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Kings and the Queen of the Arts

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.1 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 of Buckingham. The expense and initiative involved constituted a significant aspect of Stuart statecraft. Their trove was then recycled, by courtesy of the Puritans, above all to Spain and France. On Philip IV in Madrid and his favorite minister, Luis de Haro, who used paintings to cement his place in the ruler’s affections, Brown has much to say: the Spanish king, a real “picture man,” acquired some three thousand paintings, mostly high quality canvases, including works by Mantegna, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Correggio, and Veronese. But there was fierce dynastic competition, in this as in other spheres, with France, where Cardinal Richelieu, his successor Mazarin, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and certain aristocrats masterminded a vast extension of the royal collections. Brown shows us the fruits of this frenzied acquisitiveness, often in gorgeous color plates, and recounts the elaborate schemes used to obtain them.

Less well-remembered—he was, after all, only an archduke—but a centerpiece to Brown’s argument, is Leopold Wilhelm, Philip’s governor in the southern Netherlands and one of the Austrian branch of the Habsburg dynasty. He, too, made a killing in England, where he acquired Buckingham’s pictures among others, but he also exploited his proximity to Antwerp, heart of the seventeenth-century art market. Leopold Wilhelm’s collecting was recorded in the peculiar genre of the “cabinet picture,” originally a fictive and sometimes allegorizing image of a gallery of paintings. David Teniers, Leopold Wilhelm’s court painter and artistic impresario, reconceived this genre as a mode of visual documentation, depicting the princely canvases in minutest detail, jostling each other for space on the walls of Leopold Wilhelm’s palace in Brussels. For Brown, this work can be seen as publicity for a recognizably ordered gallery, however fanciful (since it cannot have corresponded at all closely to the actual layout of exhibits); and the pioneering Theatrum Pictorium, a set of 243 engravings after Italian paintings belonging to the archduke, which Teniers brought out in print, had a similar function. Like the series of public lectures held at the Louvre in the 1660s on paintings in the French royal collection, given by artists such as Charles Le Brun, Philippe de Champaigne, and Sébastien Bourdon, these efforts at archducal publicity seem to show a growing primacy of painting over other art forms in general esteem, and the evolution of identifiably modern rules of connoisseurship.

Brown is certainly on strong ground in making a case for the contribution of rulers to the promotion of the arts in this period. That squares with the currently influential thesis of the German historian Martin Warnke that it was the court rather than cities that was responsible for our post-medieval notion of the creative artist as a lionized, if not necessarily well-supported, member of society.2 Other aspects of Brown’s presentation are more contentious. “It has never been easy,” he tells us, “to assemble a great collection of pictures, and the princes of seventeenth-century Europe were justifiably proud of their accomplishments.” A fairly obvious conclusion perhaps; yet we may wonder how much interpretative weight it can bear.

In the first place, what about the explicit stress laid by Brown on collecting rather than patronage? He justifies this on two grounds: firstly, an enhanced appreciation during the seventeenth century of canvases (and, to a much lesser extent, drawings) in themselves, divorced from the circumstances of their original creation; and, secondly, their acquisition increasingly by purchase or gift. Patronage does nevertheless play a significant part in his story—most evidently in the many varied commissions given to Rubens, culminating in the ceiling paintings of Whitehall, and to Velázquez, about whom Brown has written before.3 Velázquez’s work for such Spanish palaces as the Buen Retiro gives further scope for opulent illustration in this book. Of course, Rubens and Velázquez were purveyors and providers extraordinary, key figures in the contemporary art market; but the author sets himself rather limited horizons, too, in discussing how works of art actually changed hands. Not only does he neglect the spoils of war, an aspect of accumulation out of which others have fashioned a whole theory of cultural displacement.4 He also leaves out the Dutch bourgecisie, whose thirst to acquire paintings is deemed too local and unsophisticated to rank as true collecting.

In fact all of Brown’s main characters are, besides being monarchs and aristocrats, more or less Catholics (Leopold Wilhelm was a bishop three times over) and at least would-be absolutists. The implication might be that Protestants, as rebellious philistines, revealed their true colors in 1649 (we think of William Prynne, who had his ears docked for criticizing the cultural policy at Charles I’s court). Anyway, did these Catholic collectors actually give pictures a privileged position over other precious works, as those in Holland certainly did? Not, as Brown has to allow, if we take price as the yardstick: tapestries, jewels, and antique sculptures continued to be more highly valued, occupying pride of commercial place even in the sale of Charles I. Nor were many other kinds of objets d’art and “rarities,” such as gilded coconut shells or elaborate suits of armor, by any means superseded, as late as the end of the century and beyond.

Moreover, was the royal entourage closely and insistently concerned with connoisseurship? Rulers pursued collecting in fits and starts at best; that was so even of Charles I, and still more of Louis XIV in France, not to mention the latter’s irredeemably uncultured father, Louis XIII. How much genuine taste did they display? Art notoriously underpins power: Need we seek for an explanation for royal collections beyond the desire of monarchs and their ministers to be perceived as magnificent, splendid, and above all puissant, and also to indulge themselves in conspicuous ancestor worship and piety? Richelieu, for instance, as we have recently been reminded, mounted a sustained campaign in many cultural fields to promote his own person, his family, and the reigning dynasty.5 Mazarin’s gallery, we learn from Brown, included 241 portraits of popes, no doubt to whet the appetite of such a high-flying churchman. When funds were available, it was hardly difficult to accumulate some masterpieces: famous pictures already tended to be priced higher than others; and, by the law of averages, a proportion of paintings prized by posterity would be acquired among much which Brown concedes to have been dross.

In certain cases, admittedly, such an interpretation loses force. Not all collections were accessible to any kind of public, even to the political and social elite. Their owners evidently contemplated them in private. But here, too, the meanings extracted from their art by contemporary owners, however discriminating, may have had little in common with our own standards of appreciation. “Aesthetic” perception of such objects is itself a later notion—I shall return to this—even if Brown and his publishers cunningly finesse that point by placing Velázquez’s Venus and Cupid (the “Rokeby Venus”) on the cover of the book; for its alluring image of a nude woman seen from the back perhaps stands nearer to our own sensibilities, indeed sensuousness, than any other depicted in it.

Altogether Brown poses some larger and more serious questions than the format of his brisk and graceful coup d’oeil allows him to answer. We can keep them in mind as we turn to the much more heavyweight treatment, and the Central European perspective, of Thomas Kaufmann. His book is a pioneering achievement: the most comprehensive and authoritative introduction to centuries of artistic creativity not only in the German-speaking lands but in the eastern territories beyond them which are just now being discovered—or rediscovered—by the West. Kaufmann tells us that he began his book in Berlin in 1989 as the Berlin Wall, the region’s best-known architectural monument, was being dismantled; the hordes of fresh tourists to Prague and other long-inaccessible cultural shrines were on his mind. His purpose is to advertise the distinct accomplishments of the region while also delineating their place within wider European artistic traditions.

  1. 1

    A poignant scene whose irony is neatly captured by Francis Haskell in The Late King’s Goods: Collections, Possessions and Patronage of Charles I in the Light of the Commonwealth Sale Inventories, edited by Arthur MacGregor (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 203–231, at p. 203.

  2. 2

    Martin Warnke, The Court Artist: On the Ancestry of the Modern Artist, translated by David McLintock (Cambridge University Press, 1993; original German edition, 1985).

  3. 3

    See Jonathan Brown, Velázquez: Painter and Courtier (Yale University Press, 1986), and, with J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a king: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (Yale University Press, 1980).

  4. 4

    Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Plunder of the Arts in the Seventeenth Century (Thames and Hudson, 1970).

  5. 5

    See Edric Caldicott in Richelieu and his Age, edited by Joseph Bergin and Laurence Brockliss (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 203–235.

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