The present volume contains the proceedings of a symposium held in December 2010 dedicated to art and art production in Brussels, organized by the Faculty of Arts, KULeuven, and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. Other organizing partners were the Research Team Art Historyof the Faculty of Arts, KU Leuven, and the scientific research unit “Identity Function and Expansion of the Flemish Baroque in a European context” (Fund for Scientific Research- Flanders). The aim of the conference was “to reconsider the art-historical position of Brussels as a major hub of activity and place of residence for courtiers and artists alike.” Indeed, the individual contributions draw a multifaceted picture of cultural life in the capital of the Southern Netherlands, covering a broad field not only including the visual arts, but also literature, music, applied arts and economics of art. Regarding music, it is worth mentioning that the publication also includes a CD, entitled ‘k Ben getrouw met een quay Griet (I’m married to a vile Griet) by Ensemble Cannamella, offering the reader a revealing auditory introduction to seventeenth-century musical life in Brussels.
While some authors use a synthetic approach, offering a new, summarizing overview of a specific subject, such as Karel Porteman (literature), Piet Stryckers and Maartje De Wilde (music), the strong point of several other contributions lies in the introduction of new archival sources, allowing the author to make pioneering conclusions. This is the case with the essays by Veerle De Laet (art consumption), Harald Deceulaer (clothing trade), Elisabeth Bruyns (frames and framing) and Koenraad Brosens and Guy Delmarcel (tapestries). In the process it becomes apparent, as observed by many of the authors, that the historiography of Brussels has been largely neglected in recent times, an observation that becomes poignantly clear when we consider that the broad and in-depth study of Alexandre Henne and Alphonse Wauters, Histoire de la ville de Bruxelles, still a standard work in the study of Brussels (art) history, first appeared in 1845. For this neglect several historical, sociological and even political causes are identified, not in the least the loss of several important archives during the bombardment of the city in 1695 that also led to the destruction of many works of art or of their original settings. It is the latter that strongly determined the study of Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey on the identification and interpretation of Brussels group portraits. An additional problem is the poor accessibility of the existing archives (which are according to Deceuleaer more numerous than is generally believed) due to the lack of inventories. Fortunately this is beginning to change thanks to several recent cataloguing projects.
The image of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Brussels that emerges after reading the various contributions is that of a city where the art and luxury market was strongly developed, its goods not only confined to distinguished collectors (Dries Lyna) but more widely spread in urban society (Veerle De Laet). Because of the international character of the city in times of economic decay its art market was able to further develop thanks to product innovation based on the imitation of successful products from other regions (Harald Deceulaer, Koenraad Brosens & Guy Delmarcel). Moreover, as court city, Brussels was a pole of attraction for artists from other regions, depending on the personal preferences of the governor, the court officials or private patrons (Leen Kelchtermans, Piere-Yves Kairis) or on the fluctuations in the (international) artistic orientation, initially, during the early seventeenth century, towards Antwerp, later towards Italy or France (Jean-Philippe Huys). During the second half of the eighteenth century the Austrian court also played a key role in the revival of the arts and the culture in the Southern Netherlands due to the personal initiatives of Count Charles Cobenzl in view of, for instance, the launch of the Académie Impériale et Royale des Sciences et de Belles-Lettres or the liberation of artists from the restrictions of the corporations (Catherine Phillips).
But what about new insights regarding native artistic talent? Despite the fact that many immigrant artists determined Brussels’ artistic life, the subject represents a certain lacuna in the publication. The only exception is the contribution of Eelco Nagelsmit on Theodoor Van Loon, stating that the artist not only adopted an original Italianizing style but also was able to serve his patrons with personalized iconographical programs for their paintings, thus confirming his extraordinary talent. Here contributions covering for example the recent research on the work of Hendrick de Clerck or the sculptor family Duquesnoy would have been welcome. The same goes for a contribution on architecture or on Brussels talent playing a key role in the artistic revival during the eighteenth century, to mention but one name: Gilles-Lambert Godecharle.
However, such relatively minor omissions may be unavoidable in a collection of essays by a wide variety of contributors rather than the more focused study of one individual. The editors and authors should be commended on tackling such an under-researched area, especially one for which the most significant publication appeared more than a century and a half ago.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen