One can only hope that Elizabeth Honig’s astute book will find a broad scholarly audience equal to its scope and implications. For her ostensible subject is topical: Antwerp market-scene paintings, those pictures of food markets and stalls that were such a characteristic genre of the city’s art production from 1550 to around 1640. In this, Honig’s book forms a pendant to Zirka Filipczak’s study of Antwerp gallery paintings (Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550-1700, Princeton 1987). Like Filipczak, she analyzes an entire tradition, and so bridges the usual divide between Renaissance and Baroque. But Honig’s real concern is not primarily with subject matter, thematic development or iconography, though each is treated fully. Her purpose, rather, is to show how the new economic and social order created by early capitalism, nowhere more evident than in Antwerp, gave rise to a new kind of painting that was fundamentally engaged in elaborating, and enacting, the dynamics of that very order.
The book is divided into two parts, each of three chapters. The first part addresses the rise of the market in sixteenth-century Antwerp (Chap. 1), and the development of market scenes in the art of Pieter Aertsen (Chap. 2) and Joachim Beuckelaer (Chap. 3). She argues that in the course of the century Antwerp became a ‘society of merchants’, in which buying and selling were normative, ordinary and perpetual. In this context, the market-scene painting played a double role: as a representation of market activity, which defined the city’s culture; and as a market product itself, created for the same purpose of display and exchange as the commodities it depicts.
Market scenes emerged as a genre in the work of Pieter Aertsen, beginning with his Meat Stall of 1551 (Uppsala). For two decades Aertsen elaborated powerful displays of food stuffs, usually coupled with religious narratives. In their acute realism, infinite variety and skillful colours and reflections (virtues emphasized by the artist’s earliest critics), these paintings arouse desire for the objects through ‘visual seduction’, in which ‘the allure of representation is the allure of the commodity’. Visibility itself, Honig observes, is basic to marketing, for ‘at the market, value is created by visibility, the visibility that creates desire’. She shows that Aertsen’s disrupted spatial planes and additive way of building up the various objects, figures and scenes in his paintings result in a ‘picture-as-assemblage’, which elicits in the viewer a desire to take out, acquire and possess. Viewers of Aertsen’s art, like buyers of market goods, are thus engaged in enacting the same role. But there is more, for merchandising and painting (when it is illusionistic) share the same root _ deception and trickery. The visual sheen of an Aertsen trompe l’oeil is equivalent to the merchant’s cunning construction of desire. (Honig relates this aspect to the god Mercury, a trickster, who ruled over both mer chants and artists.) Like others before her, such as J.A. Emmens and Ethan Matt Kavaler, Honig delineates the sexual allusions in Aertsen’s iconography as another aspect of his mode of enticement. Curiously, however, she neither uses nor acknowledges the pioneering ideas of John Berger, in which years ago he recognized that Western oil paintings function as surrogate commodities (Ways of Seeing, London 1972).
Aertsen’s nephew, Joachim Beuckelaer, painted his first market scene in 1561 (Stockholm). In this work and several subsequent market paintings, Beuckelaer sets the market in a town square, with an Ecce Homo enacted at the rear. Interpreting the Ecce Homo as being about misjudgement and injustice, Honig persuasively connects it to contemporary writers’ concerns about the need for just prices and fair practices in the marketplace. In the 1570s, Beuckelaer shifted to painting scenes of fish stalls, at a time when the Netherlandish fishing industry was expanding. In these paintings, male fishmongers offer or prepare the catch, while the ever-present female figures (‘maidsî’ evoke the link, more explicit in Beuckelaer than Aertsen, between available sexuality and the viewer/buyer’s desire for acquisition.
The second half of the book is devoted to the seventeenth century. Chapter 4 outlines the dramatic changes in Antwerp’s economic and social circumstances. Honig concludes that the Aertsen-Beuckelaer market scene, which had been predicated on an ‘aesthetic of exchange’, no longer fits the new realities of a shrinking economy, increasing concentrations of wealth, and the quest for social status. She proposes, instead, that seventeenth-century market pictures express an ‘aesthetic of display’.
The market scenes of Gillis Mostaert, Jan Brueghel I, the fascinating Jan Baptiste Saive, Lucas and Frederick van Valckenborch, and Sebastian Vrancx are surveyed in Chapter 5, where their work is linked to ideas of social and cosmological order. But it is Frans Snyders who is the hero of this generation. In his market paintings, slaughtered animals and live animals are seen in a new dynamic profusion on an unprecedented scale. Sheer visual abundance is emphasized, as Snyders begins to transform the market scene (a site of exchange) into a still life (‘a place of possession’). Honig notes that Snyders’s dead game are always pristine: never disemboweled, skinned or cooked, they are also never partially eaten, as food is in Dutch still lifes. ‘The objects in Snyders’s paintings imply not past or imminent consumption but [rather] . . . a state of perpetual availabilty to the present appetite . . . ‘ , i.e., display.
In a masterful concluding chapter, Honig connects this reformulated market picture to the Antwerp culture of collecting, connoisseurship and gallery paintings. Starting with the fact that the majority of seventeenth-century market scenes (and many other Antwerp paintings) were the result of collaboration, Honig emphasizes that this was unique to Antwerp. Then, from quantitative data she has very usefully assembled from hundreds of Antwerp estate inventories (Appendices B and C), she discerns the following patterns: that around 1610 Antwerp art collectors began to favour works by named or attributed artists; that a canon of the most highly-regarded artists began to emerge; that Antwerp collectors collected Antwerp paintings (civic pride, at a time of diminishing civic importance, except in the field of art); and that works by or attributed to named artists from the canon had higher financial value. From this she reasonably concludes that a collaborative painting by two or more named, canonical artists carried special advantages. She also finds evidence in the inventories, beginning in the 1620s, that a new vocabulary of connoisseurship was emerging. This corresponds to the practice, first recorded in 1602 and increasing thereafter, of registering liefhebbers der schilderyen (lovers of paintings) as a new category of membership in the St. Luke’s Guild. Finally, Honig relates these liefhebbers to the learned gentlemen and connoisseurs who stand in groups, discussing art, in theKunstkammern depicted in Antwerp gallery pictures. In the (generally) imaginary and ideal art collections of the gallery pictures, and in the most distinguished actual collections of the day, collaborative paintings and market scenes are disproportionately represented. These highly-prized works evoke display in several ways: through the distinctive ‘hands’ of the artists who collaborated, and through the knowledge, taste and judgement of the connoisseur who is able to discern their hands and recognize aesthetic value. These social functions, of course, are far removed from the issues of marketing and exchange with which the genre began. Once the market-scene painting reached this point of no longer serving a market purpose, it ceased as an Antwerp tradition, as Honig stresses in closing.
Complex, at times difficult, this is nonetheless a remarkable book, boldly recasting and illuminating long-familiar material and then taking new measure of its significance. In eliciting the big themes, the centrality of capitalism in restructuring society and art, the changing role of the beholder, even the origin of modern attitudes toward collecting and aesthetic value, Honig deftly transcends a specialized view of her subject and contributes to our understanding of larger historical processes. Honig’s book is a signal achievement, both as pure scholarship and in relation to the rapidly evolving field of Netherlandish art and the market.