Arts and Minds: Scholarship on Early Modern Art History (Northern Europe)*

By Silver, Larry | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Arts and Minds: Scholarship on Early Modern Art History (Northern Europe)*


Silver, Larry, Renaissance Quarterly


With the exception of a few notable artists--chiefly van Eyck, Durer, Bosch, and Bruegel--early modern art outside Italy received little attention as recently as a generation ago. To use a Dutch proverb, it "fell between stools": neither Italian Renaissance, the dominant paradigm and intellectual center of the entire discipline of art history since Burckhardt, nor the more celebrated Golden Age of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Moreover, scholarly focus lay exclusively on painting--not sculpture or architecture, let alone other media, usually lumped together and dismissed as "decorative arts" or, worse, "minor arts."

These views conditioned canonical scholarship, led by Erwin Panofsky. His major monographs--Early Netherlandish Painting and Albrecht Durer--defined the role of Northern art, chiefly in relation to Italy and as the foundations of nascent artistic identity. (1) For Panofsky, van Eyck in the Netherlands and Durer in Germany pioneered artistic naturalism and also initiated progress from medieval icons toward modern, aesthetic artwork. Panofsky built his account around Jan van Eyck, the first great, named founder of Flemish Primitives, whose very rubric was taken as establishing and defining the tradition of paintings that followed in Flanders and Holland.

Yet in coining his influential interpretive framework of hidden symbolism, Panofsky also acutely saw van Eyck's art through the culturally sensitive prior reading by Johan Huizinga in The Autumn of the Middle Ages. (2) Besides defining the first early modern art with van Eyck, this alternative vision simultaneously offered a late medieval harvest (Huizinga's metaphor), marked by symbolism in decline of religious thought crystallizing into images. Even for Panofsky half a century ago, the transitional character of fifteenth-century art posed a conceptual tension for art-historical periodization and interpretation.

Since then the history of Northern European art has been characterized by methodological self-consciousness as well as rich interdisciplinary dialogue. As a result, current scholarship now works to dispel a host of deep-seated modern biases: toward named artists, toward painting as the featured medium, and toward uncritical embrace of the celebrated Flemish naturalism as both progressive and foundational for the verisimilitude in art of the following four centuries. Today, research focuses much more frequently on anonymous craftsmen and on works in a range of different media, such as tapestries, which were clearly prized above panel painting in princely inventories. (3) Late medieval illuminated manuscripts have been reexamined for Flanders and France, as well as for Bavaria. (4) Many of these deluxe items stem from the late medieval, Burgundian court world outlined by Huizinga, which persisted within wider Europe well into the sixteenth century. Scholars also now give greater attention to innovations besides paintings--especially printed books and independent prints.

But the principal attention of art historians in recent decades has focused on the status and purpose of artworks, inaugurated by Michael Baxandall's inimitable consideration of a neglected art form, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. (5) Honed by experience as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Baxandall devotes chapters to the material itself, to the altarpieces' functions (and their inverse, iconoclasm), to the guild structure of production, and to the market. Unique in this analysis is his anthropological exploration of the period eye, drawing analogies to other rhetorical distinctions made in analogous local art forms such as Gothic calligraphic script and Nuremberg Meistersinger flourishes. Yet amidst all of his sensitivity to, even sympathy for, the German carved wooden retable, Baxandall still features works by named artists, and because he celebrates their accomplishment as a climax of an artistic development with a teleology, he regards their later fate (secular satisfactions) and subsequent influence by Italianate forms in works made for private collectors as both a corruption and a decline. …

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