Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 29, 2008
Joanna Woodall Anthonis Mor: Art and Authority Studies in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders, 2006. 512 pp.; 176 b/w ills. Cloth €85.00 (9789040084218)

Perhaps most famous in art history as Antonio Moro, a name he assumed while portraitist for the Spanish court of King Philip II, Anthonis Mor enjoyed a long career in the Netherlands, chiefly around his native Utrecht. In this extensive analytical study, Joanna Woodall restores to the painter his full career, including a serious output of religious subjects. Indeed, Woodall’s perceptive characterizations sometimes seem colored by a portentous wish to convey the ultimate seriousness and salvific purpose of his vocation.

If Christian content enjoys extensive attention here, it arose with Mor’s origins, for he was a “disciple” (Woodall’s word, but based on sixteenth-century accounts) of Jan van Scorel, an earlier Utrecht painter whose sojourn under Pope Adrian VI in Rome (1522–23) prompted a later career of large-scale religious subjects with an Italian accent. Mor built upon Scorel’s earlier series of portraits (1527–29, after 1541) for a brotherhood of fellow Jerusalem pilgrims for one of his earliest pictures (1544; Berlin). But Woodall goes much further, ascribing to her protagonist a Michelangelesque titan, revised from the Last Judgment nude into a St. Sebastian in a landscape (1542; Rotterdam); in the process she claims for Mor an earlier trip to Rome (early 1540s) than scholars had previously admitted. Ultimately she finds in his art—especially his distinctive portraits—a fusion between North and South, as outlined and contrasted through the mouthpiece of Michelangelo in the contemporary Diálogos da Pintura Antiga by Portuguese painter-theorist Francisco de Holanda. Mor’s art successfully resolved “a dichotomy between external appearance and a superior, abstract interiority” (119). Throughout her analysis Woodall considers the basic dialectic of a humble artist with his sovereign, to reconcile “the material world and divine virtue”; and she posits that love/friendship/grace forge the link, with art as the medium, especially between a painter and his noble patrons and sitters.

For most art historians, Mor’s fundamental contribution consisted of his formulation, in the train of Titian at the Spanish Habsburg court, of the formal court portrait. Amazingly, Mor has received precious little attention except for a foundational monograph by Henri Hymans (1910) plus a brief Palet-series monograph by L.C.J. Frerichs (1947; not cited), a work devoted solely to portraits and presenting a mere forty illustrations in its sixty pages. Even the wider phenomenon of the sixteenth-century state portrait has not been systematically revisited, remaining chiefly the topic of a relatively evergreen survey, one of the first College Art Association monographs, by Mariana Jenkins (1947; a mere forty-seven pages; also not cited). Despite mention of him in Rosemarie Mulcahy’s recent book on Philip II as a patron of the arts (Philip II of Spain: Patron of the Arts, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004), clearly Mor is one of the great lacunae of early modern art history.

The central four chapters of Woodall’s book trace Mor’s engagement with the Spanish Habsburg court, especially in its Brussels center. His connection came through Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, bishop of Arras, who, in 1561, became a cardinal and advisor to the regent in the Netherlands for Philip II. Mor himself entered the Antwerp guild in 1547, and after the triumphal entry of the prince in September 1549 (discussed at length, 163–69) he served as Granvelle’s painter (1549–54), though Granvelle released him from 1550 to 1553 to visit Spain and Portugal. In 1554 Mor was in England as official painter to Prince Philip, making the portrait of his bride, Mary Tudor (1554; Prado). Mor sojourned again in Spain from 1559–61, again in the company of Philip, who became king in 1556.

Something of the loyalty espoused by true courtiers for their noble sovereign is conveyed parodically through the joking portrait juxtaposition of Granvelle’s Dwarf and Hunting Dog (1559; Paris), nicely foregrounded by Woodall as a mock emblem of her dialectic, albeit with a critical theory framework: “the courtier . . . was constituted through a structural lack, and consequently characterized by desire” (151). Through this exaggeration both Granvelle and Mor show their own appreciation for the true grandeur of the young king. Here, as in her overall analysis, Woodall shows how “portraiture . . . figured the life-giving value of the connections created by love” (153). Already with the portraits of Granvelle (1549; Vienna) and Duke of Alva (1549; New York) the mature idiom of impassive Spanish court portraiture, fostered by Titian, was realized by Mor with fastidious Netherlandish mimesis and an imposing presence, sighted slightly above the viewer. The early result was a princely half-length portrait, Philip in Black and White (Bilbao), upon the painter’s return with the monarch to Spain, probably via Augsburg and a meeting with Titian. He soon also produced full-length court portraits of Philip’s sister Mary and her Habsburg cousin and husband, Maximilian of Austria (1550–51; Madrid), as well as numerous other lavishly clad royal-house relatives, including those residing in Portugal. Woodall offers a valuable, extended discussion of the varied role of Mor portraits in the tricky marital diplomacy of the Spanish Habsburgs, especially with their own extended rival house in Austria and in the fruitless alliance with Mary Tudor.

In chapter 6, Woodall also posits a productive interchange in Portugal with Francisco de Holanda, whose dialogue treatise, “On Rendering from Nature, or from Life,” establishes humanistic implications of portraiture beyond “mere copies of appearances.” This contemporary verbalization, devoted to the relationship between artist and beholder regarding ideal princely portraits and the noble nature of the sovereign self, shapes Woodall’s overall analysis.

Mor’s infrequent religious work (a Last Judgment is lost) still makes a powerful appearance with the portrait-like presence of Risen Christ between Saints Peter and Paul (1556; Chantilly), the subject of a penetrating and sympathetic analysis, revisiting—and resolving—the dialectic between divine nature and physical materiality. In this respect, chapter 8 also forms for Woodall an epitome of Mor’s ambitions, a fitting pendant to the theory of portraiture as virtue by Francisco de Holanda. The Risen Christ had a powerful influence in terms of the presentation of an ideal yet fully physical body of the Savior, e.g., on the Catholic imagery of Maarten de Vos in Antwerp. It was especially praised by Mor’s humanist friend Dominic Lampson, who receives ongoing attention in Woodall’s book, building upon important foundations by Walter Melion. Finally, this picture also stands as a pivotal work in the redefinition of the Christian image in the later sixteenth century, a contested era of iconoclasm, poised between its iconic mimesis of sacred representation and its status as a work of art.

A discussion of the later court portraits addresses the Mor legacy in Spain with brief nods to Sofonisba Anguissola and Alonso Sánchez Coello. Here the absence of allegory is not seen as diminishing the royal claims of the Habsburgs; rather the physical presence of the “sovereign body” is claimed to convey noble majesty in itself as a seeming paradox of “natural allegory,” akin to the ultimate theological mystery of the divine in human flesh. Woodall even suggests that portraits of the armored king on canvas might have served as standards in battle (350). But here she strives for a deep reading of details, which the mimetic directness of Mor cannot easily sustain. Moreover, further possible comparisons might have been made from the full panoply of Spanish royal portraits. In any case, this range of naturalistic portraits should be complemented by Titian’s late allegories for Spain. Woodall also sympathetically discusses the various standing renditions of Queen Isabel of Valois, Joanna of Portugal, and Margaret of Parma; she even suggests that the artist-as-courtier reproduces sovereign authority (as if, she claims, in a feminine role of subservience). Hispanists will regret the relative lack of attention to Mor’s Spanish followers, including Anguissola and Sánchez Coello. Readers of this review should, however, be alerted to the recent exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (later at Duke University), entitled El Greco to Velazquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III (click here to read review).

Woodall’s final chapter reintegrates Mor with his native Netherlands and the portrayal of commercial prosperity and marital relations through complementary pendant portraits of husbands and wives (again tendentiously connected by Woodall to the tradition of Marian diptychs), produced in Antwerp after his return in 1561. Certainly financiers like Sir Thomas Gresham led this new client base, but also cultural elites, such as Aernout van Buchell and Hubert Goltzius, formed part of this Netherlandish circle of Mor, and Woodall underscores their mutual exchanges. Woodall expounds a serious discussion of female virtue and the role of love in generating art, and she reminds us that in 1561 the Antwerp rhetoricians’ contest proclaimed that the arts are awakened by “‘love’, fame or honour, and personal benefit or profit” (452)—motivations behind Mor’s final bourgeois portraits.

Woodall first worked on Mor portraits for her Courtauld dissertation, completed in 1989, and this long-awaited book shows the further effects of two more decades of work on the artist and numerous published articles. One positive result has been the broadening of the subject to encompass Mor’s entire oeuvre and to enlist richer textures by comparisons, beginning with his mentor, Scorel. The book manages to situate Mor within momentous changes in the very nature of the religious image, as Catholic immanence gave way to Protestant transcendence, presenting a new challenge to traditional Netherlandish mimesis. Less felicitous amid the ripening research and depth of interpretation has been some bloating in the prose, resulting in repetitions, long expositions, and Woodall’s curious evangelism for the Christianized version of “grace” or “marriage” that she finds inherent in the situation between painter and noble patron. With well-produced illustrations of his entire oeuvre, this handsome book from Waanders serves the painter well, and will be a lasting, richly interpretive resource for all who want to become acquainted with Mor’s achievement. Ultimately Woodall’s interpretive stance, especially in the relatively neglected field of portraiture, where she has been a pioneer, richly fulfils her wider, truly interdisciplinary ambitions in her earlier anthology, Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania