While a unique artwork cannot be easily reduced to objective data, Peter Carpreau effectively argues that the price paid for a work at auction is a data point that “reflect(s) taste at a certain time (and possibly in a certain place), and trends in price therefore offer an excellent means of tracking trends in taste over the centuries.” (p. 27) In the last half century, seventeenth-century Netherlandish art has regularly broken auction records, attesting to the high monetary value associated with it. However, with all the variables that affect price (the buyer’s desire and financial means, the current reputation of the artist, the authenticity of the work, interest in art as an investment, etc.) it is impossible to produce a meaningful analysis by examining the price history of a single painting. Enter big data. With the enormous volume of paintings produced in the South and North Netherlands in the seventeenth century (Carpreau estimates 13.5-27 million; p. 157), and extensive (but not comprehensive) auction records from the eighteenth century to the present, Carpreau has built a database and methodology for a data-driven approach to Netherlandish art history.
Carpreau is thoughtful about his data-heavy approach, noting that “numbers are frequently seen as expressing some kind of absolute truth” (p. 149), and counters by demonstrating care for the potential and limitations of his data, informing his quantitative reading with qualitative analysis firmly rooted in art history. In clear prose (with translation assistance from Lee Preedy), Carpreau shares his data and shows his work, so that a reader without statistics training can follow. Following foundational efforts to quantify the business of Netherlandish painting by Gerard Hoet, Pieter Terwesten and more recently, John Michael Montias and John Loughman, as well as that of Italian Renaissance painting by Peter Burke, Carpreau aims to establish a straightforward and replicable methodology that will allow careful and meaningful analysis of art auction data.
Carpreau’s database, available for consultation at Antwerp’s Rubenianum (but unfortunately not available on-line), comprises 90,023 transactions of the works of 174 artists, drawn from compilations of auction prices from the eighteenth century to today’s comprehensive auction records on Artprice.com. The author’s clear explanations in the three brief chapters of Part I, Methodology, openly establish the standards by which he gathered, composed, and analyzed his data. Each record includes the artist’s name and location, the auction date and price paid, and the painting’s genre and size. Prices and size are carefully standardized according to conversions explained in Chapter 8 (which compiles very helpful reference tables that many scholars will find indispensable).
Some readers may be disappointed by what is left out of the database. The excluded items fall into the category of ‘priceless,’ and therefore cannot tell us about changes in price and value over time. Large commissioned works, like altarpieces, rarely changed hands, nor did the items in princely collections which form the foundation for many state museum collections today. Likewise, cheap works owned by the lower classes rarely survived nor came up for auction. This database primarily includes the works owned by the middle and upper classes which changed hands more regularly. The project’s data standards exclude several important artists – statistically significant analysis requires that enough data exist, and thus Johannes Vermeer, with his small body of works that did not often come on the market, is excluded, as is Jacob van Ruisdael. Carpreau limited his database to artists with reputations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including in it only those mentioned in two or more of the volumes of artists’ biographies compiled by Cornelis de Bie (1653), Joachim von Sandrart (1676), and Arnold Houbraken (1718–21). Thus, Frans Hals and Jan Steen, only mentioned by Houbraken, are excluded. Despite these exclusions, this volume provides a wealth of information about the artists and work it does examine, both general and specific.
Part II, Interpretation, is a single chapter which comprises half of the volume, divided into eight sections. Here, Carpreau shares the results of many queries of the database, examining North versus South broadly, the four most-frequently traded painters (Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, and David Teniers II), and the genres of landscape, history painting, genre scenes, portraits, still life, and architectural painting, drilling down into the subgenres of these and their most exchanged artists. His quantitative analyses are accompanied by visually clarifying graphs and tables (in grayscale that will transfer well via Xerox and digitally), that he additionally explains in clear and straightforward prose.
Carpreau does not simply provide the data analysis; he instead carefully contextualizes the rises and falls of the prices won by individuals and genres at auction with a range of qualitative data. He examines for instance the vagaries of nationalisms, the changing preference for the fijnschilders versus Italianate or realist styles, and the changing fashion for Old Masters and particularly Netherlandish art in America. Even the roles of art historians, critics, and exhibition history are carefully considered – do these influence taste, or do they merely respond to trends? Within the text and signaled by the modest chapter title, “An Attempt to Explain Evolutions in Price,” Carpreau is careful to remind readers of the subjectivities of this analysis as well as the limitations of the dataset, a straightforward and responsible approach.
The distant view enabled by Carpreau’s data-driven approach should, he argues, confirm what we already know (p. 204) and also produce unexpected results (p. 206), once our preconceived notions about the material are circumvented. By examining the four most represented artists in the dataset individually, and then looking beyond these individuals to examine other artists and genres, the weight of the canon and the biases of our field lift somewhat. Carpreau sees, for example, that history painting in general fell steadily out of favor beginning in the eighteenth century, a trend obscured by the continued popularity of certain artists whose works fetch high prices regardless of genre. Likewise, the market value of portrait paintings was tied to the importance of the artist or the individual portrayed, a conclusion that confirms Rudi Ekkart’s prior work on this subject.
Part III, Facts and Figures, includes seven brief chapters with additional data on artist demographics, painting ownership, Carpreau’s data standards for the 174 artists, currency and measurement, definitions of genres, questions of authenticity, and a summary. These chapters compile data from other scholars and discuss where this data is further informed by Carpreau’s database. This is followed by a lengthy appendix with tables and graphs for individual artists, genres, cities, and more. Part III and the Appendix are excellent references and provide clear standards for any scholar looking to replicate the analysis or expand this methodology to more auction data.
Overall, Carpreau has produced a study that will be useful to scholars considering seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art from a broad perspective as well as to those with more focused interests, who will find handy reference material. Scholars interested in art and value in any time or place will appreciate his clear methodological model for quantitative study. Of the 174 artists included, some are nearly unknown, and Carpreau has provided foundational data for future work (perhaps graduate research) and new questions in Netherlandish art history.