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Modestly reproduced, Sebastian Vrancx’s unfamiliar Harbor with the Children of Mercury (Musée Massey, Tarbes) is an unlikely opener for this provocative and intelligent book, which seeks to establish the market as a central concern of pictorial culture in Antwerp between 1550 and 1650. It is a mark of Elizabeth Honig’s distinction as a writer that, through three paragraphs of precise description, she convinces the reader that this apparently innocuous painting of the tricks of all those who labor under the aegis of Mercury, from quacks and merchants to actors and artists, epitomizes the self-consciousness with which Flemish artists painted arguments about the seductions and opportunities of the marketplace, and about the ambiguous status of their own works as commodities. This case study sounds the themes of the book, and establishes the need for it: Honig’s is the first sustained attempt to examine paintings of markets and luxury products—pictorial genres essentially invented by Antwerp artists—in relation to the social and economic processes they represent. The project seems obvious, and yet no one has detailed the charges of these new kinds of painting, and the rapid changes they underwent, by reference to contemporary economic thought and practice.
Mercury presides over eloquence, and in her persuasive, often exhilarating way with words, Honig proves herself one of his ablest children. The arguments are driven along by a finely honed rhetoric that reminds us from chapter to chapter of the pictures seen, the points made, and the historical framework constructed. Reducing these meticulously crafted chapters to their central ideas is virtually impossible, yet as the broad chapter titles indicate, the author expects the reader to grasp the relationship between individual pictures, painters, and collectors and the larger historical processes in which they play bit parts. The book contends that the rapid development of a capitalist economy in sixteenth-century Antwerp, and its failure and transformation around 1600, severely stressed Christian ethics and estate-based social organization, and that painters, through their pictures and their working practices, articulated these tensions and attempted to accommodate their products to the new economic realities. This is an art history in which neither socio-economic practices nor pictorial facts are ever prior; they are presented as truly intertwined, incessantly shaping each other.
Chapter 1, “The Nurse of Mercury’s Children,” is a tightly written survey of the burgeoning trade and artistic culture of sixteenth-century Antwerp, the premier port and capitalist center of Northern Europe. For this development of the Antwerp market in luxury goods, Honig benefits from the fundamental economic research of Herman van der Wee and the archival studies of the art market conducted by Eric Duverger and other art historians. Much more complicated is her recovery of contemporary economic theory, if it can be called that, and its relevance to artists and to market paintings. This material, presented in Chapters 2 through 4, constitutes the book’s core contribution. Wide-ranging textual evidence is mustered, in the form of theological tracts, legal documents, personal writings, anecdotes, almanacs, and plays. But Honig never loses sight of the paintings, and consistently uses her supporting material to elucidate oddities and startling inventions in a young and rapidly evolving genre. In the virtually complete absence of contemporary statements by artists or collectors about these pictures, Honig’s descriptive interpretations of the works themselves must demonstrate the varied interactions between painting and market concerns.
In Chapter 2, Honig rewrites the history of Pieter Aertsen’s bold creation of his Meat Stall of 1551 and of his other large paintings of lush commodities, most with a religious story represented in the background. By careful analysis of Aertsen’s up-front, hawking mode of presenting his foodstuffs, and by revisiting our suggestive knowledge of Aertsen’s career and reception, she argues plausibly that Aertsen sought to make pictures that articulate his role as producer of luxury products that are as alluring as the wares he represents. Confronted with the hard-to-miss religious scenes, telling inscriptions, or the direct appeal of salespeople, the viewer is made an explicit consumer who must acknowledge responsibility for what, and especially how, he will purchase and consume. The carnal and fertile nature of the commodities offered (cuts of meat, poultry, eggs, all manner of vegetables) and the implied possibility of sexual relations between Aertsen’s robust market people expose the sensual, even erotic nature of trade, especially of paintings.
This daring, somewhat intuitive argument depends on modern commodity theory, whose presence is felt, rather than developed in full, throughout the book. It also competes with prevailing views of Aertsen’s accomplishments. For years, his pictures have been seen as responses to the iconoclast rejection of religious images—a rejection to which several of Aertsen’s altarpieces fell victim. In this view, Aertsen juxtaposed religious stories with material goods to make viewers aware of their susceptibility to the seduction of sight, and he also sought to create the sorts of narrative, rather than iconic, images condoned by Protestant theologians. Honig sees a more complex relationship between the Meat Stall and anti-image rhetoric, reasoning that Aertsen mustered the deceptive lure of oil painting lamented by Protestants to fashion argumentative pictures about the secular seductions of the marketplace and the need for ethical economic exchange. Aertsen did not merely paint the market, but made its conditions the basis of his mode of painting, what the author calls “the aesthetic of the commodity” (52). The chapter title, “Exchanges,” encompasses the wide range of interactions and substitutions—economic, intellectual, and ethical—between producer and consumer, seller and buyer, viewer and artist, that Aertsen’s paintings are seen to replay or configure.
Chapter 3, “Justice, Judgment, and the Values of the Marketplace,” disentangles Joachim Bueckelaer’s fully developed market scenes from the condensed still-life approach of Aertsen, his uncle and teacher. By metaphor and gesture, Bueckelaer’s paintings set up more outspokenly erotic interactions between rustic sellers and middle-class buyers of vegetables, fish, and poultry. Rather than calling into question the compatibility of economic exchange with Christian life, as Aertsen’s pictures seem to do, the religious narratives in Bueckelaer’s pictures (Ecce Homo, Christ Appearing to the Disciples) tend to call for individual judgment and responsibility in a capitalist marketplace that has already been accepted as the new economic order. In Honig’s interpretation, Bueckelaer presents his religious stories, sales folk, and piles of goods in a theatrical manner that is derived from market practices. This presentational mode leaves less room for viewer doubt about the propriety of trade: Bueckelaer transformed Aertsen’s aesthetic of exchange into a less problematic one of display, and Honig’s effective use of a contemporary play that invites gawking and judgment at the market suggests that he did so consciously.
As the less engaging market paintings of Bueckelaer’s followers show, by 1600 pictures about the moral ambiguities of the marketplace were no longer in demand. Anxieties about the iniquities of capitalist economics may have waned, and these pictures embrace Bueckelaer’s mode of display while glossing over the potentially obscene workings of the commodity market. Chapter 4, “Mercury’s Children Realigned,” details the new economic situation of seventeenth-century Antwerp, which shifted from a large-scale manufacturing center and staple market for all manner of goods, from the ordinary to the luxurious, to an economy of land investment, banking, and luxury products, including art. In this market, the ordinary merchant lost the central social position he had occupied in the sixteenth century, and in the luxury industries artists increasingly lost direct contact with middle-class collectors, now selling through dealers on the basis of approximate expectations of collector demand. Chapter 5, cleverly titled “Orders and Things,” argues that between 1600 and 1650 market painting of all stripes marked and effected the desire of socially striving, middle class collectors to disavow their mercantile roots. Artists distanced commodities and market processes from consciousness in myriad (and highly collectible) fashion, but particularly by displaying desirable goods before the wealthy viewer as readily available gifts of nature, untarnished by exchanges of money or other reminders of the dangerous potential of the market to equalize social relations. Their market paintings tended to naturalize the social and economic inequality of viewer/buyer and seller, as a fine section on Frans Snyders argues with special force.
By the second quarter of the seventeenth century, the connoisseur public of Antwerp had distanced itself from considerations of art as commodity to such an extent that painters began to cater to a new desire for works that would allow the display of cultural discernment. In Chapter 6, “Value in Display and the Aesthetic of Judgment,” Honig insightfully suggests that the remarkable Antwerp penchant for collaborative pictures produced by equally qualified specialists was no mere matter of efficiency, as has often been claimed, but a practice targeted at the needs of the city’s connoisseur class. Henceforth, painters of figures, landscapes, and still lifes created pictures that would allow the owner or viewer to display his genteel connoisseurship. In an extreme conclusion to a brilliantly sustained argument, the beholder “becomes the real focus of aesthetic distinction, the true work of art” (210). Such collaborative paintings, of course, need not depict the market at all, indeed preferably should not. Fanciful still life and allegory would seem to be the genres of choice, and the author sees a direct link between the demise of the market as pictorial issue and the triumph of the collaborative, socially oblivious, and highly polished still-life painting of the later seventeenth century.
In its daring scope, this framework for the history of “the intersecting discourses of painting and the market” (213) opens itself to questions of historical specificity. Decisive language, fond of “precisely,” “accurately,” “decidedly,” “absolutely,” raises doubts. Honig’s contention that the paintings here discussed are all somehow about the market can seem reductive. While she argues compellingly that Aertsen and Bueckelaer did not develop their market paintings as default alternatives to altarpieces but because they were working out their relationships to the market, she is needlessly insistent on the point. Even if these paintings were primarily motivated by market concerns, were their buyers, too? As Honig briefly acknowledges, recent work on Aertsen has demonstrated that his thematic repertoire, mimetic finesse, and sophisticated rhetorical structures can be understood as aimed at the highly developed humanist culture of Antwerp. In their appeal to humanist connoisseurs, whether aware of exchange issues or not, they appear unexpectedly close in interest to the works of Jan Brueghel I and the numerous collaborative artists of seventeenth-century Antwerp. Honig’s tight chronological structure, linked to perceived changes in economic practice, does not quite allow for such continuities of consumer interest. Similar objections may be raised to other temporal exactitudes proposed in the book, but ultimately its historical development is less likely to stay with the reader than a general conviction that Antwerp’s painters participated in current debates about commodity value and market behavior. That central truth emerges particularly from the author’s gift for discriminating description.
As her opening tour de force announces, Honig has a keen eye for the individual oddities of what may seem similar market pictures with standard casts of characters, conventional repertoires of exchange, and repetitive piles of goods. Her careful inventories invariably make one look again: Where is that one monk among dozens of market dwellers? How is that saleswoman’s dress different from that of the burgher housewife? Often fine distinctions of composition, costume, sales practice, gestural repertoire, mood, and implied narrative support the historical changes Honig sees as their cause and effect. Her dissection of Sebastian Vrancx’s series of market paintings that figure the four elements is exemplary: his rarefied collection of sea creatures is indeed nothing like what one would expect a fish merchant or a fish market painting in the 1590s to have on offer. This realization prepares us for her eventual arguments about early seventeenth-century Antwerp as a culture of collectors willfully insouciant about the market exchanges that had engaged Aertsen. Along with this descriptive fullness goes a keen sense of how the careers and ambitions of individual artists clarify their approaches to the market as mechanism and as theme. Honig offers delightful, often slightly ironic sketches of the lives of Antwerp artists, from luminaries such as Jan Brueghel to the insufficiently known Jan Baptiste Saive.
Occasionally Honig’s desire to distinguish different types of market picture backfires. In the long fifth chapter, every market painting plays an individually unique role in the naturalization of the market aesthetic after 1600. These paintings are presumably linked by a tendency to mask the direct relationship between rural production, urban consumption, and the prosperity of a burgher class eager to distance itself from the equalizing processes of the free market. Mostaert and Brueghel, Saive and the Van Valckenborchs, Snyders and related still life painters are seen to do this in myriad and contradictory ways. It makes intuitive sense that upwardly mobile artists such as Jan Brueghel (a stunning commercial success) or striving middle class consumers would seek alignment with aristocratic culture by distancing themselves from the commercial hubbub of Antwerp, but the argument is diffused by the variety of painters discussed and by an unnecessary excursion to Frankfurt.
More fundamentally, the skeptic will wonder why, if distance from market exchange was a pressing desideratum for the early seventeenth-century elite, market pictures continued to flourish into the 1630s. This basic question points back to this book’s central concerns, which make it relevant well beyond Netherlandish studies. On Honig’s evidence, market and commodity pictures arose, flourished, and actively transformed themselves in Antwerp because the market had become the defining force of early modern culture. When for seventeenth-century connoisseurs commercial activity had become a distasteful but still forceful necessity, painting could not merely ignore the market by retreating into history painting, portraiture, or landscapes devoid of commercial reference. By 1600, collectors fully expected art to gloss, question, or rearrange the economic and social facts of a market society. That Antwerp painters continued to engage market issues is proof not only of the significance of the market for patrician identity, but perhaps more powerfully of the status of painting as an instrument of discourse, as an agent in the early modern marketplace of ideas. Honig’s compelling interpretation of Aertsen and Bueckelaer ranks these artists more squarely alongside Pieter Bruegel in effecting this role for art. Her analysis of pictorial collaboration demonstrates that, when seventeenth-century burghers of aristocratic aspiration sought social distinction divorced from the conditions of market exchange, Antwerp’s savvy artists invented products that commented on this desire even as they satisfied it. Art’s dual status as medium of thought and fashionable vehicle of cultural possession was constrained only by the economics of that other, rowdier market—a market inflected by religious and ethical imperatives, but, as this stimulating book suggests, ever less so.
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