Workshop Practice in Early Netherlandish Painting: Case Studies from Van Eyck through Gossart, showcases cutting-edge developments in the longstanding and fruitful nexus between technical art history and Netherlandish painting. Diverse case studies, all focused on a single work of art, provide reassessments of major painters and new perspectives on more neglected artistic communities in sixteenth-century Amsterdam and Bruges. The volume is designed to complement and update the 2006 Making and Marketing: Studies of the Painting Process in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Workshops, edited by Molly Faries and also part of the Me Fecit series.
A clear development towards the digital humanities is evident in the volume’s first section, focused on new tools for technical art history. Compared to Making and Marketing, this volume is less directly concerned with socio-economic data regarding artists’ trades and the art market, instead applying statistical analysis to questions of attribution, condition history, and function for individual works of art. About the processing of digital imaging of the Ghent Altarpiece (coinciding with the ongoing conservation of the polyptych), Maximiliaan P.J. Martens and specialists in computer science, mathematics, and philosophy define and explain their “cross-disciplinary” methodology. One pioneering method detects and digitally fills crack patterns in the paint layers, producing virtual images approximating how the altarpiece would have appeared before ageing. The algorithms used for this process have also been used to map blood vessels and fingerprints, but here they assist researchers in, for example, more clearly reading the text of the Annunciate Virgin’s prayer book. Another article by Don H. Johnson, Catherine Metzger, and Diane Wolfthal on weave match analysis software – ascertaining whether canvas supports are, literally, “cut from the same bolt of cloth (37)” – allows a reconsideration of the connection between five tüchlein paintings attributed to Dirk Bouts. These have historically been difficult to compare, due both to their varying conditions and to the low survival rates for this delicate medium.
The two other articles in this first section synthesize findings from new technology with more traditional methodologies of technical art history. Marie Postec and Jana Sanyova’s fascinating article (based on collaborative findings between KIK/IRPA and KMSKA), introduces new evidence on Van Eyck’s working process for both the small-scale Saint Barbara and the monumental Ghent Altarpiece. The team utilized enhanced scientific imaging capabilities but also undertook reconstruction experiments, applying leadpoint and silverpoint on prepared grounds and studying these reconstructions under high magnification. Van Eyck’s ingenious drawing and underdrawing process, using both dry and liquid media to build up details and tonal values, is thus dramatized with descriptions and technical images that are tactile as well as precise. Finally, a wonderful essay by Ilona van Tuinen on the Berlin Sketchbook utilizes more traditional connoisseurship skills and archival evidence. While briefly referencing the emerging possibilities of “computational chain-line pattern matching,” Van Tuinen makes significant progress in reconstructing the sketchbook through patient study of the material properties of the paper – without the aid of digital imaging. Details such as moisture and ink stains attest to the sketchbook’s life. A vivid portrait emerges of an active artist in Amsterdam around the second quarter of the sixteenth century, whether studying treatises by Albrecht Dürer and Luca Pacioli or capturing city sights. A handsome appendix accompanies the essay, showing the proposed order of the extant pages.
The second part of the volume focuses on workshop collaborations, to explore what a range of collaborations reveals about the priorities of artists and patrons. Catherine Metzger’s report on the Saint Anne Altarpiece by Gerard David and workshop concludes that the Spanish-style, non-folding altarpiece was made in the North and then shipped to its destination in Southern Europe, making it an interesting comparison for the grander Évora Altarpiece, also by David and workshop and made for a Portuguese patron. Metzger attributes workshop participation primarily to the central figures of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and to the preliminary stages of the small banco (predella) panels. The idea that the workshop largely completed the central group, while David painted the wings, the central architecture surrounding the central figures, and the finishing details of the banco figures, upends traditional assumptions about the division of labor within a given commission. Moving further into the sixteenth century in Bruges, Anne van Oosterwijk studies intergenerational collaboration within a successful painting family in her reattribution of the Triptych of the Crucifixion (ca. 1530-76) to Pieter I Claeissens and his son Gillis Claeissens. The argument hinges on technical study but also on a 1573 document concerning the later verschilderen – painting or re-painting – of the altarpiece wings by Gillis, raising the intriguing larger question of period updates and restorations to completed work.
Paolo Pastorello’s report on the recent technical and scientific study of the Malvagna Triptych is paired with Maryan Ainsworth’s reflection, “Afterthoughts Concerning Prestige Collaboration.” The technical and scientific findings, as explained by Pastorello, fundamentally support, but also slightly modify, Ainsworth’s proposal that the portable triptych is a “prestige collaboration” between Jan Gossart and Gerard David, an argument Ainsworth first put forward in her 2010-11 exhibition catalogue, Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance. According to Pastorello, David did indeed paint the characteristically sweet visages of the Virgin and Child, although Gossart may have completed the faces of the attendant saints Catherine and Dorothy. Ainsworth’s brief but incisive response provides background on the fascinating concept of “prestige collaboration” (a term first used by Faries), and also updates Ainsworth’s own thinking on the Malvagna Triptych. As she points out, a prestige collaboration between Gossart and David is less self-evident than the alliance of Quinten Massys as a figure painter and Joachim Patinir as a landscape painter in the Prado Temptation of Saint Anthony. Nevertheless, Ainsworth explains that this collaboration has a precedent in David’s joint work with manuscript illuminators. Together, the in-depth technical study and the scholarly response are a master class in the methods of technical art history for attribution issues.
Workshop Practice in Early Netherlandish Painting both introduces innovative techniques and also demonstrates how technical art history builds substantive arguments through a full range of technical and art historical evidence. Workshop Practice in Early Netherlandish Painting is an essential resource for its intended audience of both specialists and students serious about technical art history and its myriad applications for Netherlandish art. As Ainsworth states in the introduction, “technical art history is connoisseurship with a larger toolbox of analytical techniques (6),” and these collected essays model close study of individual works of art in all their material complexity.
University of Pennsylvania