Strangely, the pictorial linkages between Flanders and Holland in the seventeenth century remain one of the mysterious, grey areas in the history of art, exemplifying the Netherlandish proverb of “falling between stools.” Even where Rembrandt studies, first with Gary Schwartz and lately with Simon Schama, have restored the influence of Rubens on Rembrandt (see below), even where the Nederlands Kunst-historisch Jaarboek now accords a special issue to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (vol. 46, 1996), the connections have remained elusive, even more so where they spanned the transition between sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as South to North Netherlands.
How much, then, does our scholarly community have to thank Jan Briels for! Beginning with his 1976 Utrecht dissertation (published 1978) on South Netherlandish immigration to Amsterdam and Haarlem, based on careful archival work, this topic has remained his personal hobbyhorse and has now borne definitive art historical fruit in this sumptuously produced volume. A bank book of 1987 already heralded much of the pictorial organization and main text of this volume, but what is now at hand is the key ingredient that had been missing earlier: the biographies of the key artistic figures who formed the transitional generation between Bruegel’s Antwerp and the revolutionary Haarlem generation at the outset (actually the teens) of the Golden Century. They are all here (pp. 292-411), ranging from the Van der Asts to Adam Willaerts, from Hans Bol to Adriaen van de Venne, on both sides of the Scheldt, and particularly in the transitional, border city of Middelburg, which assumes its rightful place as a turn-of-the-century art centre.
This transitional phase was also magisterially addressed in the meantime by the splendid 1993 exhibition in Amsterdam, Dawn of the Golden Age, but there (as was also the case in the 1986 exhibition, Art before Iconoclasm) the emphasis remained on a Rijksmuseum, Dutch orientation of the story of interaction. In the world of Briels, mobile artists like Hans Bol, Coninxloo and Brouwer, not to mention the Savery brothers, assume their rightful places, which are just outside the main limelight when the single focus is on national art traditions. Some artists who did not emigrate, particularly Jan Brueghel the Elder, or some who went south, such as Paul Bril, do not figure in this account, and their influence must surely have been far greater in Holland than this volume suggests; moreover, the artists who were centered at Prague, such as Spranger, do not receive their rightful role in the Netherlands, especially when printmakers such as Aegidius Sadeler and Jan Muller made their work widely available for a Dutch audience. Prints do appear in this narrative, but chiefly with thumbnail illustrations and chiefly as documents of designs in other media.
Because the turn of the Golden Century is also the period when pictorial genres were just coming into prominence, Briels’s volume is sensibly organized by pictorial categories, not excluding history paintings, where Van Mander and Cornelis van Haarlem as well as Bloemart initiate the developments, which culminate with de Lairesse and Van Loo. The first chapter focuses on portraits, from Willem Key to Nicolas Maes. These chapters, however, are sketchy and highly selective, their task covered much more ably by dedicated studies on these particular categories, such as the 1981 exhibition, Gods, Saints and Heroes (God en de goden). By far the bulk of the account, however, is taken up by easel paintings, arranged by subjects: genre, architecture, animals, battles and attacks, marines, landscapes, still lifes. Even where specialized exhibitions have already tackled such thematic topics, such as the fine 1986 London Dutch Landscape. The Early Years or the Rotterdam exhibitions of architecture pictures (1991) and marines (1997), they only concretize what is so ably sketched here in the broader context, with new biographies of key artists. Moreover, like the London early landscape exhibition, Briels offers a chronological focus that establishes the formative role of the turn-of-the-century for the conventions of standard genres _ particularly the marine, the floral and fruit still-life, the architecture painting, and such subsets of larger categories as the “merry company” or “peasant’s distress” versions of genre. While these latter subgenres suggest interpretive problems rooted in the Eighty Years’ War and its truces as well as the growing prosperity of the United Provinces, Briels does not attempt to ground his images in any wider context.
Those of us who work on the sixteenth century as a foundational period will be eternally in the debt of Jan Briels, on whose work we have already depended as foundational for more than a quarter-century. With this magnificent, well illustrated culmination of his researches, he has forcefullydemonstrated anew the deep influence and long effects of his chosen period of expertise.
University of Pennsylvania