Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture / Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing / Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp

Article excerpt


Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture

University Park: Pennsylvania State

University Press, 1998, xvi, 256 pp.; 79 b/w ills.


Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces 1380-1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, xv, 352 pp.; 91 b/w ills.


Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, xi, 308 pp.; 24 color ills., 100 b/w.

Forging connections among economics, social history, and art history is not a new project.1 However, earlier attempts to incorporate social and economic history into art history usually focused on macrosocial and macroeconomic issues. Often grand schemes were deployed and a broadly free and anonymous market assumed. All this has now been abandoned to make place for analytically focused studies on workshop practices, urban or courtly patronage, competition, speculation, value, and price formation. Research today also revolves around how exchange occurs in particular markets, and around the sequential historical development of institutions (e.g., stock exchanges or commodity exchanges), regulatory environments (including urban and guild regulations), practices (sales and marketing techniques), roles (relationships between dealers and their agents, interlopers, and so on), and how fruitful connections can be established between markets, or aspects of market mentalities, and visual culture (s).2

Some of the new and better economically informed art historical inquiry has aligned itself with recent research in economic and social history that seems to have returned to the study of material culture. Histories of art markets are among the most promising fields of collaboration between the humanities and the social sciences. Economists, however, have always struggled with the dynamics of the art market, not least notions of value, art as commodity, and luxury consumption. Jean Wilson, Lynn Jacobs, and Elizabeth Honig have not circumvented these issues. In fact, each has moved significantly beyond traditional formalist and iconographical approaches toward a more subtle exploration of economic issues related to the production, marketing, consumption, and reception of early modern Netherlandish art.

Jean Wilson is clearly indebted to Michael Baxandall's particular brand of contextualism, as the subtitle "studies in society and visual culture" indicates. Her starting point is not trouble-free, especially since studies on demand for art and luxury consumption in 15th-century Bruges (or Flanders) are in short supply. In fact, Lorne Campbell was among the first to make two, relatively short, though successful, attempts in that direction.3 These have informed Wilson's line of inquiry, which can be summarized as follows: (1) when did demand for paintings in Bruges become noticeable and how were identities expressed in commissioning them? (2) what, if any, were the socioeconomic motivations for the complexity of workshop practices? (3) how and where were paintings marketed at the close of the Middle Ages in Bruges? Most questions have arisen logically out of the author's earlier research on Adriaen Isenbrant and the Bruges Pandt, both of which have a strong historical and archival component.

The first chapter on "Vivre Noblement in Medieval Bruges" unfolds within a conceptual frame borrowed from Norbert Elias, namely the idea of "prestige consumption" as outlined in his book The Court Society (1983). Wilson readily articulates her allegiance to him, as well as to Marc Bloch's Histoire de mentalites, to Lucien Febre, to Georges Duby's "codes of conduct," and to Robert Mandrou's "historical psychology." She also-and explicitly-follows the lead of Walter Prevenier and Wim Blockmans, who in their book De Bourgondische Nederlanden (1986) connect the representational practices of the Burgundian nobility and their desire for luxury goods to fashionable image consumption by the patriciate upper class in Bruges. …