This is the first monographic study based on archival research that is devoted to the Antwerp art market during the ‘long’ sixteenth century, from 1490 to 1609. Filip Vermeylen’s pivotal thesis is that the bulk of artistic production was carried out on spec for the open market. Due to a spiralling local and international demand and favorable conditions for production and trade in Antwerp, the art market consequently became highly commercialized and sophisticated. Vermeylen argues persuasively that many of the features, which we now associate with seventeenth-century Holland, such as serialized production, widespread public sales of works of art, and professional art dealers first appeared in Antwerp a century before. While he focuses on paintings, he also discusses the trade in carved altarpieces, tapestries, books, musical instruments, and prints. Recent research into the manufacture and distribution of Brabantine carved retables by Lynn Jacobs (Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, Cambridge, 1998) among others informed some of Vermeylen’s ideas on the operation of the art market. This trade, which flourished in the first half of the century, provided substantial evidence for mass exportation, standardization, division of labor, and quality control. We also tend to overlook the economic importance of tapestries which was worth thirty times more than paintings in terms of export value to Spain and Portugal in 1553. With paintings, Vermeylen’s stated interest is in ‘low-end’ production, which he defines as ‘cheaper, inferior paintings’ as opposed to the high quality and expensive works painted by such figures as Quinten Massys, Joachim Patinir, Peter Bruegel and Frans Floris who worked mostly on commission. What precisely constitutes the former category? Is it paintings in oil or distemper on canvas of low artistic merit, referred to in documents but not apparently surviving in large numbers, or is it small-scale devotional images on panel (including diptychs, triptychs, and altar wings), copied from a prototype or workshop pattern through various mechanical aids, and which survive in abundant numbers? Vermeylen is not always clear on this distinction.
The first three chapters trace the evolution of the Antwerp art market in a chronological manner. Antwerp’s rise and fall as a major centre for the production and distribution of art works was inextricably linked to the changing fortunes of the local economy. Nowhere is this interdependence more apparent than in the construction of the schilderspand or painters’ gallery which was literally built on top of the new stock exchange of Antwerp. The emergence of the city by the mid-sixteenth century as the prosperous trading hub of a vast commercial network had a profound impact on the numbers of resident artists and in the level and nature of their productivity. In the period 1490-1540, the twice-yearly fairs, which brought an influx of foreign merchants into the city, were crucially important in providing artists with an established platform for Europe-wide sales and a testing ground for the marketability of their products. The civic and ecclesiastical authorities capitalized on this steady market for ready-made paintings and other commodities by institutionalizing their display and sale at fixed locations, the so-called panden. These sale halls may even have been an Antwerp invention as the oldest, the Dominican pand which opened in 1445, is the first recorded example of this type of retail venue. In the early 1480s the Guild of St. Luke moved their allegiance to the larger and purpose-built Our Lady’s pand which has already received attention from Dan Ewing (‘Marketing Art in Antwerp,’ The Art Bulletin, 72, 1990, pp. 558-84).
However, Vermeylen’s most original contribution is his discussion of the third panden, the schilderpand which was established in 1540. This operated on a much larger scale and throughout the year. It was directly controlled by the civic government and consisted of 100 stalls arranged around the second floor of the bourse. The schilderspand was managed for most of its existence by the hapless Bartholomeus de Momper, who oversaw its commercial expansion, but also lived to witness the disruption brought about by the Spanish Fury in 1576 and the disastrous fire of 1583 before the entire enterprise stagnated in the 1590s. Some of these stallholders operated on an astonishingly prodigious scale; over 610 paintings, mostly on canvas, as well as a great many prints could be found in the shop of the painter and art dealer Jan van Kessel in 1581. Van Kessel was one of an evolving band of professional or semi-professional dealers who came to prominence in the second half of the sixteenth century. Ironically, these intermediaries between the artist and potential buyers are found in greatest numbers during the 1570s and 1580s when Antwerp was in a state of political, religious and economic upheaval and fast haemorrhaging its inhabitants. Vermeylen suggests it was precisely at this time that dealers became indispensable because of the need to find new markets abroad, particularly in Spain and France, for cheap mass-produced works of religious art. However, he fails to distinguish adequately in his statistical evidence between full-time professional art-dealers, who must have been a rarity, and those who were occasional dabblers in the trade. The picture we get is of a network of small part-time operators – many of them the sons, wives and widows of artists – who frequently pooled their resources to fulfil large orders. With the fall of Antwerp in 1585, the art market was rocked to its core; artists departed in large numbers, local demand for works of art was minimal, and there is little evidence for long-distance trade. As late as 1595, only eight per cent of the stalls in the schilderspand were occupied. Recovery was slow, but by the first decade of the seventeenth century exports of paintings had expanded to such an extent that there were official complaints in Amsterdam and Leiden at the dumping onto the local markets of poor quality works from ‘Antwerp and other enemy territories.’
Vermeylen has analyzed the tax registers on exports from 1543-45 to determine the destination and character of art works sold abroad from Antwerp. There are, however, interpretative problems with this material. For example, more than twice as many shipments of paintings were sent to the Iberian Peninsula as to the German hinterland, yet the respective share of the total monetary value of these shipments was exactly the same for each destination. Since the records do not consistently itemize the number, subject, or value of individual paintings in the various shipments, we cannot fully explain this apparent anomaly. Were less expensive and artistically inferior paintings being offloaded onto the Spanish and Portuguese markets? This source can only provide a very partial insight into the scale of exports during a period of transition and disruption in Antwerp’s economic expansion. Trade with France, which was to become such an important overland destination for the city’s art works with the various closures of the Scheldt, was virtually non-existent because of war. Further export data is provided for 1553 when a second tax on exports was levied. While this tax was restricted to Spain and Portugal, it does demonstrate that there was a spectacular growth in the volume and value of paintings, books and musical instruments being sent to this region, perhaps fuelled by an increase in Spanish purchasing power.
In the final three chapters Vermeylen adopts a more interpretative approach, investigating how the peculiarities of supply and demand shaped the art market in Antwerp. Far from acting as an impediment to free trade in the city, the Guild of St. Luke became increasingly ineffective in controlling the production and distribution of art and indeed occasionally supported the needs of art dealers, many of whom never acquired guild membership or even citizenship of Antwerp. The Guild’s somewhat benign position was brought about by the increased role in its administration of prominent art dealers such as Bartholomeus de Momper and Jacques de Wyere, by the internationalisation of the art market and the reluctance of the magistrates of the city to regulate a trade that was beneficial to the local economy. Vermeylen also assesses the level of institutional and private patronage in Antwerp. Drawing on Bart Hendrickx’s work on Antwerp inventories in the second half of the fifteenth century (Het schilderijenbezit van de Antwerpse burger, Master’s thesis, University of Leuven, 1997), he concludes that ownership of paintings appears to have been exceptionally high, even among those of limited means. Portraiture in particular was popular among the mercantile elite. However, the local market alone could not have sustained the estimated 300 or so artists who were active in the city in the 1560s – approximately twice the number of bakers and three times the number of butchers as Vermeylen points out. How did workshops adapt to increased demand? While Vermeylen briefly mentions such production strategies as copying, collaboration, sub-contracting and the introduction of new subject matter, clearly this is an area deserving of further investigation despite the absence of relevant documentation. The precise scale and composition of these workshops is also a matter of conjecture.
Filip Vermeylen is to be applauded for this seminal publication. He has carefully reconstructed the operation of an early modern art market and its key players from documentary evidence which is all too often fragmentary and ambiguous. His lasting achievement will be to place sixteenth-century Antwerp centre stage in terms of the commercialisation and commoditisation of the work of art.
University College Dublin
Editor’s Note: For his book Filip Vermeylen was awarded the 2004 Roland H. Bainton Prize for Art History. This prestigious prize is handed out annually by the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC) to the best work published in the field of Early Modern Art History.