Cultural Transmission and Artistic Exchanges in the Low Countries, 1572-1672

Mobility of artists, works of art and artistic knowledge

Mobility of Works of Art

This sub-project, carried out by Veerle De Laet (until 2011) and Claartje Rasterhoff (from 2012) focuses on the trade in works of art within the Low Countries, and the behavior of collectors and art lovers in North and South to map cultural transmission from a material culture perspective. We aim to trace the movements of works of art as they crossed borders, and unveil the presence of these ‘foreign’ objects and their integration in the private sphere by analyzing probate inventories in various cities. Thanks to these rich sources, the art trade between the two regions becomes tangible, the cultural transmission and artistic exchange nearly touchable.

A first part will be devoted to the nature and volume of the art trade between in the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic which took place throughout the period covered by the research project, even during the years of fierce fighting. Cross border trading has not been studied systematically, and offers many possibilities for in-depth research. For instance, what was the role of the frontier towns of Middelburg, ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Breda as transit and gateway centers for artists and styles, and especially for works of art? A preliminary screening of the Middelburg archives reveals a marked presence of artistic and luxury items in the Zealand toll books, a hitherto unexplored goldmine of information which suggests that there was a lively art trade between North and South. The Middelburg data will be supplemented by a variety of commercial documents such as exports registers and certificaatsboekenpreserved in the Antwerp City Archives and elsewhere (Vermeylen 2003).

The comparison that will be drawn between the art consuming elite and middle classes of both Netherlandish court cities, Brussels and The Hague, forms a second perspective from which the mobility of works of art will be questioned. Surfacing the openness to ‘foreign’ art works and the artistic preferences of an international, socially diversified, and financially strong consumer public, will provide insight in the cultural dialogue between both courtly capitals. Taste formation and the demonstration effect of elite collectors and art lovers will be scrutinized in this context. Making use of the rich archives of several noble families (Arenberg, Lalaing, d’Ursel), the published inventories of the governor generals of the Southern Netherlands (Berger 1883; De Maeyer 1955; Garas 1967; Banz 2000) and these of the Dutch stadholders (Drossaers and Scheurleer 1974), the dissemination and appreciation of imported works of art can be studied for the highest consumer segments of the Netherlandish art market.

The research efforts of the postdoc will further focus on material culture research for selected Dutch and Southern Netherlandish towns to get an integrated view on the cultural transmission realized by the circulation of a broad spectrum of art objects. The study of material culture in the seventeenth-century Low Countries and the place that paintings claimed in domestic life, has generated many important publications (for instance, Montias 1982; Loughman and Montias 2000; Blondé and De Laet 2006). However, despite its obvious merits, many scholars have paid attention exclusively to the ownership of paintings and, as a result, an overall evaluation of the broad scope of the consumption of artworks is still lacking. Moreover, the often ‘foreign’ provenance of artistic durables has been ignored in present research. Therefore, we will fill these hiatuses by 1) including not just paintings, but also tapestries, sculptures, cabinets, musical instruments, and porcelain so that we can present a far more complete picture of seventeenth-century art consumption and cultural transmission, and 2) by gauging how imported works of art penetrated and shaped the domestic interior.

Next to cultural processes of assimilation and appropriation, the owners of ‘foreign’ works of art themselves will be the object of investigation as well. Screening their socio-cultural and political profile, we will broach the question whether and how the studied art possessors and collectors made part of cross-border networks that facilitated their access to foreign artistic consumer durables.

This research can build extensively on the collection of (raw) data by other scholars (e.g. inventory databases by Blondé and De Laet and John Michael Montias), but will be expanded and elaborated upon for our purposes. Besides the rich holdings of the Netherlandish notary archives, also noble family archives and legal proceedings conducted between the art producing guilds and the Council of Brabant, will offer useful starting points.