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  • Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception, and Research
  • Diane Wolfthal
Berhard Ridderbos, Anne van Buren, and Henk Van Veen , eds. Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception, and Research. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. x + 482 pp. index. illus. bibl. $65. ISBN: 0892368160.

This volume should be required reading for anyone who teaches or researches fifteenth-century Flemish painting. Its stated goal is to make readers aware of "the theories and methods according to which facts have been assembled, analyzed, and interpreted" in this field (viii). By exploring in a single volume a range of approaches — archival, technical, iconographical, and historiographical — this volume succeeds admirably in suggesting the breadth of research in the field, as well as its history, current state, and possible future directions. Although it generally ignores those methodologies based on literary criticism or feminist theory, such comprehensiveness is not the goal of this book. Rather, its strength lies in the thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and reasoned judgments of its essays, which together evoke the richness and complexity of research on early Netherlandish art.

The volume consists of eight chapters organized into three parts. Part 1, by Bernhard Ridderbos, consists of a series of case studies, each of which summarizes the research on a single work by a major master. The author addresses such questions as attribution and dating, the goals of the artist and patron, and the work's function, technique, and subject, especially its symbolism. These summaries will be most useful for those who teach early Netherlandish art. Ridderbos cites publications that adopt a range of approaches, from those that explore broad issues, such as competition and collaboration among early Netherlandish artists, to those that observe technical details: for example, that Hugo van der Goes in his Berlin Nativity built up the curtain rod in relief so that it literally reaches out to the viewer.

Part 2 consists of four chapters. First, Till-Holcher Borchert traces the history of collecting early Netherlandish paintings from Margaret of Austria in the sixteenth century to the formation of national museums in Europe and the United [End Page 923] States up to the early twentieth century. The intricate web of relationships among collectors, dealers, and connoisseurs is deftly set within the context of changing economic conditions and waves of nationalistic feelings. Next, Ridderbos presents a historiographical analysis of publications about early Netherlandish art from the early nineteenth century through the 1930s. Ridderbos pairs writers — Waagen and Schopenhauer, Hotho and Schnaase, Weale and Hulin de Loo, Dvo|$$|Ahrák and Friedländer — as a way to explore the major debates of the past, such as Jan and Hubert van Eyck's respective contributions to the Ghent altarpiece or the particular contributions of the Burgundian court and Flemish urban culture to the development of early Netherlandish painting. Ridderbos also relates the archival discoveries that clarified the identity and oeuvre of the major masters. The next chapter, by Wessel Krul, examines the evolution of ideas about realism, the debate about whether early Netherlandish art was medieval or Renaissance, and the critical role played by nationalism in publications from Jacob Burckhardt in 1860 to Johan Huizinga in 1935.

Part 3 comprises four chapters that examine twentieth-century methodologies. The first two focus on the technical examination of paintings. Jeltje Dijkstra traces the development of this type of analysis, while Henri Pauwels discusses the goals of the Corpus of Fifteenth-Century Painting in the Southern Netherlands and the Principality of Liège, a series of catalogues published from 1949 on by the Centre national de recherches "Primitifs flamands" in Brussels. The penultimate chapter, by Maximiliaan P. J. Martens, explores research on patronage, while the final chapter, by Craig Harbison, examines iconography and iconology. Harbison presents the debates concerning the symbolic meaning of early Netherlandish painting in a clear and reasoned manner. He summarizes criticisms of Erwin Panofsky's ideas, yet justly credits him for transforming the field, and observes that "for Panofsky the visual arts were not dumb, sentimental or merely aesthetic" (391). Noting the lack of historical evidence to support most of these interpretations, Harbison rightly criticizes interpretations that propose minute religious symbolism, but he unfairly dismisses most Eucharistic interpretations as speculative. He focuses instead...


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