This is a cautious, lucid and full overview of the visual arts in seventeenth-century Flanders with a welcome breadth of illustration. An excellent range of colour plates allows the reader to understand why they were thought so highly of in the seventeenth century. Gasper de Crayer’s Alexander and Diogenes is a superb painting in which firm, confident realisation of anatomy and depth of facial expression, outweigh a timidity of design based on a formulaic bas-relief for the disposition of the figures. So too Jan van den Hoecke’s Washington sketch for The Triumph of David is wonderfully fresh, combining an obvious debt to the late Titianesque style of Rubens from, say, the Achilles tapestries, with a disciplined clarity of lay out and a rhetoric of expression, somehow suggestive of Pietro da Cortona. Although Vlieghe warms to this sketch, enthusiasm is not allowed to go so far as to suggest even so much as parameters within which the picture can be fitted into the chronology of the artist. Clearly caution in this respect is rightly to be adopted at the symposium level, but I do rather wonder whether Vlieghe is being over scrupulous in refusing to suggest dates for so many images in something which is going to establish itself as the text book on Flemish painting of the Golden Age. The book is going to become canonical in the ‘General Reading’ section of bibliographies in universities from Louvain to Los Angeles, and some will be dismayed by not having firmer direction in this respect.
Vlieghe rises well to the daunting challenge of saying something important about Rubens in just a few pages. In one paragraph he summarizes very effectively some of the fundamental changes in Rubens’s approach to the altarpiece when he compares the modulation of tone in a range of 1630s altarpieces such as The Martyrdom of St Livinus and The Coronation of St Catherine, with what had concerned the artist in the pre-1620 altarpiece. In earlier altarpieces Rubens was concerned with “the heroism of the witness to the faith”, whereas in the later paintings the artist oscillated between “the penetrating horror of torture or an unmistakable lyricism (p. 55).” The latter is part of a predominant tone of the elegiac which is the leitmotiv of late Rubens, whether in a St Catherine; in the face of nature; or in the body of a woman. It was a common aesthetic, reflecting the serenity and fulfilment which Rubens had obtained in love and marriage with Helena Fourment. But whatever private joys Rubens may have experienced late in life, it was his public paintings from the second decade of the century which changed the face of Netherlandish painting indelibly.
Vlieghe is to be admired for the impressive range of
material covered, and for analytical stamina: the pointer is always at the blackboard. In order to sustain close attention to the images, Vlieghe has adopted something of a dictionary approach in what is a narrative account of the rise and fall of Flemish art. This has very obvious advantages in terms of catholicity, but a price has been paid. What we gain in comprehensiveness we loose in comprehension. Those Rubens altarpieces may be discussed with an admirable combination of economy and insight, but what is missing is the man behind the picture. Regrettably, there is not enough in the book about the cultural milieu in which these altarpieces were produced, but this is after all intended to be an account of the visual artefacts produced in Flanders during the seventeenth century and not a cultural taxonomy of the Habsburg regime. Nevertheless the planning of the book has not left enough room for the cultural history which had such a direct bearing on the lives of painters. Balthasar Moretus hardly features at all; yet his intimacy with Rubens and their fused creativity, is an exemplum of that enormously important collaboration between civic humanists and painters which had characterised life in Antwerp since the time of Martin de Vos and that pictor doctus, Otto van Veen. Rubens described Cornelis van der Geest as “chief author and promoter” of his St. Walburga Raising of the Cross, and he meant it. Seventeenth-century Antwerp provides a uniquely rich opportunity in early modern Europe to study the mechanics of patronage, and it is one which perhaps is not attended to as fully as it could have been. We know of Rubens’s thought-provoking compliment to Van der Geest through the dedication on a print, but prints and their centrality to the culture of Flanders is not treated in its own right. That is a pity.
With sculpture and architecture, we are usefully reminded of the steady rise in the status of the professions throughout the seventeenth century. Vlieghe’s presentation of the sculptural scene, together with what he has to say about architecture, makes it abundantly clear that for him the Counter-Reformation dominated the culture of Flanders to an overwhelming extent. Whereas there is still much debate as to how, and by how much, the revival of Catholicism in Italy affected the arts, not so in Flanders. There is an interesting parallel between the lives of Rubens and François Duquesnoy. They were much the same age when at different times they both set off for Italy. Duquesnoy’s St. Andrew (St Peter’s, Rome) is a comparable achievement to the Chiesa Nuova altarpiece by Rubens, also in Rome. It is tempting then to speculate as to whether Duquesnoy might have transformed sculpture in France in the decade after his attempted journey there in 1642, as Rubens had done with painting in the Netherlands 1610-1620. We shall never know since Duquesnoy died on the way to the court of Louis XIII. Vlieghe eloquently demonstrates the real qualities of Pieter Huyssens as an architect; to an extent indeed that he emerges as of European not just Netherlandish stature. Distinctly novel is Vlieghe’s suggestion that Huyssens’s Saint Carlo Borromeo owes much in terms of its architecture and not just its paintings, to the Venetians. This is an intriguing suggestion, especially given that the Antwerp Jesuits must have known that their Order had been banished from Venetian territories less than a decade earlier (in June 1606).
These issues aside, the book offers wonderful value in its range of artists and variety of imagery. There is too a wealth of broader thematic approaches which Vlieghe has brushed in rather than worked up. In short this volume in the revised Pelican History of Art series, succeeds very well in providing a map to a richly varied cultural terrain.
University of Edinburgh