The biographical lexicon is one of those genres in which scholars in the humanities summarize the current state of knowledge in their field. It is an indispensable tool for those wanting to get quick access to an often widely dispersed body of knowledge bearing on often minor historical figures. Art history has a long tradition in developing such tools, which will remain in demand as long as art lovers will be curious about artists other than the great masters alone.
Dutch art history can boast an old tradition in writing biographical dictionaries, each building on top of the other. Starting with Karel van Mander, there is a long chain of names, such as Houbraken, Van Gool, Immerzeel, Kramm, Wurzbach and Waller, which are still quoted over and over again. Among these, Roeland van Eynden and Adriaan van der Willigen’s Geschiedenis der vaderlandsche schilderkunst, 4 vols. (Haarlem 1816-1840) was an important link between the early biographers and modern scholarship. Thirty years later, Adriaan van der Willigen Pz. (a nephew) published his Les artistes de Harlem, for the first time concentrating on one local school. And now a third Adriaan van der Willigen (died 2001) continues the family tradition with a dictionary of Dutch and Flemish still-life painters.
While serving in the Netherlands diplomatic service for 34 years, Van der Willigen collected notes on painters, in order to satisfy “a desire to make some contribution to hard knowledge” alongside his “work towards peace and development.” His “dream to get the facts right” meets with the utmost approval of the undersigned reviewers, who only regret that they did not have the chance to undergo Van der Willigen’s “training at the British School for Military Intelligence, [which] had taught [him] to distinguish facts from rumours.” The book has greatly benefited from his rigorous concentration on the historical facts. Another important factor contributing to the success of Van der Willigen’s project was the fact that, from 1990 on, he found a highly competent collaborator in Fred Meijer, the RKD specialist on still life painting. Meijer eventually finished the book after Van der Willigen’s death, adding substantial amounts of material from the RKD’s vast collections of images and unpublished biographical notes as well as from the recent literature.
The book supplies information on 850 Dutch and Flemish painters who are known to have painted still lifes, together with another 35 painters who may have painted such subjects, and “a handful of unidentified monogrammists.” The great majority of the artists lived in the major cities of the United Republic and in Antwerp in the seventeenth century. All were active between 1525 and 1725.
The book is a very fine piece of scholarship. It not only updates our knowledge on already known masters, but along the road, the authors were able to identify many masters totally unknown to most art historians and even to specialists in the field. They traced works by several masters from whose hand no still-life paintings were known so far, as well as works by artists whose existence was known from written sources only. Meijer estimates that the book covers about twice as many artists as previous listings (in Wurzbach, Thieme-Becker, and other standard dictionaries).
For each painter, the same basic biographical data are listed, as well as representative works, whether preserved in public collections or in private hands or only known from old inventories and auction sales catalogues. None, however, is illustrated. This, of course, made it possible to produce the book at a reasonable price. References to published sources are kept as brief as possible. The book contains six short appendices on “monogrammists, unidentified masters, pupils of masters specialized in still-life painting, artists who drew or engraved still-life subjects or painted them in watercolors etc., other records and signatures pertaining to still-life paintings,” and finally the theme of “the slaughtered pig (or oxen).” An attractive feature of the book is the insertion of many names in alphabetical order with an arrow referring the reader to an appendix where more information may be sought (e.g. Baltus, with an arrow pointing to Appendix E.1) or to the standard variation of the name of the artist in the book (e.g. Fopsen, with an arrow to Jacob van Es).
Traditionally, dictionaries of biography are compilations of published material. Over the centuries, this has led to many mistakes creeping into our body of knowledge. Such mistakes have turned out to be extremely resistant to correction, leaving us with countless ‘phantom artists’ who never existed but who often have had whole oeuvres attributed to them. The authors’ aim to incorporate only reliable data therefore deserves praise. However, their decision not to do original research is regrettable. Recent developments in the accessibility of large quantities of archival material in both the Netherlands and in Belgium would have made it possible to complete many now sketchy biographies without too much difficulty. This is especially important in cases where there remains uncertainty about the artist’s period of activity.
The fate of all biographical dictionaries is that they never are the last word on a subject. Instead, they induce other scholars to pursue new avenues of research or to amplify or correct hitherto accepted information, with the effect of making it obsolete. Fred Meijer is clearly aware of this. He acknowledges in his foreword that “many more [still life artists] should probably have been listed.” And, indeed, we found at least a dozen new names of still life artists in Eric Duverger’s Antwerpse kunstinventarissen, 12 vols. (1984-2002). This source, which is surely available at the RKD, was apparently not consulted by the authors. Similarly, art dealers may find works by unlisted still-life painters in their stock, just as collectors may find them hanging on their walls.
This is a important book which should not be absent from any serious scholar’s book shelf. We thoroughly enjoyed reading and using it and we trust that it will encourage other readers – as it encouraged us – to come forward with so far unpublished material on Dutch and Flemish still-life painters.
Marten Jan Bok and J. Michael Montias
University of Amsterdam / Yale University