In recent years there has been a great upsurge of interest in the marketing of Netherlandish art. A critical resource for these studies is documentary information, especially that provided by contracts relating to the commissioning and selling of art works. Although these contracts often have a formulaic character, their specifications about issues such as scale, cost, delivery, quality, and iconography can offer valuable insights into the processes of production and sale, as well as the nature of the relationship between buyer and artist. Helmus’s book is conceived as an examination of one body of contracts, those for North Netherlandish painted altarpieces from the late fifteenth century through the late sixteenth century. These documents have never been considered as a group before, and there is much useful information that emerges from their study here.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a more general consideration of contracts from both the North and South Netherlands, and for both painted and sculpted altarpieces. I understand that in Part 1, the author wanted to set the more specific study of North Netherlandish contracts for painted altarpieces (which she examines in Part 2) into a broader context. But since Part 1 forms a very substantial chunk of the book (and is nearly as long as Part 2), it could be seen as detracting from the book’s focus on North Netherlandish painted works – or perhaps as a sign that the book might have been better presented with a somewhat different focus.
Part 1 begins with a justification for treating altarpieces as a distinct category. Here the author’s discussion of the usage of the term “altarpiece” in the documents, which is supported by the documentation cited in Appendix 1, is a welcome addition to the discourse on the altarpiece as a genre. Also helpful is the author’s quantitative study of the number of altars in the North Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Helmus’s estimate of a total 8,500-9,500 altars is a mind-boggling figure, even if not all altars were equipped with altarpieces and some of them were furnished with older altarpieces. This figure indicates that altarpieces were an even more substantive part of northern art production than many of us might have previously thought.
The first part of the book also explains the basic structure of the contract as a legal document and sets up useful distinctions between employment contracts (arbeidscontracten, in which longer-term relations between patron and artist were established), sales contracts (koopcontracten , which generally related to sales on the market) and commission contracts (aanemingscontracten, that is, commissions for a single work of art to be made). The author goes on to consider the commission contract in some detail, reviewing the main specifications and issues treated in these contracts. The information provided here is generally well known to scholars who have worked with such contracts, but it is valuable to have the material reviewed systematically, as it is here. However, it would have been more helpful to those less familiar with these documents for Helmus to have provided translations of the Middle Dutch quotes in this section. Moreover, most scholars, regardless of their experience in reading contracts, would have benefitted from a more sustained explication of some of the trickier terminology used in the documents – particularly terms relating to discussions about quality.
The book’s discussion of pricing is one of the strongest sections of Part 1. Here Helmus calculates average prices for altarpieces in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and furnishes comparative prices for sculpted and painted works (indicating that sculpted works, especially those of stone, were the costlier and painted ones the cheaper of the two). The most fascinating result from this study of pricing, however, is Helmus’s well-argued claim that only in the sixteenth century did the price of altarpieces reflect the status and fame of the artist. Previously size and the cost of the materials were practically the sole determinants of price, independent of the specific artist executing the work. Such economic evidence confirms the generally-held notion that there was a distinct shift – and increase – in the status of the northern artist in the sixteenth century.
In Part 2 of the book Helmus turns to the contracts for North Netherlandish painted altarpieces. Although Helmus located 66 contracts for North Netherlandish altarpieces, only 19 relate specifically to painted altarpieces; and since some of these relate to the same project, the second part of this book focuses on about 12 altarpieces. These include four altarpieces by famous artists, Jan van Scorel and Maerten van Heemskerck, with the rest by more obscure painters, namely the brothers Simonsz van Waterlant, Athonis Jansz van der Goude, Jan Deys, Ernst Maler, and Crispijn van den Broeck. The author treats the documents and altarpieces one by one, generally without drawing relations between them. So it was not clear to me what value accrued to – and what results emerged from – the book’s specific focus on contracts for North Netherlandish painted altarpieces. The fact that Part 1 was not limited in this way and that the appendix includes redactions of all 66 documents suggests to me that the way the author circumscribes the content of Part 2 is somewhat artificial and overly confining.
This is not to say that there were not items of interest in the discussion of the individual altarpieces treated in Part 2. For example, in many cases Helmus provided charts that record all the payments and note the total sum paid to the artist; these are particularly useful for the larger and more complex commissions, such as Heemskerck’s huge altarpiece for the Church of Saint Lawrence in Alkmaar. This section of the book also contains a fascinating treatment of Jan Deys’s altarpiece for the Church of Saint Barbara in Culemborg, a commission which illustrates, rather poignantly, the pragmatic impact of iconoclasm. Deys received the commission for this altarpiece in 1557, but the work was destroyed soon thereafter in the iconoclastic riots of 1566; in 1570 a new contract was drawn up for a second altarpiece, with the same iconographic program (and likely following the same design) as the one that had been destroyed. In a further sad note, this second altarpiece only lasted five years before the Church of Saint Barbara was Reformed and all the altarpieces removed. Nevertheless, for the most part, the content in Part 2 of this book appears to be of interest primarily to those working on the specific altarpieces treated in the section, rather than to those concerned more generally with North Netherlandish painting or altarpieces.
The book ends with a lengthy 14-part appendix, which forms a fabulous resource for further scholarship on this topic. Included in the appendix is a section on terminology, which catalogues the use of various terms in documents, including the term “altarpiece” (as noted above), as well as terms used to reference the medium of painting, terms used for the caisse (or case) of sculpted altarpieces, and lists of North Netherlandish churches. Appendix 5 contains a pretty lengthy comparative chart of prices for various documented altarpieces – and even lists the currency equivalencies – so it is of tremendous help for those interested in nitty-gritty economics of art. The bulk of the appendix is given to summaries of the 66 contracts for North Netherlandish altarpieces. This is a very handy section, because it not only summarizes the contents of the documents, but also gives references to sources that publish the documents in their entirety. It would have been even better, however, if the documents were fully transcribed in the book, so that the full 66 contracts for North Netherlandish altarpieces could all be provided in one place. Still the last appendix does include full transcriptions of the documentation for all the painted altarpieces treated in Part 2.
Overall the book is quite well produced. Although illustrations are not a critical feature for a more document-centered study like this, the book does contain a good number of decent black and white illustrations. It is particularly nice to see included here reproductions of some of the original contracts – including one with a schematic diagram of the planned altarpiece.
Lynn F. Jacobs
University of Arkansas