On the cover of Sponsors of the Past, the proceedings of a symposium on Flemish patronage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries held in Leuven in 2001, we see a detail of a Triumph of Bacchus. On the right, a young woman looks at the reader. The choice of this picture is startling. Against all odds the editors Hans Vlieghe and Katlijne Van der Stighelen did not pick a painting by Rubens, Van Dyck or Jordaens as the cover illustration, preferring instead to tantalize the interest of the reader with an enticing image of a beautiful, semi-nude young woman. The great Antwerp Baroque masters had to make way for a rather unknown Brussels female artist – Michaelina Woutiers, who, as Katlijne Van der Stighelen proposes in her article on the artist, may have given the Bacchante her own features. Though unknown to most of us, Michaelina was in fact one of the favourite painters of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, one of the most important patrons in the Netherlands.
The trick with the cover reveals both our lack of knowledge about seventeenth-century patronage and the fact that the study of patronage makes us look at art history from a different perspective. It makes us aware that the present-day canon of great artists was not the canon of contemporary amateurs and that artists were hugely dependent on ‘sponsors’. The more important the artist, the more important the patron (or vice versa) is an art historical cliché. Yet, this cliché does not always prove right. Woutiers for instance – who gradually disappeared from the canon over the last three centuries – was a protégé of one of the most important collectors in Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century. Similar trends characterize the art market – the canon that governed the art market seems to have differed quite substantially from the canon we find in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century art historical literature.
Notwithstanding the surprising choice of cover illustration, the twelve essays in Sponsors of the Past, written in Dutch, English, French and German, address the subject of patronage from a more traditional point of view. The first six essays deal with court patronage, followed by four articles on religious patronage. One article discusses the Antwerp elite as patron of the arts, and the volume closes with an examination of the iconographic traces of both bourgeois and royal patronage in Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi in the Prado.
The first article, by the Krista de Jonge, addresses the relationship between Jacques du Broeucq, a Netherlandish sculptor and architect, and his main patroness, Mary of Hungary. Perhaps best known as the teacher of Giambologna, he was one of the first to introduce Italian High Renaissance art to the Low Countries. De Jonge uses Du Broeucq’s case to provide us with a sharp account of the role patrons played in the dissemination of Renaissance architecture in the Netherlands and the nature of their relationships with their court architects. Of the three Beaux-Arts, architecture was the only one that could not exist without patronage because it could not be ‘sold’ on the art market. Consequently, Du Broeucq’s opportunities were completely dependent on the Habsburgs and their entourage. Given that patronage was the sine qua non for the existence of the architect and the creation of architecture, it would have been appropriate to address the subject in more than one essay.
The second contribution concentrates on Philip of Aremberg, Duke of Aarschot and Jean de Croÿ, Count of Solre. Both Flemish noblemen were active at the Spanish court in Madrid where they formed important collections and acted as patrons of Netherlandish and Spanish artists. José Juan Pérez Preciado, whose article is based on important archival findings, focuses especially on the impact of these two noblemen on the Spanish attitudes towards collecting and on the Madrid art market; he further demonstrates the international orientation of the high-end art market in Spain. Sabine Van Sprang re-examines Marcel de Mayer’s ‘classification’ of court painters in the service of Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella. Her analysis sheds new light on the interaction of ‘royal’ patrons with painters in the complex setting of seventeenth-century court life.
To some extent, court life is also the focal point of David Howarth’s contribution. An authority on English collecting, in particular the so-called Whitehall group around Charles I, Howarth here takes a side step to re-examine Rubens’s relationship with Philip IV of Spain. His reassessment is based on the State Papers Flanders, archival documents held in the Public Record Office in London. His main source is Sir Balthasar Gerbier, on the basis of whose letters and reports, Howarth challenges the prevailing view that Philip IV was a “patron of exceptional percipience from an early age.” He argues that Philip’s brother, the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, was in fact the more important patron and played a crucial role in commissioning the Torre de la Parada series.
Hans Vlieghe’s extensive article looks at the patronage of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm during his governorship of the Spanish Netherlands (1647-1656). As a true maecenas, the Archduke bought works from all those important painters who had lived in the shadow of Rubens and Van Dyck until 1641. Vlieghe’s overview clearly demonstrates that the Archduke was as much a patron of contemporary artists as a collector of ‘Old Master’ paintings. Until someone finally writes a monograph on this important collector, Vlieghe’s erudite article will remain the point of reference. Van der Stighelen focuses on one particular aspect of the archduke’s patronage: his relationship with Michaelina Woutiers. She resolutely argues for a re-evaluation of Woutiers’s oeuvre on the basis that she enjoyed the favor of one of the most important patrons of her age – Leopold Wilhelm.
With Jeffrey M. Muller’s essay on the chapter of canons in St. Jacob’s Church in Antwerp, the focus of Sponsors of the Past turns to religious patronage. Muller discusses the foundation of the chapter of the city’s main parish church and exemplifies how “through this ideal of sober magnificence the Antwerp elite symbolized its collective social identity in the parish church.” Muller’s article is an excellent case study on how this elite visualized its Counter Reformation ideals. Christine Göttler’s contribution is a meticulous re-examination of Rubens’s Judas Maccabeus’s Prayer for the Dead, painted to decorate the altar above the tomb of Bishop Maximilian Villain de Gand. Göttler describes the bishop’s close involvement in devising the iconography, arguing that Rubens’s painting visualizes Villain’s “attempt to extend Episcopal discipline to the other world (…) by making a formerly communal altar part of his own scrupulous preparations for death (…).” The patronage of another cleric, Abbot Van der Sterre, illustrates a different kind of religious patronage. The art created though his patronage of Antwerp’s St. Michael’s Abbey (destroyed) did not serve to further his own glory and salvation but rather the splendor and Catholic orthodoxy of the Norbertine order. Barbara Haeger’s reconstruction of some of the artistic features of the Abbey’s church leaves no doubt about the abbot’s role in shaping Antwerp as an important outpost of the Counter Reformation and art served as his tool.
With little known about seventeenth-century retable sculpture in the Southern Netherlands, Valérie Herremans’s work in this field is certainly welcome and the publication of her recently completed doctoral dissertation,“Eenen loffelycken ende hoffelycken aultaer”: retabelplastiek in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden ca. 1585-1685, eagerly awaited. Her article examines the impact of patrons on the ‘visual language’ of the elaborate portico altar frames and figural decoration created by such sculptors as Hans van Mildert, Sebastiaan de Neve, Andries Colyns de Nole, Artus II Quellinus, Peter Verbrugghen, etc.
Quite intriguing is Bert Timmermans’s analysis of patronage as an elite networking form in the commercial metropolis Antwerp. He provides a short overview of the problems he tackled in his doctoral dissertation (published in 2008 by Aksant: Patronen van patronage in het zeventiende eeuwse Antwerpen. Een elite als actor binnen een kunstwereld). Timmermans describes several networks and offers some interesting suggestions. His idea that the elite might have functioned as a “gatekeeper within the art world” certainly deserves more attention, since, after all, patronage could indeed trigger innovations, though one must not forget that it could also frustrate the creativity and career opportunities of artists. It is to be noted that none of the articles in this volume focus on cases where patronage had a negative impact.
Barbara Welzel closes the volume with a study of Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi in relation to the wishes of different patrons, i.e., the City of Antwerp, who ordered the painting in 1608, and Philip IV, who commissioned the enlargement in 1628/29. Welzel convincingly argues that the painting’s contextual association with the signing of the Twelve-Year Peace Treaty was effectively lost after it was removed from Antwerp’s Town Hall in 1612; by 1621 it in hung in the Alcázar in Madrid and Welzel proposes that when enlarging the canvas Rubens boldly inserted his self portrait to visualize his newly achieved noble status.
Sponsors of the Past both gains and suffers from the typical format of symposium proceedings. While the variety of subjects and themes offers the reader a broad-spectrum of aspects related to patronage during the period under discussion, one does not find a coherent analysis of the very nature of patronage or an overview of its research methods. As such, the book would have benefited from an extensive introduction or epilogue in which the attention was drawn to these issues. Nevertheless, the editors and authors must be credited for the outstanding quality of their achievements. Especially, the wide-ranging approach to this archetypal art historical topic is very refreshing. We can only hope that it encourages scholars to focus more on patronage, the art market and the establishment of canons in seventeenth-century Flanders. Compared to the Northern Netherlands, patronage in the South is seriously understudied (Filip Vermeylen’s work on the Flemish art markets is of course a welcome exception). Sponsors of the Pastdraws attention to this deficit while simultaneously broadening our view. It is an important contribution to a neglected field in the study of the art of the Spanish Netherlands.
University of Amsterdam