Oud Holland

Review of: 'Le voyage' (2018)

April 2024


Review of: Gaëtane Maës (ed.), Descamps Jean-Baptiste, Le Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant de Jean Baptiste Descamps, Turnhout [Brepols] 2018

During the eighteenth century, the Austrian Netherlands or what is, roughly speaking, present-day Belgium were increasingly visited by a flood of connoisseurs from France, England, Germany, and The Netherlands. Foreign art-buffs were attracted by the immensely rich art treasures which could be found in cathedrals, churches, and chapels, but also in city halls, stock exchanges, guildhalls and other (semi)public buildings.  Flanders and Brabant were particularly renowned for the masterpieces of Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, and other baroque painters, but also for sculpture, stained-glass windows, reliquaries, embroidery, and other works of arts. Among aficionados, it was even whispered that the Low Countries were only surpassed by Italy in matters of the Fine Arts. However, in the late eighteenth century, dark clouds gathered over this precious patrimoine. Literally hundreds of masterpieces were confiscated, moved from their sanctuaries, and sold off by the dozen during the late Austrian reign, when empress Maria-Thérèsia and her son Josef II dissolved a series of monastic orders in Flanders and Brabant. Under the pretext of an Enlightened policy, myriad masterpieces were brought under the hammer or shipped to Vienna. During the French Revolution, the looting even gathered further momentum, as the magna opera of Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, and the ‘lesser gods’ were transferred to the new national museums in Paris or the provinces. Numerous masterpieces were forever lost to what would eventually become Belgium.

Moments before the catastrophe struck, a detailed inventory of this heritage was drawn up by Jean-Baptiste Descamps(1706-1791), a Flemish painter who had made a lighting career in eighteenth-century France. Descamps soon became professor in drawing at the Académie of Rouen and established a firm reputation as one of the leading art historians thanks to his La vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandois (1756-1763). The book, a biographic encyclopedia, introduced the Flemish and Dutch masters to the French art-loving public. In 1769, Descamps published Le Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant, a practical guidebook for art-lovers who were eager to see the famous masterpieces of Rubens, Van Dyck, or Jordaens with their own eyes and in situ. Following an itinerary which lead travellers from Lille to Dunkirk – calling at Brussels, Mechelen, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and a series of smaller towns – Descamps introduced his readers to the numerous art treasures that could be found in the monasteries, churches, guildhalls, and other (semi)public buildings in Flanders and Brabant. Private collections – also numerous in the Austrian Netherlands – were not described in the Voyage pittoresque, as they were not always open for the public. For each individual site (273 locations in total) Descamps meticulously listed all works of art – both major and minor masterpieces – found in every nook and cranny (circa 2700 pieces), while he also critically assessed their composition, the design, the coloring, and other salient features. Descamps’ Voyage pittoresque thus sparked the interest – and to a certain extent also shaped the taste – of a growing crowd of aspiring connoisseurs of Flemish art. Especially in a century where expertise on the arts spilled from professionals to amateurs and the popularity of paintings from the Low Countries was definitely on the rise, Descamps’ guidebook became an important corner stone in the formation of the canon.

Cover of: Le Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant de Jean Baptiste Descamps

Middle left: fig. 1 Peeter Neeffs, The interior of the Dominican Church in Antwerp, 1636, oil on panel, 67.7 x 105 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-288

Middle right: fig. 2 Gaspar de Crayer, The Deposition, c. 1640-1650, oil on canvas, 308 x 223 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-75

Right: fig. 3 Guillaume van der Hecht, Tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, 1827-c. 1846, papier, 273 x 364 mm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. RP-P-1910-2142

Published in the late 1760s, Descamps’ Voyage pittoresque also provides a detailed survey of Flemish and Brabantine art moments before it was irretrievably dispersed by Enlightened and Revolutionary regimes. Gaëtane Maës, who is now professor in art history at the University of Lille (in France), provides us with a critical text edition of this extremely rich art historical treasure-trove. Despite its importance, the guidebook is, until today, not widely known among (art-)historical scholars.  Due to some painstaking provenance research in the databases of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (KIK-IRPA) and other sources, Maës was able to trace the weal and woe of the majority of the scattered masterpieces that are mentioned in the Voyage Pittoresque. Descamps’ original text is generously annotated with references where readers can discover whether a specific painting is still preserved in situ, has been lost or was even destroyed. Maës also identifies when and by whom the works of art were seized and traces their wanderings through Europe. Footnotes also include references to local art catalogues, guidebooks, urban topographies, and specialized art historical literature which is helpful to contextualize individual works of art. Extremely useful are the indexes at the end of the book that allow researchers to look for particular artists, singular works of art, or specific locations. Mäes also provides lots of black-and-white – and sometimes colored – illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and architecture, which renders the book also attractive for a non-expert audience although it is not really a coffee-table book since the layout gives precedence to the scholarly text. Without exaggeration it has been an Herculean task.

Like most critical editions, the original text is preceded by an introduction that provides some valuable context to understand the scope of the Voyage Pittoresque. Besides some biographical data on Jean-Baptiste Descamps’ life and career, Maës zeroes in on the history of (art historical) guidebooks. Travel guides, which provided in-depth information on the art treasures to be seen en route, were obviously no invention of the eighteenth century. From the sixteenth century onwards, travellers on the Grand Tour could already rely on a growing body of specialized literature which unveiled the masterpieces of Italian art. However, guidebooks on similar collections – both with local and foreign art - in Paris, London or Berlin only started to appear in the late seventeenth century. Descamps was indeed one of the first writers of such guidebooks to focus on the art treasures of the Low Countries. It mirrors a slow but sure landslide in travel behaviour. Even though the classic Grand Tour remained popular in the eighteenth century, new ways of travelling – less time-consuming, shorter in range, more seasonal, and less socially exclusive – gained momentum among the urban elites of Northwestern Europe. A small tour through the Low Countries, both North and South, became a fashionable excursion together with a picturesque boat trip along the Rhine. “Modern” guidebooks such as Descamps Voyage Pittoresque also provided the much-needed practical information about the departure of coaches, barges, and other means of transport for tourists to travel smoothly through the Austrian Netherlands.

Maës provides some information on this changing context, but a bit more background would have been welcome. Who were the travellers who used Descamps’ guidebook to explore Flanders and Brabant? Where they all French, or was the Voyage pittoresque also used by English, Dutch or German travellers, who were eager to discover the famous art treasures of the Austrian Netherlands? How did the manual fit into the – already crowded – market of other, more general guidebooks such as Jean-Baptiste Christijn’s Délices des Pays-Bas (Brussels 1700) who also discussed art? To what extent was it inspired by similar French art guides such as Félibien’s Description sommaire de Versailles (Paris 1702), Dubois de Saint-Gelais Description des Tableaux du Palais Royal (Paris 1727) or local examples such as the anonymous Beschryvinge van de bezonderste schilderyen en autaeren, glazen, beeldhouweryen en andere rariteyten dewelke te zien zyn in de Kerken, kloosters en andere plaetsen in Anwerpen (Antwerp 1756) [Description of the most famous paintings, altars, stained-glass windows, sculptures, and other curiosities to be seen in the churches, monasteries, and other places in Antwerp]? Maës only provides some clues to answer these questions. In a similar vein, more could – and should – be said about the burgeoning culture of the connoisseur (amateur art lover) in the eighteenth century. Descamps’ guidebook perfectly illustrates that expertise in the arts was spilling from a small crowd of professionals – painters, art critics, and other specialists – into the wider circles of aficionado’s. Maës certainly touches upon this evolution in her introduction, but does not really elaborate on this important change   which left a trace in the boom of societies of dilettanti (in London from 1732 onwards), in the coming of specialized journals, in the rise of auctioneer’s, and myriad other phenomena. France is an interesting case in this regard, as much – and more – literature on the rise of the amateur connoisseur still focuses on Britain, while less is known about other countries.1 A more fine-grained discussion on how Descamps’ guidebook fitted into this wider European trend would have been a plus.

One of the topics that is also crying for more attention is the canon that arises from Descamps’ guidebook. According to Maës’ (rather short) analysis, the lion’s share of works of art described in the Voyage pittoresque came from the seventeenth century (78%) with an obvious preference for the masterpieces of Peter Paul Rubens. It does not really come as a surprise, but interested readers are craving for a more detailed – maybe even statistical – analysis of these preferences for certain periods, genres, schools and painters. Descamps even worked with the familiar system of stars to guide time-pressed travellers to the ultimate chefs-d’oeuvre. One wonders how these preferences mirrored or even shaped the taste of the wandering connoisseurs who visited the Low Countries in the eighteenth century. How did Descamps’ preferences in the Voyage pittoresque differed from the more popular canon? Did he draw – as Maës seems to suggest – the attention to the “lesser gods” in the who’s who of Flemish and Brabantine painters? Fascinating are also the sporadic references to the burgeoning idea of (national) heritage and the nascent ambition to preserve this patrimoine for the future. Descamps doesn’t, for instance, hesitate to criticize the way in which soot-covered paintings were cleaned and even entirely repainted in the Austrian Netherlands. According to Descamps, local magistrates should act against such sacrilegious practices. It echoes the slow but sure birth of ideas about conservation and restauration, but Maës does not really delve deep into the matter.

Even though the fabric of Gaëtane Maës’ text edition is strong and solid, some loose threads remain in the introduction. Some of these potential lines of research could have been developed more fully. Yet, I’m the first to admit that this is needless nitpicking. Maës has already tackled a lot of these issues in her articles, books, and other academic work.2 Moreover, it remains an absolute feat that she has brought all these details together about the scattered paintings, sculpture, and other works of art that are mentioned in the Voyage pittoresque. It is definitely Vaut le Voyage!

Gerrit Verhoeven
University of Antwerp
Royal Museums of Art and History


1. For instance: B. Cowan, ‘An open elite. Virtuosity and the peculiarities of English connoisseurship’, Modern intellectual history, 2 (2004) 151-183; Cowan B., ‘Art and connoisseurship in the auction market of later seventeenth century art’, in: N. De Marchi andH.J. Van Miegroet (eds.), Mapping markets of paintings in Europe, 1450-1750, Turnhout 2006; J. Kelly, The society of the Dilettanti. Archaeology and identity in the British Enlightenment, New Haven 2009; G. Verhoeven, ‘Mastering the connoisseur’s eye. Paintings, criticism and the Canon in Dutch and Flemish travel culture (1600-1750)’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 46 (2012), pp. 29-56.

2.  Some examples: G. Maës, ‘Jean-Baptiste Descamps et Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun: deux regards opposées sur le patrimoine’, P. Y. Kairis (ed.), Nouveaux regards sur les saisies patrimoiniales en Europe à l’époque de la Révolution française, Turnhout 2020, pp. 35-56; Maës G., De l’expertise artistique à la vulgarisation au siècle des Lumières : Jean-Baptiste Descamps (1715-1791) et la peinture flamande, hollandoise et allemande, Turnhout 2016; G. Maës, ‘Dutch art collections and connoisseurship in the eighteenth century. The contributions of Dezallier d’Argenville and Descamps, Simiolus 34 (2009), pp. 226-238.

G. Verhoeven, ‘Review of: Le Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant de Jean Baptiste Descamps’, Oud Holland Reviews, April 2024.