From van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Edited by Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen, with contributions by Maryan W. Ainsworth, Julien Chapuis, Keith Christiansen, Everett Fahy, Nadine M. Orenstein, Véronique Sintobin, Della C. Sperling, and Mary Sprinson de Jesus. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998. 452 pp, extensive col. and b&w illus. ISBN 0-87099-870-6 (hardcover); ISBN 0-87099-871-4 (softbound).
Otto Pächt, Early Netherlandish Painting: From Rogier van der Weyden to Gerard David. Edited by Monica Rosenauer. Translated by David Britt. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1997. 264 pp, 188 b&w illus., 32 col. pls, 1 folding plate, ISBN 1-87-250184-2 (hardcover).
Like the exhibition it accompanied, From van Eyck to Bruegel is beautifully organized, carefully thought-out and visually very pleasing. Emphasizing the strengths of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Netherlandish painting, the catalogue is organized thematically or by artist, rather than chronologically. A series of essays dealing with various aspects of the study of Netherlandish painting precede the catalogue entries themselves. The first of these is Julian Chapuis’s excellent, fluid essay “Early Netherlandish Painting: Shifting Perspectives,” which succinctly discusses the complicated origins of the field and the goals of the painters themselves. The following work, Maryan Ainsworth’s “The Business of Art: Patrons, Clients and Art Markets” skillfully treats the more practical aspects of art during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Keith Christiansen’s “The View from Italy,” provides a fine discussion of early Italian collecting of Netherlandish works, as well as Southern critical reactions and artistic responses to them. Last, in “How the Pictures Got Here,” Everett Fahy recounts fascinating stories of the Metropolitan’s acquisition of almost 150 early Netherlandish paintings. One of the most remarkable things about these essays – and the entire volume – is their success in fulfilling a very difficult task: carefully balancing the needs of a scholarly audience with the wants of a museum-going public
In addition to the essays preceding the entries, each thematic division of the catalogue is accompanied by others which introduce that general subject. The catalogue entries themselves range from a few pages for better known works, such as the Mérode altarpiece, to a few paragraphs for less familiar paintings, like the Portrait of a Surgeon, by an anonymous sixteenth-century master. The entries provide a fairly comprehensive treatment of the works, including recent technical discoveries, discussion of provenance, literature and style. Particularly welcome are the entries for less famous, but nonetheless important works in the collection, such as Adrian Isenbrandt’s exquisite altarpiece, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin. Also extremely valuable is the appendix listing and illustrating the Netherlandish works in the Museum’s collection which were not given separate entries in the catalogue itself. The only drawback to the catalogue’s entries is the lack of footnotes; instead, a list of references is provided in adjacent margins.
As Philippe de Montebello’s short foreword notes, From van Eyck to Bruegel represents the first comprehensive treatment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s extraordinary Netherlandish collection. This fine catalogue proves worthy of the works themselves, fully capturing the breadth and quality of these paintings.
During a period in which subjects such as technical investigations, contextual considerations or iconographic readings largely dominate the scholarship of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting, one might question the usefulness and relevance of a volume dedicated almost entirely to traditional and formal visual analysis. However, Otto Pächt’s second and presumably final volume of his impressive study of early Netherlandish painting is both compelling and useful. As a companion to the first volume, which focused on Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, this work continues with essays on masters of the later generations: Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Albert van Ouwater, Dirk Bouts, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Joos van Ghent, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, and Gerard David. Like the first volume, beautiful and copious illustrations reinforce Pächt’s observations.
The book is filled with incisive and instructive discussions, such as the essay on an artist whose work often seems uneven and sometimes even troubling: Petrus Christus. Pächt’s meticulously crafted, insightful remarks about the artist’s stylistic development reinforces the coherence of this master’s oeuvre, as well as Christus’s place in the pantheon of early Netherlandish painters. No less interesting, if rather problematic, are Pächt’s eloquent arguments in which he reassigns dates to various paintings. This is especially true of his essay on Rogier van der Weyden. For instance, Pächt’s stylistic discussion of the BeauneLast Judgement Altarpiece leads him to date it to after Rogier’s probable journey to Italy in 1450. Then, based upon his analysis of the Beaune polyptych and the Prado Descent from the Cross, the author dates the Escorial Crucifixion to the 1450s, as opposed to the views of most specialists, who suggest its creation after 1460. Although many scholars may have trouble with this re-organization of the artist’s works, the essay is compelling enough not only to hold one’s attention, but to force a reconsideration of this troubling aspect of Van der Weyden’s oeuvre.
One of the very few disappointing aspects of the book is the relatively short amount of attention Pächt devoted to Hans Memling and Gerard David. A more extensive application of Pächt’s unique skills could have added greatly to our understanding of Memling’s pleasing, if somewhat bland compositions, or to David’s carefully contrived, motionless images. Likewise, Pächt’s exclusion of Jaques Daret is also rather surprising. Here again, the author’s analysis certainly would have shed light upon this artist’s small but important oeuvre.
Case Western Reserve University
Otto Pächt, Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting (London: Harvey Miller, 1994), is now out in a new paperback edition. An ad with a special offer to HNA members will appear in the November Newsletter.