'Pictura' (fig. 4). Reading palette and brush as ordinary painting utensils, she carefully identifies the painting as a portrait of a confident female painter.

The study is well founded, and the amount of literature referred to, is impressive. Latin, Italian and Dutch quotations are often fully cited, but not translated consistently. In the chapter on Van Mander, for example, the author provides helpful translations of the Dutch quotations in the footnotes, while elsewhere translations are sometimes missing, as in the case of Ripa’s ‘Pictura’ lemma.  Despite the book’s wealth, some issues remain little discussed. For instance, questions regarding the diffusion of the iconography and perception of ‘Pictura’ across Europe are hardly raised and mostly explained by the migration of artists. Studying the dissemination of ideas through prints and books might have been helpful not only for our understanding of the cultural exchange across the Alps but also between the Southern and Northern Netherlands. The topographical and chronological structure of Schnackenburg’s study prevents any examination of parallel developments in the Netherlands and Italy. Taking a brief look at Italian ‘Pictura’ depictions after Vasari's death might have been interesting. Nevertheless, her study on ‘Pictura’ in the Netherlands is not only to be appreciated for the many artworks that she has included, but also because she is always very careful with her interpretations and avoids speculation, instead digging deep into written sources such as Eduard de Dene, Lucas de Heere, Cesare Ripa and Karel van Mander. Thus, the book is an exciting read, giving keen insights into both Netherlandish art and art literature.

Maximilian Nalbach
PhD Candidate
Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg


1 See for an excellent overview: E. Pommier, ‘Le prime immagini della “pittura" nell’arte italiana del Rinascimento’, M. Scolaro and P. Di Teodoro (eds.), L’ intelligenza della passione. scritti per Andrea Emiliani, San Giorgio di Piano 2001, pp. 463-477.

2 M. Gabriele and C. Galassi and R. Guerrini (eds.), L’ "Iconologia" di Cesare Ripa. Fonti letterarie e figurative dall’antichità al Rinascimento. Atti del Convegno internazionale di studi, Certosa di Pontignano (3 - 4 maggio), Florence 2013.

3  E. Wouk, Frans Floris (1519/20–1570). Imagining a Northern Renaissance, Leiden/Boston 2018.

4 H.-J. Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert, Hildesheim/Zürich/New York 1984.

5 C. King, Representing Renaissance art, c. 1500-c. 1600, Manchester/New York 2007. Andratschke, Vom Lukasbild zur Pictura-Allegorie. Die Ikonografie und Theorie der Malerei in der niederländischen Kunst der frühen Neuzeit, 2 vol., Saarbrücken 2011. E. Winkler, Die Personifikationen der drei bildenden Künste. Funktionalisierung eines frühneuzeitlichen Bildpersonals, Berlin/Boston 2018.

Maximilian Nalbach, 'Review of: Pictura" in den Niederlanden. Studien zur Personifikation der Malerei. Ihre Genese und Entwicklung vom 16. bis zur Mitte des 17', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2023.