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.

Kaufmann takes as his natural starting point the Renaissance, the first manifestation of intensive and lasting Italianate influences north of the Alps. This is the most familiar part of his account. It is true that he starts off exotically by describing Muscovy under Tsar Ivan III in the second half of the fifteenth century, and then introduces us to the sumptuous but short-lived cultural florescence at the same time in the Hungary of King Matthias Corvinus. But Kaufmann’s readers will all know something about the age of Dürer (if probably not about the Hungarian origins of that supposedly most Teutonic of artists).6 He helpfully rehearses the highlights of the northern Renaissance—the humanism of Dürer, the classicism of Cranach, and the subversion of those humanist and classical ideals by Hans Baldung Grien—and he also presents some of the more unfamiliar works of the period, as when he discusses the superb limewood carvings of the German sculptor Veit Stoss in Cracow. But it is a rather turgid exposition for all that, punctuated by the rumblings of art historical controversies, too briefly announced, even if relevant, to make sense to the uninitiated.7

Meanwhile Kaufmann has already engaged one of Jonathan Brown’s themes, the role of rulers and courts, significant, as he insists, even in the life of such sober Bürger as Dürer or Albrecht Altdorfer (councilor and municipal architect of his native Regensburg), both of whom had princely patrons. From the mid-1550s we also begin to encounter Brown’s other theme in a big way, as Central Europe became home to some of the continent’s greatest princely collections, above all the fabled Kunst- und Wunderkammer, “chamber of art and marvels”—or “cabinet of curiosities” in the contemporary English parlance—of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. Such Kammern were notoriously variegated assemblages of objects, with all manner of knick-knacks alongside their classical sculpture and wonderful work in precious metals, with bric-a-brac from the natural world—strange stones and freaks of creation—alongside their intricate clocks and other automated instruments. But they did, as recent scholars have confirmed, possess some logic of organization, as in distinguishing between artificialia, things made by humans, and naturalia, things made by God, and demonstrating the correspondence of the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the greater world in the universal scheme of knowledge.8

Moreover, paintings already had their special place within a Kunstkammer like Rudolf’s, as a limited number of foreign ambassadors and other favored guests could testify (if able to concentrate on anything other than the famously irascible and eccentric emperor). Rudolf even separated out many of his several thousand canvases and relocated them in a specially constructed gallery known as the “Spanish Hall” in the palace at Prague. Arguably his principal motives in assembling these pictures were not so different from those of Charles I later, or—for that matter—of Medici and Gonzaga rulers in the Italy of his own day. And his artistic judgment, as in recognizing fake Dürers, was celebrated.

Rudolf was unseated in the end, like Charles, by a combination of religious fanaticism and his own obstinacy; the first dispersion of items from his collection took place at another sale, organized by another set of Protestant rebels, in 1619, three decades before the London one. Much of the rest was pillaged by Protestant armies during the sack of Prague in 1648. Those terminal dates mark the catastrophe for Central Europe of the Thirty Years’ War, which largely silenced the muses there as all sides engaged in an orgy of devastation, wrecking many important cultural centers in the process. Kaufmann devotes a chapter, however, to such art as did flourish during this period. Its most significant patron, ironically (or is it so ironical, given the militarist tendencies of so many cultured princes?), was the conflict’s most renowned warlord, the egregious, but hugely gifted, Czech arriviste Albrecht Wallenstein, to whose artistic commissions Kaufmann gives close and well-merited attention.

In the aftermath of the war, the entire stricken region fell back in thrall to Italian artists and their now Baroque models. Revival took its time, and was once again stimulated overwhelmingly by the patronage of Catholic monarchs and court aristocrats, and the hierarchy of wealthy bishops and abbots with whom they associated themselves. Collecting resumed on a grand scale, as in Vienna, where Archduke Leopold Wilhelm took home his wartime acquisitions, and at Kromeríz, where the Moravian primate Liechtenstein assembled such canvases as Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. The treasures accumulated a little later at Dresden were, writes Kaufmann, the first in all Europe to be organized on modern rational principles: Augustus II, known as Augustus the Strong, instituted in 1722 the separation of “scientific” from “artistic” objects, thereby establishing a separate natural history museum. Brown would place that development earlier, before 1700.

Such collections indeed included galleries of pictures; but these became more and more like real-life equivalents of the ones depicted by Teniers, with canvases crowding walls, and owners not averse to cropping them to make them fit. The basic cultural imperative of the day—and the practical need after such destruction—was to build; and in the process of building, something very remarkable happened, both to that universalist urge which had informed the Kunstkammer tradition, and to the function of painting within it.

Central Europe, far from moving toward separation of the different visual arts, as in Jonathan Brown’s account, now witnessed their enhanced coordination. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Palace construction was always closely linked to the needs of the prospective occupants for spaces to display their magnificence and exalted rank. And we might bear in mind, although it is not a feature of either of the books under review, how courts throughout the period and throughout Europe were responsible for, if not positively obsessed with, another kind of multimedia art: the myriad elaborate festivals, dramas, operas, and other productions for ceremonial occasions.9 The Counter-Reformation Church drew on similar resources of multiform pageantry and ostentation. At all events, around 1700 the international Baroque found native or semi-native exponents and highly distinctive forms of expression in the lands of Kaufmann’s concern.

Those forms first became conspicuous in the expansive imperial style associated especially with the architects Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Fischer’s design for the imperial suburban palace at Schönbrunn and Hildebrandt’s Belvedere Palace in Vienna are prime examples of the plain grandeur exhibited by the exterior of the buildings, while on the inside one finds an ever more elaborate and spectacular interplay of painted and sculpted forms, glorifying the Habsburgs and a string of lesser rulers, secular and ecclesiastical. From Austria this style was spread above all by the heroically pluralist and prodigal family of Schönborn in the chain of bishoprics its members controlled, a kind of sublimation of their collecting instincts and taste for theater. Teutscher Gusto, so Kaufmann informs us, was how Lothar Franz von Schönborn described the Italo-German style of his Neue Residenz at Bamberg, while his nephew Friedrich Karl preferred the equally polyglot, but more precise tag Wiener Goût. This splendor reached its peak in the works commissioned in Dresden by Saxony’s princes, once the protectors of Luther but now won over again to Catholicism. Kaufmann’s normally flat prose is lifted a little in evident sympathy with the “incomparably beautiful” results.

Bohemia also has magnificent examples of such Baroque buildings, conceived by the Dientzenhofer family: the Benedictine cloister church of St. Margaret at Brevnov outside Prague is strikingly reminiscent of Borromini (although Kaufmann thinks it unlikely that Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer would have known the Italian’s designs). In Bohemia, moreover, further unexpected twists were added: while Matthias Bernhard Braun and Ferdinand Maximilian Brokof conceived Berniniesque statuary of extraordinary vigor and poignancy, Jan, or Giovanni, Santini Aichel (one of the semi-native practitioners, as his name suggests) was constructing the most remarkable Gothic-inspired edifices anywhere in Europe since the waning of the Middle Ages. Two of his more familiar projects are the rebuilding of the Cistercian church at Sedlec, to the east of Prague, and his design of a Benedictine monastery at Kladruby, to the southwest. Kaufmann communicates real enthusiasm for the fantastical pinnacles and rib vaults of the abbey church of Kladruby, although he cannot catch our imagination like one of the few earlier writers in English on this “dream made stone”…[where] “pikes and halberds seem to guard a temple as strange as the dark shrines of Byzantium,” its top “fruiting into a squat crown” like a “regal artichoke,” the “miraculous space” of the interior swimming with light and colors, pale faded pink and grayish green.10

A little further west, in and around Bavaria, there arose the most amazing creations of all, as the playfulness and extravagant ornamentation of the so-called Rococo took over. In the Church of the Assumption at the small town of Rohr, trompe l’oeil theater curtains are parted, revealing a bemused Mary who floats upward without visible means of support amid the wild gesticulation of the onlooking disciples. In the centerpiece at nearby Weltenburg, another composition of the brothers Asam, we see an elegant, even fastidious Saint George, radiant from concealed sources of light, in silver armor and mounted on a charger, transfixing a writhing dragon with his lance. Even the sober Kaufmann responds with a sort of muted paean to this work. Not just the dissolution of orthodox architectural structure into bewildering curves and illusionistic spaces gives us pause; not just the elaboration of carving into a myriad other-worldly saints or mischievous cherubs. But painting—and in what exquisite and subtle colors—forms an intrinsic part of the same inventions. This is not the autonomous realm of the gallery, but the climax of a dramatic Gesamtkunstwerk. The force of these composite images can be breathtaking.

One further point should be made about this creative synthesis. It of course enjoyed the favor of the mighty in Church and state, preoccupied with asserting their superior rank in a cruel and often vicious society of extreme privilege and deprivation. Yet this was, in contrast with the enclosed world of courtly connoisseurship, genuinely popular art, in close contact with a profoundly devout and credulous peasantry. Consider two examples. The grandest gesture of Baroque spirituality in Central Europe was the cult of Jan or Johann Nepomuk, in fact a worldly medieval cleric of uncertain repute, a kind of obscurer Bohemian Thomas à Becket, but revered as a martyr to the sanctity of the confessional and as intercessor (because he was allegedly thrown to his death from the Charles Bridge in Prague) for all those out of their depth, literally and metaphorically.11 When Nepomuk was canonized in 1729, with Habsburg patronage, but on a wave—as it were—of folk emotion, the brothers Asam not only built, sculpted, and painted throughout the gorgeous little church in Munich which bears all their names (Johann Nepomuk-Kirche, alias Asamkirche); they also paid for it out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile the monastery of Steingaden, on the edge of the Bavarian Alps, witnessed a contemporary wonder. A figure of the flagellated Christ, cobbled together from odd bits of statuary and fabric, proved too primitive for the local Good Friday procession and was given to the abbey steward to be used as a theater prop. He handed it on to a peasant cousin who lived “in the meadow” (in der Wies). She found tears on the forsaken Savior’s face; soon gathering numbers of the faithful attested to the power of the doll to effect miraculous cures. To accommodate the pilgrims, local craftsmen built a church of the most consummate artistry in conception and execution: architecture, sculpture, painting, wrought iron and woodcarving combined to awesome effect, astounding in its radiant play of light and color (see page 22). The chief craftsman, Dominikus Zimmermann, retired to a house nearby; his son even married the peasant woman. This Wieskirche may stand for dozens of evocative sites, obscure village churches and rustic monasteries decorated in the mid-eighteenth century in the deep countryside of Bavaria, Swabia, and Franconia, their very names a litany: Ottobeuren and Weingarten, Osterhofen and Neresheim, Bobingen and Vierzehnheiligen, Diessen am Ammersee and Steinhausen bei Schussenried, Gössweinstein and Marktoberdorf, Rott am Inn and, most mellifluous of all (if correctly pronounced), Rot an der Rot.

Yet there were already seeds of decay within this paradise. Such playfulness signified also a subconscious lack of assurance about underlying verities; such theater dissolved all boundaries between reality and illusion. Precisely in Germany, precisely in the years around 1750, the critics Alexander Baumgarten and J.J. Winckelmann were developing the modern notion of a specifically aesthetic faculty or appreciation. Thereby the Enlightenment began the trend that was to divorce beauty from truth; it also effected a well-nigh definitive dissociation of the artistic object from the conditions of its production.12

Besides, the princes and prelates who had sponsored grand Baroque projects in Central Europe now withdrew their support from them. While the Baroque synthesis may have yielded great art, it did not—as vulnerable Catholic absolute rulers came to believe—help them win wars or create strong economies; rather it was increasingly felt to promote ignorance and superstition. Commissions died away, and even the last peerless exponent of the whipped-cream fresco, the Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch—on whom Kaufmann waxes almost lyrical—had progressively to accommodate himself to more utilitarian considerations. Instead of the distraction of “superfluous stuccowork…and other, often nonsensical and ridiculous ornaments,” in the words of a Bavarian government decree of 1770, sober and pedagogical priorities henceforth became the order of the day. Enlightened reformers, like Denis Diderot in France or Joseph von Sonnenfels in Austria, laid stress upon the moralizing, instructive value of the written word, and their preferred paintings were visual commentaries on a programmatic text.

Two more observations can be made about this break, which in providing a terminus for Kaufmann’s book also returns us squarely to the concerns of Jonathan Brown. A further fruit of the new urge to edify was the opening of picture galleries to the population at large, sometimes on princely initiative, as in the cases of the Japanese Palace in Dresden and the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, both around 1780. Their contents thus began to be, in some degree, public property; yet at the same time they were also paradoxically ever more private, since the paintings on display now functioned as altogether discrete items, inviting an individual response from a critical distance and (if we are honest) attracting an essentially elitist audience. Was this not also a kind of Protestant revenge, or at least the validation both of a different kind of collecting and of those other, more bourgeois market forces—the ones Brown leaves out—whose most characteristic and preferred genre was landscape, the ultimate paradigm for a visual image removed from its home setting?

The final triumph of painting as queen of the arts left the Central European Baroque on the losing side. Long despised as a bizarre aberration, it is even today, for all the efforts of a band of gifted and fervent popularizers,13 little known to an international public. The idyllic meadows around the Wieskirche and the sweep of the Danube gorge at Weltenburg may be disfigured by the trappings of a local tourist trade, but most sites remain peaceful enough. Austria’s finest Rococo church, at Wilhering Abbey, west of Linz, does not even feature in most guidebooks (or in Kaufmann, for that matter). The great tradition of discrete pictorial images, so well represented in page after page of masterpieces in Brown’s book, passes them by. They cannot compete—quite simply because no reproduction does the remotest justice to them. Kaufmann’s illustrations, though choice and copious (but all in black-and-white), serve to prove the point. These peaks of the creative heritage which he describes reserve their message—and their surprises—for those who visit them in situ. But invest in Kaufmann’s volume before you go.

This Issue

May 23, 1996