England: How the Masterpieces Came and Went

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
David Teniers the Younger: Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery in Brussels, 1651–1653. Many of the archduke’s pictures were bought in bulk from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton after the duke was executed during the English Civil War.

Until about sixty years ago art historians were mainly interested in works of art and the artists who had made them. But especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they also began to consider the wider setting in which art was produced, often associating artistic changes with other social developments. Art, it was claimed, reflected the spirit of the age—which of course it was bound to do, since the spirit of the age was usually defined by its artistic style.

It was against this background that the British art historian Francis Haskell began his first research project, on the supposed influence of the Jesuits on the emergence of the Baroque style, especially in Rome. That Baroque art had been promoted by the Jesuits was then a commonplace, especially among German scholars, but after looking carefully at the evidence Haskell was able to show that it was a myth: the Jesuits themselves had wanted their principal churches to have plain interiors, but their wealthy ecclesiastical supporters preferred something much more ornate, and since they were paying they got their way.

Haskell then turned to a much more wide-ranging survey of artistic patronage in Italy, and especially in Rome and Venice, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which led to the book that established his reputation, Patrons and Painters (1963). This showed all the qualities that made him such an outstanding and influential scholar, as well as one of the few whose work could be read with pleasure and interest by nonspecialists: fluent and often witty prose; extraordinarily wide reading and intensive research in primary sources; skepticism about all received opinions, especially when based on historical generalizations; and a great curiosity about the character and foibles of people in the past.

In his later work Haskell continued to concentrate on the consumption rather than the production of art, extending his interest from patrons to collectors, to the growth of exhibitions and museums, and more broadly to changes in taste and the ways in which these came about. He was always fascinated by the process by which certain types of art were first extravagantly admired and then largely disregarded, the most obvious example being the monumental statues of ancient Rome, on which he wrote an influential book with Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique (1981). But similar ideas underlay his Wrightsman lectures, published as Rediscoveries in Art (1976), which dealt with more recent art.

Haskell died in 2000. The King’s Pictures is not the first posthumous book of his to appear. The Ephemeral Museum, a study of exhibitions and their development, was still not quite…

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