James Murray

title.none: Wilson, Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages (Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.9912.006 99.12.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Murray , University of Cincinnati,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Wilson, Jean C. Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 256. $65.00. ISBN: 0-271-01653-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.12.06

Wilson, Jean C. Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 256. $65.00. ISBN: 0-271-01653-1.

Reviewed by:

James Murray
University of Cincinnati

True interdisciplinary studies belong to that realm of things so often discussed yet so infrequently done that I began reading this book with real anticipation. As a historian of the economic and social history of medieval Bruges, I was anxious to see how an art historian would make sense of the complexities of art and society in a city which simultaneously housed an affluent court, wealthy burghers and foreign merchants as well as the richly gifted Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Petrus Christus and Gerard David, to name but a few. What I brought away from the reading, however, was less than I hoped in terms of a new understanding of Bruges and its artists, and a great deal more about the real difficulties of doing interdisciplinary history.

This book began as a 1983 Johns Hopkins Ph.D. dissertation devoted to the sixteenth-century artist Adriaen Isenbrant and the making and marketing of art in Bruges at that time. In the intervening period, Professor Wilson declares that she has considerably expanded the book's scope to include the century beginning with Jan van Eyck's relocation to Bruges in 1430 and ending around 1530 when she detects a major change in the city's art market. Between these dates, the author argues, a unique social milieu was created, which was driven by the tastes and ambitions of Burgundian courtiers especially as aped by commoners. It was the Burgundian quest to "live nobly" (vivre noblement), translated to an urban setting that gave painters the opportunity to develop and market a vast array of decorative objects. And most significant among these objets d'art for the author was panel painting--the practice of daubing oil paint on wood, which found vast new popularity and abundant new customers not so much among the courtiers as among those seeking to imitate courtly tastes on a more limited budget. If not the discovery, it was above all the development, of panel painting that the author attributes to the singular context of fifteenth and early sixteenth century Bruges.

There is some audacity to this approach and in these claims, for at least since Erwin Panofsky's, Early Netherlandish Painting, the paintings of the fifteenth-century Low Countries have been lumped together as the Netherlandish School irregardless of their actual provenance among the cities. Slightly less audacious is the attempt to go beyond the art to the social and economic context that shaped it, since other art historians have done this in the last decade, notably Jeffrey Chips Smith, Linda Seidel and M.P.J. Martens. Nonetheless, this remains a laudable but daunting goal, given that it demands the skills of the archival researcher and the economic and social historian over and above those required of the art historian. This scholarly decathlon is a tall order, and, like the athletic event, no one scholar can be world class in each discipline. Yet an interdisciplinary book must be judged to succeed or fail by the soundness of the proof used to support its arguments. In this case, it is here where one has to applaud the attempt while lamenting the results.

The first area of difficulty is precisely what the driver of demand, this desire to "live nobly" was and where it came from. Astonishingly, the author does not seem to know Johan Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages whose very point of departure was the paintings produced by van Eyck and his followers. It was Huizinga's view that the material standard of living of the Burgundians--the essential element in Wilson's "vivre noblement"--was derived from a fusion of noble and merchant desire and not as she maintains a one-sided imitation of a fully developed Burgundian sense of the visual objects necessary to proclaim social status. Where the joint desire for art was created also becomes easier to explain if one accepts a fusion, because merely trusting the ducal display of weddings and entries seems doubtful. The structure of artistic patronage was much more complex, as the work of Reinhard Strohm and M.P.J. Martens has shown.[1] Strohm found that demand for polyphonic music in Bruges in the fifteenth century (also an object of desire), often came from Bruges' confraternities, to which nobles, burghers and foreign merchants belonged. Martens also found that confraternities purchased a wide variety of art works.

Wilson's analysis of the origins of demand is oversimplified in two other respects--the history of ownership of art objects by the Bruges bourgeoisie and the reasons foreign merchants had for the purchase of Bruges art. Wilson's argument that it was simply Burgundian court tastes that determined the demand of these two groups ignores the existence of luxury crafts in medieval Bruges long before the arrival of the Burgundians. What objects rich burghers owned in the late Middle Ages can be ascertained by researching Staten van Goed inventories that exist in increasing numbers after 1400 in both Ghent and Bruges.[2] Assuming that foreign merchants, especially Italians, bought Flemish visual art for the same reasons the Burgundians also ignores evidence that other tastes and desires could have been at work. Italian admiration of the technical accomplishment of Flemish artists is certainly not given its due.

A welcome focus of this study is on the economic and social background to artistic production and sales. But here again the author misleads through oversimplification or error. The economic history of Bruges is a perfect example. Despite citing the pertinent works, Professor Wilson weaves together a strange explanation of Bruges' late-medieval wealth, crediting the creation of a fair in 1200 "when Bruges officially entered the domain of European commerce.." or stranger still "with the founding of Bruges' port city, Damme (in 1180)^Ê Bruges became the primary recipient of virtually all (emphasis mine) foreign commerce in northern Europe." (p. 16) Both statements are so vague and sweeping as to be false in themselves, as well as having doubtful relevance for the period 1430-1530 when Bruges faced a whole series of new challenges to its economic well being. In point of fact the trading system of which Bruges was the center arose only after 1300 and was the successor to the Champagne fairs because trading activity was never suspended at Bruges, thus diminishing the significance of its annual fair.

A more serious shortcoming is the neglect of the social and institutional realities of guild production in fifteenth- century Bruges. Most of the artists producing for the urban art market were members of the guild of St. Luke, which rather awkwardly organized a variety of artisans, not just painters. Professor Wilson is right to stress the important oversight function this guild exercised on the individual workshops where the art was produced. Where she fails, however, is putting this guild in the context of other guilds in Bruges and elsewhere at the time. This is a curious failing given her repeated calls for considering the context. But here again she seems trapped by her own formulations about the power of courtly influence, attributing the guild's construction of its own guild house to imitation of the duke's new Prinsenhof rather than looking to what other guilds were doing at the time. She should also have sought out the literature on guilds in order to solve the terminological problem she encountered in the documents. Medegezellen were surely journeymen, as cnapen were just as surely apprentices (see p. 157). She could also have gained additional insight into forms of sociability that might have aided her understanding of the apparent sharing of materials and designs among masters.

One could say that economic historians have always been pickers of such nits as those above, and who really cares about the minutiae of trade networks and guild organization anyway? That is fair enough, though doubtful in this case when such things are called upon to support a book's argument. But what of the argument about the art itself? Specifically, does the author prove through new sources and/or new stylistic analysis that Bruges' unique urban context created demand for panel painting specifically, to the point that artists were forced to adapt methods of production and adopt new methods of marketing?

Again, the answer is no.

Let's look first at the range of new documentary evidence brought to bear on the question. Here Professor Wilson is less than forthright in admitting that she has done little archival research herself. Admittedly, the great British art historian W.H.J. Weale was able to track down perhaps most of the important archival materials relevant to Bruges artists of the period, and those he missed have been discovered and published by others, notably by R. Parmentier and Albert Schouteet, both former Bruges city archivists. But Professor Wilson's researches, judging from her footnotes, seem to have consisted of checking the notes left by Weale, now kept in the Bruges city archives, against the original city accounts. What is missed are the tantalizing hints that Saint Donatian's church may have been an early art market, as noted by the author on pp. 220, fn. 28 and 47, and long ago by A. Duclos.[3] Yet the author apparently has not researched the Acta of the church chapter, which form an almost unbroken series from 1360. Nor has she looked at the accounts kept by the Fabric of the church, that body of laymen charged with maintaining and improving the physical structure and decoration of the church. There are also church accounts of the other Bruges parish churches as well as the very important accounts of the St. Jan's hospital, which might have yielded new information about the art market.[4]

More might also have been done with archival materials cited in the book. A clear example here is a text published by Parmentier bearing upon a law suit between the artists Ambrosius Benson and Gerard David over the return of a chest containing among other things a variety of workshop models. A key part of the passage, "^Êdiversche andere patronen die hy, heesschere, gheleent hadden van aelbrecht, vor dewelke dezelve aelbrecht hem twee Philipsguldenen inghehouden hadde" is translated by the author as "other diverse patterns that the defendant had borrowed from Aelbrecht, for which the same Aelbrecht had charged him two Phillipsguldenen." (pp. 155-156) Professor Wilson cites this as evidence that patterns were shared among artists sometimes in return for a fee for their use. This is not quite what the passage says. The crucial verb is "inhouden" which does not mean "charged" in the sense of a fee, but "kept" in the sense of a deposit. This would explain the precise mention of the coin type rather than the price in money of account, the standard practice in the case of a sale. It might also explain some of Benson's anxiety, for Phillipsgulden were gold coins of considerable value, probably worth far more than the actual value of the patterns.[5]

The strength of the book lies no doubt in part 2, "From Representation to Replication" in which the author argues that an increase in demand for panel paintings generated by increased wealth and the desire to imitate the nobility encouraged artists to streamline the production process through the use of workshop models. These sketches allowed the possibility of transferring an image directly to the wooden painting surface through a technique called "pouncing," which, like an ink jet printer, forced coal dust through pricked holes around the outline of the image leaving its impression on the surface. While admitting that evidence of this is scattered, Professor Wilson succeeds in presenting a convincing case through an analysis of groups of paintings that share stylistic elements yet are not really copies of one another. No doubt this is a significant finding with serious implications of what we understand to be "original" and "copy;" but does it support the argument that it was a sign of the development of a "mass market for panel painting"?

There are several difficulties here, not the least of which is chronological. Bruges experienced an economic boom in the period 1430-1470 followed closely by a series of setbacks that in the course of a generation seriously reduced the city's prosperity. Yet most all of Professor Wilson's examples of mass production of images date from the mid-sixteenth century. Such a lag stretches credibility and there simply is not sufficient evidence to definitively link mid-fifteenth century economics to mid-sixteenth century consumption. Posing another problem for the argument is the question of what the considerable number of Bruges painters were actually producing in the period. Professor Wilson estimates, with good grounds, that the number of ateliers operating in Bruges around 1500 stood at around fifty. Yet we possess panel paintings from only a handful of these artists, leading to several possible explanations. The first, favored by Professor Wilson, is that all or most of these ateliers produced panel paintings that have been lost. This of course accords with her argument of the increase in panel painting across the period. But shouldn't she consider more seriously the possibility that the majority of ateliers did no or few panel paintings? She is careful, after all, to explain that employment for painters was traditionally directed more towards painting objects, decorating scenery, and painting fabric, not painting portraits or religious scenes on wood. The evidence would seem to justify the conclusion that a relative few among Bruges painters around 1500 specialized in the production of panel paintings.

What then of the establishment of the Pandt, a purpose- built market for the display and sale of gold objects, jewels "and similar commerce" opened for the Bruges market of 1482? Professor Wilson sees this as the clearest expression of the triumph of the market for panel paintings, with the added significance that artists were directly confronted with the tastes and demands of the buying public. This allowed "a means by which the demand for paintings may have been advanced, satisfied and stimulated." (p. 195) This is an important and provocative argument, but it again suffers from some of the weaknesses sketched above. First, we have data about stall rentals in the Pandt only after 1511, and by 1530 artists' rentals of stalls falls off precipitously. Thus the chronology again does not fit the argument. Professor Wilson also slides too easily into the assertion that painters exhibited only panel paintings in the stalls of the Pandt. Given the fact that the vast majority of artists who rented stalls there have left no surviving examples of their work again leads one to wonder what exactly they exhibited there.

The rapid decline of stall rentals by painters after 1530 also leads to an alternative explanation of the evolution of the art market in the late fifteenth through the mid-sixteenth centuries. Specifically, that the crucial source of demand had little to do with the presence or influence of the Burgundian court, and a great deal to do with the presence of communities of foreign merchants within the walls of Bruges. These groups were originally drawn to the city in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in part because of the ease of selling their wares and easily finding trade goods they could easily sell back home. Professor Wilson is absolutely correct in observing that in the course of the fifteenth century, many of these trade goods were luxury items such as expensive cloth, diamonds and other jewels, manuscripts, furs, rosaries, and paintings. After 1450, however, most of these merchant communities left Bruges for Antwerp: the Venetians in the 1450s; in the 1470s the number of Hanse merchants had fallen off; and in the 1480s the trickle became a flood in the wake of the city's war with Maximilian. By 1510 the Portuguese had left and by 1516 all the members of the various Italian communities had followed them. With the move of the consulate of the Hanse in 1553, Bruges retained only the Spanish wool staple. Surely this chronology of decline had something to do with both the establishment of the Pandtand the fading of painters' interest in exhibiting there as the merchant communities packed up and left.

While the book's overall argument does not work very well, there is still much to admire here. The book gathers together a great deal of material about the sixteenth-century artists' community of Bruges proving its vitality well beyond the traditional date of Bruges' decline. This supplies additional evidence that Bruges did not so much decline as stand still in an era of tremendous growth and development in Antwerp. The book points out the crying need we have for new research into the luxury trades of Bruges as a whole. We also need studies of fifteenth-century confraternities and their members as well as studies of the relationship of the Burgundians with the political and religious institutions of Bruges. Only then will we be able to make confident statements about the era captured with all too deceptive detail by Jan van Eyck and his successors.


[1] Reinhard Strohm, Music in Late medieval Bruges (Oxford, 1985); M.P.J. Martens, Artistic patronage in Bruges Institutions, ca. 1440-1482 Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Santa Barbara, 1992 and idem, "De Cliëteel van de kunstenaar," in R. van Schoute, B. de Patoul, De Vlaamse Primitieven (Leuven, 1994), pp. 144-171, and idem, "Bruges during Petrus Christus's Lifetime," in M.W. Ainsworth, ed., Petrus Christus; Renaissance Master of Bruges (New York, 1994), pp. 3-15. Professor Wilson inexplicably omits these works of Martens.

[2] R. van Uytven shows some of the possibilities of these sources in "Splendour or wealth: art and economy in the Burgundian Netherlands," Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society v. 10 (1992): 101-124.

[3] A. Duclos, Bruges. Histoire et souvenirs (Bruges, 1910).

[4] Ann Roberts in fact did discover much new material about the funerary sculpture of Mary of Burgundy, see "The Chronology and Political Significance of the Tomb of Mary of Burgundy," Art Bulletin 71 (1989): 376-400.

[5] The "Philip guilder" was struck in 1496 and was worth roughly 50 Flemish groats, nearly equivalent to the weekly wage of a skilled artisan in Bruges at the time. Could a pattern have been worth two-weeks' wages? This is surely a question the author should have taken up.