Anyone familiar with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses knows his opinion that Flemish and Dutch paintings were inferior to Italian. While he admired the skillful descriptiveness and precise brushwork of Dutch painters and their achievements in the lesser genres, as well as the ornamental brilliance of Flemish colour, he was critical of their too literal copying from nature and their lack of invention. Yet in 1781 he set off on a two-month tour of the Austrian Netherlands, the United Provinces and the Rhineland to visit churches and private collections for the express purpose of studying Flemish and Dutch paintings. The result was A Journey to Flanders and Holland based on his revised notes and sketches made on site. For each work Reynolds commented on elements such as invention and composition, chiaroscuro, colour, and condition. He incorporated three brief essays into the text: on the Dutch school; on the benefit of placing works of art in churches; and on the character of Rubens. Unfortunately, by the time the Journey was first published in 1797, the more than 400 paintings listed had been dispersed through the abolition of the religious houses and the French invasion of the Low Countries, rendering his text less than useful as a tour guide for travellers and connoisseurs. Since then it has received little attention, even from scholars, on the grounds that it was boring, prejudiced, or had little new to offer.
In this new edition Harry Mount succeeds admirably in reassessing the value of this little known text and reframing it as a fascinating document in the history of art criticism, theory, and the reception of Netherlandish painting. Mount presents the text together with Reynolds’s unpublished travel notes and itinerary, several letters concerning the tour, and notes from a second trip he made in 1785. He also includes illustrations for virtually all of the paintings discussed along with explanatory endnotes, cross-references to Reynolds’s original notes, and information on the paintings’ current locations. A topographical index, and indexes of artists and paintings, critical terms and ideas, facilitate finding information on particular paintings or collections and tracing the progress of Reynolds’s trip and ideas.
In the introduction Mount examines the Journey within the context of eighteenth-century English writing on Netherlandish art and the development of art theory in Britain. He analyses Reynolds’s use of the critical language of art theory to demonstrate that the English painter assessed the paintings he saw not only as a theorist but also as a practicing artist, who borrowed freely from the works of Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt and others in his own paintings, and as a collector of Netherlandish art, who was well aware of its considerable commercial value at the time. Mount shows how Reynolds modified his oppositional view of Italian and Netherlandish art and came to understand painting in Flanders and Holland as different rather than simply inferior. After visiting Brussels Reynolds expressed his conflicted response to the seductive power of Rubens: “The best pictures of the Italian School, if they ornamented the churches of Antwerp, would be overpowered by the splendour of Rubens; they certainly ought not to be overpowered by it; but it resembles eloquence, which bears down everything before it, and often triumphs over superior wisdom and learning.”(p.18) This well researched edition provides a valuable resource for the study of the history and reception of Netherlandish art.
Wendy Wassyng Roworth
University of Rhode Island