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18.03.12, Clark, Art in a Time of War

18.03.12, Clark, Art in a Time of War

Millard Meiss in his multivolume set French Painting in the Time of Jean, duc de Berry, published between 1967 and 1974, produced the first comprehensive overview of French manuscript painting in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (1380-1416). [1] Almost ten years later John Plummer, along with Gregory T. Clark, brought out the catalog The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts, 1420-1450 to accompany an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Since the appearance of these two monumental works, no full-length monograph has treated the subject of French book illumination during the English occupation of Paris (1420-1436), that is, until now. Gregory T. Clark's beautifully illustrated, well-organized and data-rich book (originally his doctoral dissertation) expands on Meiss's and Plummer's magisterial tomes by focusing on the artistic output of one painter--the so-called Master of Morgan 453--who was active in Paris and Amiens from the 1420s to the 1450s (Clark's title is somewhat of a misnomer). The result is an important contribution to the study of medieval manuscript painting and French art.

A short introduction situates the reader in the historical period and attempts to explain why art historians have been reluctant to study early fifteenth-century Parisian manuscript painting. According to the author, the primary impediment has been the belief that the period is "fallow" (4). Following the Hundred Years' War, from 1420-1436, the English occupied Paris and forced all but the most stalwart of art patrons and artists to flee this cultural hub for provincial centers such as Ghent and Amiens. These three decades were not without artistic production, however. The artists who stayed found ample work churning out modest, ready-made Books of Hours for sale to urban elites, and the odd resplendent and personalized tome for wealthy bibliophiles. The seemingly conservative nature of the illuminations in these books is Clark's second reason for a lack of scholarly excitement. Unlike contemporary Netherlandish panel painting, French manuscript painting does not incorporate a growing interest in naturalism and thus appears old-fashioned. That no manuscript from the period can be firmly ascribed to a known artist, a typical structuring principle for art historical research, is another reason. The painters, like the Master of Morgan 453, are known by names of convenience. Last, dating French manuscripts produced in the first part of the fifteenth century is extremely difficult, for none is mentioned in period documents, nor does any display ownership marks. Clark's contextualization of his monograph in art historical discourse is important, for it gives the reader, particularly one unfamiliar with the topic, a firmer understanding of the importance of Clark's project and allows him to highlight his contributions, which are many. One omission in this introductory chapter is mention of the wealth of supporting material in the appendices. For instance, throughout the introduction and subsequent chapters, Clark references, usually cursorily, the various workshops that either hired or inspired his chosen artist. Knowing that detailed overviews of these ateliers and their artistic output were at the back of the book would have been very helpful at the outset.

Six chapters organized by the manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Morgan 453 follow the introduction. They are: Morgan 1000, Grenoble 1003, Morgan 1004, Morgan 453, British Library Additional 31835, and the Harvard Hours. Clark has three goals in these chapters: to define the Master of the Morgan 453's artistic style, clarify the artist's oeuvre, and more firmly date the manuscripts linked to him. Clark is not the first to recognize the painter's hand and to connect him to extant manuscripts. Meiss and Plummer were well aware of this artist and had already associated him with a number of manuscripts. Meiss described him as an unnamed artist with "strong Netherlandish affinities." Plummer dubbed him the Master of the Morgan 453, as he believed that the artist had done all but two of this book's miniatures. Neither art historian, however, attempted to define the master's manner of painting, being more concerned with attributing works to him. Clark's greatest contribution, then, is explicating the Master of the Morgan 453's singular approach to manuscript painting, which is certainly idiosyncratic and worthy of attention. To demonstrate the artist's development as well as his geographic movement, from Paris to Amiens and back to Paris, Clark organizes the chapters chronologically. For the most part, Clark reaffirms Meiss's and Plummer's attributions, though he discards some and adds a few others. Each chapter follows a similar pattern. Clark starts with Meiss's and Plummer's views on the Master of the Morgan 453's role in the manuscript in question. He then describes at length each of the artist's paintings with reference to those of his collaborators. One of Clark's most important contributions is demonstrating the artistic practices as well as the collaborative nature of artmaking at this time. All of the examples presented are reproduced in color, making the book a visual feast for the eyes. Reproductions of the Master of Morgan 453's illustrations are at the back of the book, while those of other artists fall within the section of text discussing them.

An overview of chapter one, on Morgan 1000, will demonstrate Clark's approach. He begins the chapter with Meiss, who dated the book to 1415 and gave eighteen of its fifty-one half-page miniatures plus the finishing of another to the Master of Morgan 453 (for Meiss he was simply an unnamed artist). These were the seven paintings of the Hours of the Passion, seven paintings of the Hours of the Holy Spirit, and four randomly-placed paintings. Clark describes at length the colors, compositions, settings and treatment of figures of each illumination. To put into deeper relief his artist's personal approach to artmaking, when possible, Clark compares his designs to those of contemporary artists or workshops, usually the Boucicaut Master or Bedford Master, fourteenth-century France's most acclaimed painters. Interestingly, the author does not provide an overview of artist's style, though at times he does pause to reflect upon it, thus providing a kind of summary, at least in regards to one manuscript. Instead, readers must deduce it from Clark's detailed analysis of individual paintings. Most of the written components in Morgan 1000 and the other manuscripts painted by the Master of Morgan 453 enjoyed standardized pictorial traditions. One exception, however, was the Hours of the Holy Spirit, which was rarely illustrated and hence had no established set of images. Only in his discussion of this section of Morgan 1000 does Clark need to identify subject matter. To help him in his task he turns to other painted Hours of the Holy Spirit as well as contemporary thinking on this elusive mystery of the Christian faith. Clark argues that the Master of Morgan 453 is shown at "his most idiosyncratic and most inventive" in this set of prayers (15). Clark ends the first chapter--and most of the following ones--by presenting the work of the Master of the Morgan 453's collaborators.

Relying on stylistics analysis to determine an artist's oeuvre has pitfalls. Medieval artists learned their trade through apprenticeship with a master whose style they copied and then adopted for use in the master's workshop or beyond. Thus distinguishing the output of teacher and pupil is very hard. Medieval artists worked collaboratively, as Clark so beautifully demonstrates, often on a single painting, making it challenging for art historians to distinguish a particular painter's involvement. A third problem is the simple fact that an individual's artistic expression might change over time, for instance because he or she came in contact with other artists, travelled beyond local borders and encountered new art forms, or simply evolved personally. Clark is cognizant of these factors and takes great care to account for them, especially as the painting style in the manuscripts associated with the Master of the Morgan 453 is inconsistent and varies slightly. To explain the inconsistencies, Clark suggests various factors: personal preference, influence of new art forms and new collaborators, travel and historical factors (such as the fact that the painter was aging).

A third of the book is supplementary information. Scholars of fifteenth-century French illumination will find the catalogue of manuscripts by the Master of the Morgan 453 very useful. Following customary bibliographic practice the codices are presented in alphabetical order by location. Each entry describes the book's current physical state and gives an account of the Master of the Morgan 453's role in the book as well as a history of the book. Each illumination, the name of the painter responsible, and the accompanying text is listed in tabular form.

The four appendices bring together a wealth of supporting materials and will be helpful for future research on fifteenth-century manuscript illumination in France and the Netherlands. Appendices I-III are dedicated to materials to help researchers identify a manuscript's locus of production and must be the sources that Clark used in his own research. They are: identifying readings for the Hours of the Virgin for selected centers; identifying readings for the Office of the Dead for selected centers; and an overview and bibliography for Parisian calendar. Clark restricts the centers to Amiens, Paris and Rome, the former two having been home to the Master of Morgan 453. Appendix IV is a checklist of Parisian Illuminators and Manuscripts, ca. 1420-1450, which builds on and enlarges Meiss's chapter 11 "Reintegrated French Workshops, 1380-1420 [3]. The section lists book painters active in the capital in this forty-year period, briefly articulates their artistic styles, identifies all books associated with them, and encourages further investigation with bibliography.

All but one manuscript--a history of the French kings (Les Grandes Chroniques) now in Brussels--are Books of Hours. Clark assumes that his readers are more or less familiar with this book form, its texts and standard iconography, and thus does not give an overview of it, as he did for his monograph on the Spitz Hours [4]. Such an introduction would be most welcome, especially for non-specialists. Nor does Clark address issues of patronage or the role of devotional images in the spiritual lives of medieval book owners, two art historical hot topics in recent scholarship. The reason for the omission is probably twofold. Clark's interest is squarely on artists and their artistic style, that is, on production and not reception. Determining original owners is nearly impossible, as these books usually lack personalizing marks. Many were most likely fabricated on speculation for the open market and thus not geared to a certain individual's taste. At times Clark expands his scope beyond the artistic realm to consider semantics. For instance, writing on the Hours of the Passion in Morgan 1000, Clark questions the artist's predilection at several hours for overly large left hands for Jesus and wonders if the artist was trying to imply that the "weaker, sinister side of Jesus' personality is the one that would happily see the cup of sacrifice taken away were his father to will it?" (29). Clark does not answer this question, nor the many similar ones he poses throughout the book; instead, he leaves them for others to pick up and tease out possible solutions.

The strength of the book is not just in the textual and visual information presented, which is vast, but also in its ability inspire future research. Clark has laid the groundwork for fruitful investigations.

-------- Notes:

1. Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Boucicaut Master (London, Phaidon, 1968); The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke, 2 Vols. (London and New York: Phaidon, 1967); The Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, 2 Vols. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1967).

2. John Plummer, with Gregory T. Clark, The Last Flowering: French Painting in Manuscripts, 1420-1450 (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1982).

3. Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, 360-414.

4. Gregory T. Clark, The Spitz Hours: A Parisian Book of Hours (Los Angeles: The Getty Museum, 2003).