This beautifully illustrated book is a welcome interpretive study of Jan Brueghel the Elder, the result of nearly twenty years of immersion in his work that began on the completion of the author’s groundbreaking study Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (New Haven, 1998), and continues with her exhaustive online database of his paintings (www.janbrueghel.net). In Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale, Elizabeth Honig plunges the reader into Jan Brueghel’s universe, from the artistic and intellectual influences that informed his production to the bonds of friendship and methods of collaboration that molded its outcome.
The title of the book focuses the reader on a fundamental yet understudied aspect of Brueghel’s work, its small scale. In the first chapter “Forging Connections”, Honig reviews the little that is known of Brueghel’s artistic training, details the relationships he had with his many patrons, and demonstrates how these influenced the scale of his paintings. She points out how the scholarly assessment of the role Jan Brueghel’s artistic output played in seventeenth-century Flemish art has been seriously distorted by a focus on the large-scale works of his colleague and friend, Sir Peter Paul Rubens. From Wölfflin on, researchers have championed Baroque art for its emphasis on “grand passions and rhetorical power” and have essentially ignored art that fell outside this description. However, among late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century collectors, works of art that could be held in one’s hands were highly prized. They could be passed around or sent abroad, and thus became a medium for creating or recreating friendships. Jan’s work was cherished for exactly the reasons our fast-paced modern society has overlooked it: its small scale rewards long, careful contemplation in intimate settings. Slow looking reveals the “extreme diligence” that Jan was known and admired for and which Honig herself displays in her in-depth description of Jan’s working processes.
In the second chapter, “Hands-On Art: Brueghel, Francken, and Habits of Collecting in Rome and Antwerp”, Honig takes us deeper into her theme, presenting an overview of the history small-scale art. She reminds us of its use in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for private devotional purposes and convincingly argues that Jan’s art, which fit well into the intimate Kunstkammers of the time, falls in a historic line with these earlier works. Due to Jan’s early training, which most likely included study with manuscript illuminators, he was able to develop an aesthetic from imagery with a “history of physical intimacy” with its patrons. A careful walk through of contemporary collections or views of them by artists such as Frans II Francken indicates that owners of Brueghel paintings such as Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and Benedetto Giustiniani kept theirs in bedrooms, and that others kept them in locked cabinets that would only be accessed in the utmost privacy. Honig argues that collectors of small art in general, and Jan’s paintings in particular, had some commitment to the Aristotelian idea of touch as an “essential part of human cognition”. His paintings were not only for the enjoyment of the sense of sight, but also to be held and enjoyed as objects that then could be visually probed. All of this is well-argued, but perhaps the author goes too far when she suggests that looking at a painting by Brueghel could at times become “almost an erotic experience”.
On the other hand, Honig has clearly spent many hours looking intently and thinking deeply about Jan’s works, something that cannot be claimed for some previous scholars of his paintings, who have treated his oeuvre in a much more formal, structured, and ultimately not very informative manner. Her treatment in the third chapter of his classical history paintings is a case in point. These works, of which her database indicates he painted fifty-three, are small, overflowing with figures and show sequential narrative moments, making them difficult to read without a guide. There is no one better to unpack the stories these paintings reveal than Honig herself, whose erudition is here on full display, helping us to see how the paintings really do reward slow and careful contemplation. Despite Jan’s ability to infuse each tiny figure with meaningful expression, however, the canvasses are overstuffed, and ultimately even with the author’s help, it is understandable to this reader why later generations have tended to prefer Jan’s flower or landscape paintings to these small, tightly packaged works. A tantalizing suggestion she makes towards the end of the chapter is that Charles, Duke of Croÿ and Aerschot commissioned the Louvre’s Battle of Issus. As she points out, it is a shame that Croÿ’s nephew Alexander D’Arenberg did not follow Croÿ’s deathbed wish that he make a full catalog of his uncle’s massive collections.
As the title Genealogy: The Burden of Descent and the Individuality of Style implies, Chapter 4 deals with one of the thorniest issues that surround Brueghel’s legacy: how to understand and assess his artistic output in relation to that of his much more well-known father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Unlike his older brother Pieter the Younger, who made an entire career out of reproducing their father’s paintings, Jan only copied a handful. Even these, as Honig makes clear, are not slavish copies, but rather contain subtle transformations that mark them as works of their time and not of an earlier generation. For example, in Pieter the Elder’s The Preaching of St. John the Baptist in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, the viewer is part of the crowd listening to St. John, whereas in Jan’s version in Munich, the viewer is separate and isolated, outside the group and thus able to look over the entire painting with more objectivity. Honig characterizes such subtle changes as intentional “misreadings” of his father’s works that “erase its significance” while simultaneously reminding us of it. It is in this way that the ambitious Jan announced his own particular artistic style, and separated himself from his father.
This reader found the premise of the final chapter, Paradise Regained. Collaboration as the Sociability of Thought, the least convincing of the book. Honig argues that Jan’s exposure to Italian concepts of sociability and conversational thinking inspired him to pursue artistic collaborations with his colleagues on his return to Antwerp. Most of his collaborators had also been to Rome, so would similarly have experienced this intellectual current. This theory is enticing when one thinks of Rubens, whose ties to intellectual circles are well known. As we learned in Anne Woollett’s groundbreaking exhibition, Rubens and Brueghel: A Working Friendship, Rubens’s and Brueghel’s collaborations were an intellectual exchange, a responsive alliance, a visual jousting, all of which we could think of as conversational thinking. However, I find it harder to accept that Italian intellectual concepts entered the minds of some of Jan’s less erudite collaborators. After all, there was a strong tradition of artistic collaboration in Antwerp stretching back to Patinir and Metsys in the early sixteenth century, and not all Antwerp artists, even one who was a member of the Romanists, would have adhered to Italian theories of sociability, try as Brueghel might have to bring this concept into his artistic milieu. I am also not convinced that putting figures in his allegories indicates he thought that “cosmological allegories should optimally be articulated in the double language of collaboration”.
Despite the minor quibbles mentioned, Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale is a masterful treatment of the artist that also manages to make an important contribution to the study of the philosophy, taste and collecting habits of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century collectors. Honig makes full use of recent important contributions to studies of the methods and materials of the Bruegel Dynasty (Currie and Allart’s The Brueghel Phenomenon, Woollett’s Rubens and Brueghel, A Working Friendship in particular) and the reader emerges from the pages of this book with a deep understanding of who Jan Brueghel was and exactly what it was he was trying to create. One can only hope that the artist will no longer be relegated to a minor place in surveys and exhibitions devoted to artists “From Bruegel to Rubens”. Hats off to Elizabeth Honig!
Louisa Wood Ruby
The Frick Collection