Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-Century Europe
by Jonathan Brown
Princeton University Press, 264 pp., $49.50
Court, Cloister, and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe 1450-1800
by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann
University of Chicago Press, 576 pp., $45.00
Serious art history is a very difficult subject, for it must marry aesthetic with historical understanding. Here are books by experts who have greatly contributed in recent years to that double purpose. Jonathan Brown is known mainly for his work on Spanish painting in the Baroque period, while Thomas Kaufmann has concentrated on the art of Central and Eastern Europe. Their new books are complementary, since they discuss the arts of the courts of Europe from quite different perspectives.
There is also another reason why it may be fruitful to juxtapose them. Art history can appear a beguiling subject to communicate to a wide public. Where artists struggle to tame recalcitrant materials and other historians to harness often rebarbative sources for public consumption, art historians need—it sometimes seems—to contend only with the occasional unruliness of their slide projector. And from the illustrated lecture it is not too far to the lavish publication, like these two volumes. They are emphatically glossy productions, a pleasure to handle, and full of the kind of beautiful images which must have kept audiences in New York and Princeton from slumber when the lights went down. The findings of Brown and Kaufmann, taken together, suggest something about the lineage precisely of those discrete photographic images (“sight bites”?), typically of familiar paintings—and Brown in particular provides a whole gallery of them—which belong among the privileges, but also the liabilities, of our contemporary aesthetic culture.
Jonathan Brown’s theme is the rise of the modern picture gallery, and he begins with a very precise place and date for it: London in 1649, which witnessed not just the death of a king, martyr or villain according to taste, but the dispersal of a remarkable collection of royal paintings. When Charles I stepped out of the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace onto the scaffold, he left behind him a room graced by a spectacular ceiling lately painted at his own commission by Peter Paul Rubens, with scenes of dynastic triumph and the ineffability of monarchs. Within months, the “Sale of the Century” (Brown’s words) was underway, as many of the “late King’s goods,” or at least the movable treasures—almost everything except that ceiling, in fact—came under the hammer to settle the debts of the new republican regime. That dispersal, Brown argues, confirmed a new tendency in the history of art appreciation: the cosmopolitan quest by rich collectors throughout Europe to possess great paintings, and especially those of the past. The beginning of the end for the divine right of kings was the end of the beginning for the sovereignty of the Old Master.
Brown ranges through the decades before and after 1649 to establish the setting for his claim. Charles and his circle, part friends, part competitors, used their agents to pounce above all on the masterpieces of Renaissance Italy. Among the most prominent figures in this group were the deadly rivals Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, and George Villiers, Duke …