- Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market
Weighing the individual artist's decisions against the pictorial themes that survived and flourished in the Antwerp art market, Larry Silver traces the emergence of various categories of paintings in the sixteenth century and their evolution in the opening decades of the seventeenth. This sort of study has become all too [End Page 1245] rare, at least in the annals of early modern Netherlandish art. Books devoted to landscapes, portraits, or the histories of other genres are not uncommon, but a book that examines the appearance of genres per se ranges considerably wider than is the norm. Silver is a scholar who has the curiosity to venture outside art history and has thereby offered a new, and I think fruitful, perspective on the early history of the categorization of paintings.
Of late, art historians have not given much attention to the topic of genre. It does not, for example, appear as an entry in Nelson and Shiff's Critical Terms for Art History, nor for that matter does it appear in Lentricchia and McLaughlin's Critical Terms for Literary Study. To account for change over time, Silver turns to film studies, specifically Rick Altman's Film/Genre (1999). He borrows from this author the notion that once a genre is acknowledged, historians will seek its origins in earlier products that were hybrid images which over time shed their multiple components and retained one particular characteristic. Additionally, Silver incorporates the biologists' assertion that evolutionary changes represent the few survivors from many varieties in a specific environment. That specific environment for Silver is the burgeoning Antwerp art market. Instead of the classic biological model of the progression from the simple to the complex organism, he uses a historical model of evolution, one which emphasizes variation and selection, to frame his inquiry of the market.
After a chapter surveying the art market in Antwerp and how this mercantile culture represented itself, the author turns to the first of his categories, landscape, here essentially the world landscape as invented by Joachim Patinir. There follow chapters on commercial images, kitchen and market scenes, the peasant at labor and leisure, and the wildly popular Boschian imagery. All but one of these chapters end with a discussion of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the next two sections of the book discuss his legacy, first in the northern Netherlands, and then in the southern territories. The second half of the sixteenth century is a period that is often either overlooked, or, alternatively, mined for harbingers of the Dutch Golden Age: hence, Silver's perspective here is especially welcome. A final chapter addresses the rise of images of flowers and marine painting. He concludes with a discussion of why these various genres emerged when and where they did, finding in texts as well as in images of this period a repeated call for the application of an informed judgment to difficult choices, thereby enabling one to practice "the ethics of an active life in the real world, including the market place and its temptations" (231-32).
Precisely because this book embraces such a broad perspective, the author convincingly conveys the economic and social dynamics behind the ostensibly natural selection operating in the art market in Antwerp. My only reservation with his approach is his use of the term hybrid. "Like the cases of world landscapes and commercial images, scenes of markets and kitchens began as hybrid works, with attached religious subjects presented in miniature in the background," begins the fifth chapter (87). Can an image be a combination of categories before a culture identifies those separate categories? It is not an idle question. Whereas today we [End Page 1246] might call Pieter Aertsen's Meat Stall a hybrid image because, behind the butcher's products, we take note of the choice offered between the exemplum of Caritas (the Virgin handing out alms) and that of...