Beautifully illustrated and clearly written, Margaret Carroll’s book examines a selection of fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century works of art through the filter of political and social identity. The author draws on the imagery and texts of contemporary political discourse, such as Justus Lipsius’s De constantia, to argue that we can register cultural change by recognizing these images’ new ways of representing the relationships between a man and a woman or a ruler and his subjects. Carroll progresses chronologically from Van Eyck to Rubens and beyond, tracing the pictorial evidence of social and political transition: from notions of economic and political relationships that underscore their sociable, cooperative character, to works that project a view of social life in which those values are submitted to considerable strain, to art that responds to an emerging political ethos of conquest and absolutism.
Carroll begins with Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and a brief biographical account of the Arnolfini cousins, Giovanni di Nicolao and Giovanni di Arrigo, in order to show that no matter which one was actually portrayed in the painting, both were involved in similar mercantile, financial, and courtly activities and would have been well served by Van Eyck’s portrait. She goes on to argue that rather than bearing witness to a betrothal, the painting represents another kind of spousal contract: a mandate or act of procuration, which would not only allow the wife to represent her husband in legal and financial dealings while he is away, but would also make him legally responsible for her transactions. As such, the painting engages with the concepts of contract and consent, themes also present in various representations of marriage in illuminated manuscripts and other paintings by Van Eyck (Ghent Altarpiece). Carroll argues that the image portrays marriage as a collaborative enterprise and presents Arnolfini as a person of good faith, possessing material wealth and a trustworthy reputation.
Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), Carnival and Lent(1559), Ice Skating Outside St. George’s Gate in Antwerp(ca. 1559), and Tower of Babel (1563) are central to Chapters Two and Three. Posing the Netherlandish Proverbs and Carnival and Lent as an antithetical pair, Carroll examines clusters of vignettes and spatial groupings to argue that each composition is constructed to stage vivid sets of contrasts that serve to inspire reflections on power and abjection, wealth and poverty, waste and want, and, more generally, the theme of social discord under conditions of political rule. She draws attention to the divergent representations of a male and female couple at the center of each painting, stating that whereas the Netherlandish Proverbs presents a spectacle of social fracture and dissipation, Carnival and Lent offers a prospect of communal solidarity. Discord comes to the fore in Bruegel’s design of a rural Brabant ice skating scene in which the ” Emperor’s Gate,” with its Roman imperial edifice, replaces the former St. George’s Gate. Carroll argues that the gate and newly constructed fortifications visually dominate the scene of local burghers and peasants participating in a Netherlandish custom and represent the growing power and influence of Charles V, particularly his global political ambitions, which adversely impacted civic life in Antwerp. Finally, through a detailed analysis of the Tower of Babel, as well as contemporary texts that compare the political environment of the Lowlands to that of Babylon, Carroll recreates the political and economic tensions that informed the viewing of the painting and draws a parallel between the ambitious greed of Charles and Nimrod.
Rather than interpreting Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus(ca. 1615) as a revelation of primal human nature, reminiscent of Ovid’s account of the story, Carroll argues in Chapter Four that the painting should be understood in the context of a phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century princely patrons, who incorporated large-scale mythological rape scenes into palace and public decorations in support for their own claims to absolute sovereignty. After discussing the domestic significance of the Rape of the Sabines in Italy, an exemplary tale of the power of husbands and fathers over their women, which would have also been understood as an allegory of the princely dominion over his subjects, Carroll returns to Rubens’s painting and argues that the artist was inspired by the recent nuptial alliance between Louis XIII of France and King Phillip IV of Spain. Marie de Médici, the mother of Louis XIII, negotiated the treaty that arranged the marriages to Spanish heirs of Louis’s sister, Elisabeth, and of Louis XIII himself, thereby forging a familial bond between Louis and Philip IV. Thus, the painting allows the viewer to imagine the new relationship between Louis and Philip as brothers who, like Castor and Pollux in Ovid’s story, acquire their wives in a joint sexual venture, transforming the formerly violent relationship between France and Spain into one of peace.
In Chapter Five, Carroll asserts a four-fold approach to Rubens’s Médici series (1622): a presentation of Marie’s qualifications to be queen regent (The Education of Marie); an assertion of Marie’s sovereign power accommodated to an affirmation of her womanliness; a representation of Marie’s heroic character epitomizing an emerging Stoic ideal, as discussed in Lipsius’s De constantia; and as scenes that impress viewers with the danger and treachery in political life. Through allegory, the series leads the viewer to consider Neo-Stoic understanding of the vulnerability of rulers and the devastating workings of providence in nature and political life (156).
Having transitioned from concord to discord, cooperation to subjugation, Carroll concludes the book with a chapter on a new pictorial genre inaugurated by Frans Snyders: large-scale easel paintings of fighting animals. She argues that they would have been viewed in terms of the natural origins of violence. These paintings, she argues, reveal a new theater of nature as an exemplum of, and justification for, human conduct. They provide an occasion to reflect upon predatory violence and its natural foundation – a matter of preeminent concern in the political and cultural life of early modern Europe (184).
From the outset, Carroll attempts to diffuse a primary methodological criticism that crops up throughout the book. She states in the Introduction that she did not conceive of the book’s narrative at the beginning of her inquiry and then impose a strategy for which the images become illustrations. Rather, she allowed her research questions to come from close visual analysis of the images themselves. She readily acknowledges that these pictures are multivalent, operating on multiple cultural levels, and that her musings aspire to add to their complexity rather than solve a riddle. Yet at times her discussion seems forced, particularly when considering the Bruegel images as antithetical pairs, since there is little chance that viewers would have seen these images in relation to one another. Consequently, her speculations are restricted to artistic intent, impossible to recover. Despite this, specifically in relation to the works of Bruegel included in her study, Carroll offers an impressively detailed visual analysis of each picture that interweaves a wealth of previous scholarship with her own observations. This book provides a welcome addition to scholarship on late medieval and early modern Netherlandish art – and because it is so readable, it provides a rare scholarly resource that is accessible to undergraduate students interested in the field.
Todd M. Richardson
University of Memphis