Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market

Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market

Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market

Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market

Synopsis

Investigates the origins of new pictorial types and their media as a phenomenon of sixteenth-century Antwerp. It interprets several pictorial genres as it charts their evolution and their role in the development and marketing of individual artistic styles.

Excerpt

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
—Isaac Newton

How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—William Butler Yeats, The Tower

This book deals with artistic change over time—both within the span of time examined in its confines, roughly the sixteenth century, and within the larger span of European painting, where these more localized changes played out to lasting consequences (at least through the nineteenth century and, with mutations, well into the twentieth). In order to study historical change, we have to focus on pictorial forms themselves and their alterations over time, whether in dramatic shifts, slow drifts, or static continuity. I take as a starting point the theorizing about visual change developed by George Kubler in his Shape of Time. In order to use Kubler’s concepts and test them, however, I employ a case study, well located in both time and place: sixteenth-century Antwerp.

The phenomenon under consideration is the development of what we have come to think of in art history as pictorial genres, that is, families of artworks with similar subjects and conventionalized forms such that we recognize them as groups. One of the problems with defining genre comes from the determination, so frequently a problem in visual studies, whether the subject or the form provides the primary determination of the group, as in the quotation, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Frequently genres are defined by “essential” individual works that are deemed to arise at a formative moment and to influence later examples. We shall see the usefulness of this model for Antwerp, where significant individual artists (especially Bosch and Bruegel; see Chapters 7, 8, 9) and their favorite themes and forms (hell scenes and peasant scenes, respectively) shaped later imagery for generations.

Genres also pose difficulties in the basic tension between categories and individual examples (akin to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories of semiology, opposing a theoretical “language” to a particular usage, “word”). However, the other key ingredient of any language group is a community of use, linking producers to audiences. Thus, as with language, there are shifts in any kind of picture-making over time, as the priorities and interests of these interactive groups change. Circumstances alter cases. Genres cannot be understood entirely as systems or outside history. Moreover, the relationships of parts to whole in any single instance of a genre can charge particular pictorial elements with enriched meaning, just as the syntax of any statement can shift its tone or content. There are no exact synonyms. This book will perforce have to focus on a succession of related but individual works by single artists as well as sequences of artists working in the same genre. We also have to recognize the phenomenon that the term “hybrid” denotes: that there are often mixed or compound genres within a single picture.

Perhaps the most familiar (in both senses of that word) and persistent of visual genres is landscapes . . .

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