Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2020
Marije Osnabrugge The Neapolitan Lives and Careers of Netherlandish Immigrant Painters (1575–1655) Amsterdam Studies in the Dutch Golden Age. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 400 pp.; 20 color ills.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth €129.00 (9789462988200)

For a few decades now, immigration has been at the center of societal debates and political programs, at least in the Global North. Migrant artists are rarely mentioned in these discussions, perhaps because professional artists make up a relatively negligible segment of the total immigrant population. Conversely, however, it seems likely that nowadays a high percentage of those making a living by making art are migrants; the same goes for art historians. Marije Osnabrugge, the author of this timely book, for example, is a Dutch scholar working on a subject requiring long research stays in Italy, professionally based in Switzerland, who nonetheless pointedly concludes her book with the indication “Paris, July 2018.” No wonder that Osnabrugge, like many of us, is interested in the geographical circulation of artists, and particularly those who decided to move to a foreign country for a long period, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The aim of the study, as formulated by the author, is “to analyse different ways Netherlandish painters integrated, both socially and artistically, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Naples” (241). The book focuses on their actions, decisions, and career choices—the ways in which they navigated their new environment with the capabilities and tools that they possessed, the cultural and professional baggage they had brought with them from elsewhere. And while Osnabrugge rightly insists on the double nature of the integration—social (marriage, adherence to religious institutions, acquaintances) and artistic (collaborations, patronage, market practices)—her study, even when discussing the artistic aspect, remains to a great extent a sociological one. This is in line with what has recently become an important trend in the study of the Neapolitan art scene, prominently exemplified by Christopher R. Marshall’s Baroque Naples and the Industry of Painting (Yale University Press, 2016): a history of art that is less about the artworks themselves than the social dynamics that surround their creation, acquisition, and reception. Studies of this kind are also more about details and local specificities—Osnabrugge speaks of “a micro-historical approach to artist migration” (253)—than about grand statements and sweeping generalizations striving to define the spirit of a period (“What is ‘Baroque’?”) or a national style.

This might seem a rather unromantic vision of art, although it is undoubtedly a welcome corrective to some deeply ingrained conventional wisdom about artistic creation. Such a matter-of-fact approach arguably rids us of concepts most of us are still inclined to apply, anachronistically, when working on periods preceding Romanticism (which saw the crystallization of now familiar ideas on what making art is actually about). To be sure, Osnabrugge explicitly expresses her reluctance to speak about “strategy” when discussing her artists’ career choices, saying that this would imply “rigorous planning and the subsequent execution of these plans” (21), but to those readers still associating art with boundless, untethered creativity, spontaneous inspiration, and universal appeal, the author’s approach might still seem excessively down-to-earth. Intellectually, however, it is perfectly justifiable: art can indeed be fruitfully analyzed as a field of social relations, material exchange, and tactics (perhaps, if rigorous planning is impossible to prove, this is a better word than “strategy”).

Concretely, such an approach means that Osnabrugge is sometimes very brief when speaking about the artworks themselves. When she does analyze a painting, her insights are often absolutely convincing, so that the reader wishes she offered more instances of detailed visual analysis. Many of the paintings she discusses, however, are simply no longer extant, so that they remain abstract objects in an economy of exchange. But for the many magnificent works still viewable today, which are reproduced in the book, one can imagine a more sustained engagement with their visuality.

The book’s five case studies are carefully chosen, the main criterion being sufficient surviving documentary evidence concerning the artists’ careers. The chapters represent both consecutive stages of the evolving Netherlandish artistic community in Naples and different types of artists (although all of them are painters). The author strives “to illustrate the diversity of the historical reality” (261), and her artists allow her to do just that. Aert Mytens represents the last quarter of the sixteenth century, a period in which a thriving foreign community compensated for the scarcity of local artists in Naples. The second chapter juxtaposes the careers of Louis Finson—possibly the most well-known of the artists discussed here—and his friend Abraham Vinck, whereas the following case study concentrates on Hendrick De Somer, a pupil of Jusepe de Ribera and the one artist who spent virtually his whole career in the viceregal capital. Finally, Matthias Stom, a master of candlelit night scenes described by the author in the chapter’s title as “a peripatetic painter,” is the subject of the fourth chapter. A comparative synthesis serves as a conclusion, and it is here that the author connects the period more explicitly to her own time, in particular by using the current term “economic migrants” in her discussion of the artists.

The immigrant status of Osnabrugge herself is relevant also because the prosperous careers of Netherlandish artists abroad are nowadays often studied by scholars who themselves originate from the Low Countries, frequently sponsored by the excellent research institutes that the Netherlands, in particular, finances in Italy. The linguistic dimension is central: even when the artists studied spent much of their working life in Italy, many of the documents concerning them are in Dutch, knowledge of which is rare among Italian art historians or scholars specializing in art made in Italy. In many cases, moreover, early modern artists, especially in the period around 1600, moved back and forth between southern and northern Europe. It would be presumptuous to attribute the author’s enthusiasm for her five artists to national pride, but it is evident that she is happy to establish their prominence in the Neapolitan art scene and the importance of their work. Needless to say, art historians routinely choose to work on artists they find worthy—a book-length study of an artist dismissed by the author would make for a sad spectacle!—and in the case of Osnabrugge, the five artists chosen are all intriguing, sometimes brilliant. Yet one might still disagree with her description of them, employing the sociological categories in play, as “innovators” (Finson and Stom) or “early adopters” of innovations (Mytens, Vinck, and De Somer), categories that together, according to the sociological studies cited, make for only 16 percent of a professional population.

A more obvious reflection of national pride is evident from the publisher: the book is part of Amsterdam University Press’s Studies in the Dutch Golden Age series. The artists discussed here were indeed originally from the Low Countries, but the book describes events and artistic achievements taking place in Italy, and what it analyzes corresponds little to the very specific cultural phenomenon commonly named “the Dutch Golden Age.” Moreover, the art historical community is now questioning the pertinence of that traditional term, particularly in view of the colonial atrocities that were the precondition for Dutch prosperity. The seventeenth century in the Netherlands was definitely not a golden age for everybody involved.

This controversy does not concern in any way Osnabrugge’s own achievement or the intrinsic value of her study. The book reflects meticulous research and proposes compelling hypotheses when credible information is missing (not uncommon in the still fledgling field of Neapolitan art). Its specific purview is unprecedented and yet indispensable for a better understanding of artistic mobility in early modern Europe. One might question some points of detail: for example, Jusepe de Ribera, a Spaniard who manifested a complex identity throughout his career—his signatures, often insisting on his Spanish origins, are a glaring example—is treated mainly as a local painter, while in fact his situation was comparable to the artists who are the author’s primary subjects, at least in the late 1610s when he arrived in Naples. The author could define more clearly who qualified as “Netherlandish” in this milieu, and, in particular, discuss the complex distinction between Netherlanders on the one hand and Germans and other northern artists on the other. Her contention that Stom’s nocturnal settings, while close to the works of Gerrit van Honthorst and Peter Paul Rubens, differ from the Caravaggio/Ribera tenebrist tradition would have gained from a more detailed exposition. It is also somewhat surprising that Stom’s decision to move to Naples is analyzed at the end of the chapter, after the overview of his career there. All in all, however, these are matters of little consequence in view of the important contribution of Osnabrugge’s study to an oft-neglected field.

Itay Sapir
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Université du Québec à Montréal