This article will examine the artistic dialogue between the Southern and the Northern Netherlands within the genre of history painting and focus on the transmission of artistic ideas, one of the cornerstones of the NWO-project ‘Artistic Exchange and Cultural Transmission in the Low Countries, 1572–1672’ (www.artisticexchangeproject.wordpress.com). Clearly, the Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens is the key figure in the development of history painting in the Low Countries. Therefore, I will trace how artistic ideas introduced by Rubens were transferred to the Northern Netherlands. Simultaneously I will draw on a case study of Pieter de Grebber, to comprehend the process of artistic transmission.
The transmission of artistic ideas and knowledge in the Low Countries
For long the artistic transmission between the two regions has been neglected. ‘How is it that art historians, instead of trying to provide an appropriate sketch of a period, remain completely mesmerized by the accidental borders of their own time?’1 Albert Blankert alluded twenty years ago to the demarcated categories of Dutch and Flemish art that had been dominating art historical studies of the Low Countries for many years. Geography has always been an important factor for the classification of art, going back as far as Pliny the Elder. In the sixteenth century Vasari introduced geographical borders in Italian art history, and this was taken further on a local scale in seventeenth-century art literature. However, this was not the case for the art of the Low Countries. Whether from the Northern or the Southern Netherlands, artists from the Low Countries were, for example, denominated as Fiamminghi by the Italians and Spaniards. Also for the biographers like De Bie and Houbraken no distinction was made: they were all Nederlanders.2 The distinction between the Flemish and Dutch became current only in the nineteenth century as a result of the widespread nationalism found across Europe and of the Belgian independence of 1830 in particular.3 The majority of today’s seventeenth-century art historians as well as museum curators still make a distinction between Dutch painting on the one hand and Flemish painting on the other. Moreover, since the publication of Haak’s influential book Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, it has been commonplace to make sub-categorizations in the form of local schools, such as the Haarlem School and Delft School.4
The classification in local and national schools starts from the assumption that every town and every country distinguishes itself by a specific production with specializations in iconography, material, technique and/or style, and it has the effect that artistic innovations tend to be explained as a result of local or regional circumstances. Such explanations are, however, too restricted. Already in 1935 Wilhelm Martin stated that artists in the Northern Netherlands were active in various cities, and that there was no dominating artistic centre like Antwerp for the Southern Netherlands.5 Even though Martin made this statement in 1935, it is still accurate. Gerrit Verhoeven argues in his recent research that within the Low Countries artists could travel rather easily from one city to another thanks to improved overland- and water transport.6 As a consequence, early modern artists were much more mobile than previously assumed. I contend that this mobility of people and of (luxury) products was of great importance for the transmission of artistic ideas between the Northern and Southern part of the Netherlands. Apart from the conference ‘Art on the Move’ which was organized in the context of the NWO project mentioned above, art historians have, during the last decade, called into question the role of local schools and borders in early modern Europe.7
Studies in the field of circulation of technical knowledge may serve as a point of departure to examine similar processes of artistic circulation. In a 2006 contribution Hilaire-Pérez and Verna stress that
technical circulations involved constant adaptations and translations in accordance with the needs and choices of the actors. Diversions, delays, slowdowns, and failures were current, undermining all attempts by historians to discover any straightforward routes or instances of homogeneous diffusion. Although pools of techniques could be shared across long distances, territories were not abstract entities but human constructs.8
According to these authors, the channels through which knowledge could be transferred were not related to geography, borders and territories but to personal networks. Furthermore they argue that ‘the creation of hybrids – “creative imitation” – was intrinsic to dissemination, as each locality followed its own path. This challenges any notion of a universal pattern of growth.’ With regard to the transmission of artistic ideas it becomes evident that artistic knowledge or ideas were almost never linearly adopted (copied) but as a result of local needs, were adapted and transformed to hybrids. Art historians commonly use the terms imitatio and aemulatio (to imitate and emulate) in order to explain how artists used artistic ideas from other artists in the process of artistic competition. Another contemporary term used is rapen: to use or maybe even steal ideas from other artists.9 But as Hilaire-Pérez and Verna also mention: ideas were adapted and transformed to local, or personal needs. ‘Creative imitation’, a term introduced by the authors, is to my opinion more appropriate and modern and can analogously be used in the field of art history.
Furthermore, the authors reaffirm that studies on the dissemination of technical knowledge have pointed out that it is important to reappraise geography and boundaries, bearing in mind the weight of social networks and the human mobility. Already in 1972, Cipolla suggested a similar point of view, arguing that the main channel for the transfer of knowledge was the migration (mobility) of people and not the printed page.10 I believe the same holds true for the circulation of artistic ideas, as has already been shown in other contexts.11
Artistic transmission in the Low Countries: history painting
In the field of the visual arts only preliminary research on artistic exchange and transmission in the Low Countries has been done. In his standard survey on Flemish art of 1998, Vlieghe referred to comparable motifs and developments in the artistic production of both areas and postulated the titillating question: ‘Flemish art does it really exists?’12 On a more specialized level, Karolien de Clippel published her findings on the differences and similarities within genre painting in both regions.13 These studies probably would not exist without the groundwork done by Jan Briels. Briels stresses the idea that immigrants from the Southern Netherlands initiated the Dutch Golden Age of painting.14 Although his work contains a wealth of archival information, many of the artists he mentioned were second generation, having arrived as children with their parents, or were born in the Netherlands. There is no doubt that a relation exists between the Dutch Golden Age of painting and the immigrants from the South, but Briels’s work does not answer the current questions on artistic exchange and transmission within the Low Countries. Going back to Martin, he noticed the difference between the artistic productions and the artistic development of the two regions. According to him, artists in Flanders were far ahead of their Dutch colleagues at the end of the sixteenth century: their artistic production was continuous and flourishing. Acknowledging these differences, Martin is clear about the fact that the artistic developments of both regions were related. He stated that during the first quarter of the seventeenth century a shift took place and that even though the Flemish were far ahead of the Dutch, the full development of landscape, seascape, still life, the architectural piece and the depiction of contemporary life, was attained in the Northern Netherlands.15
Remarkably, Martin does not mention history painting – why? How were the regional developments in this genre related? History painters did not come in large numbers to the Northern Netherlands.16 David van der Linden emphasises in this volume that a large part of Antwerp’s artists did not flee at all: they choose to stay, and history painters in particular. Van der Linden emphasises they had good reasons not to leave Antwerp. The Counter-Reformation imposed by the Spanish Crown supplied many of them with commissions to redecorate the Catholic churches. Altarpieces had been destroyed during the iconoclastic riots and the paintings that survived, were in many cases no longer considered appropriate after the Council of Trent. As a result, history painting in the Southern Netherlands flourished. But, exactly for the opposite reason, the situation in the North was less promising. All the Catholic churches were closed down and by consequence, the main patron for history painters disappeared.17 These circumstances compelled painters to focus on new subjects that were suitable for an open market and popular with the private consumers. Samuel van Hoogstraten pointed out this particular issue in his 1678 treatise on the beginning, rise and decline of the art of painting:
But in the middle of the fierce war, our Nederland has nourished countless excellent spirits. Braband can count on the great Rubens, his noble disciple Antony van Dijk; the industrious Jordaens, [...] and countless others, [...]. To demonstrate that the art, since the Iconoclasm in the previous century, is not completely destroyed in Holland – though the best career possibilities, to wit [working for] the churches, have been cut off and most painters therefore have strayed into painting minor matters, yes, even triffle – I will point out a few names of those who mainly applied themselves to the art in its entirety and to the most noble inventions. There was Strazio Voluto or Gilliam Fermout, Lastman, Mierevelt, Theodorus Babuere: Pieter Fransen de Grebber, Hondhorst, Ravesteyn, the verzierlijken Rembrant, after my fathers death Theodoor my second master: Jaques de Bakker, Govert Flink, Gerrit Douw, Stokkade, Jan Lievens, Mieris, Doudeins, de Baen.18
Samuel van Hoogstraten is clear about the effects of the war and the iconoclastic fury on history painting in the Northern Netherlands. But as he emphasizes, history painting in the Northern Netherlands was not completely destroyed and fortunately, there were still painters who were trained in this speciality. However, none of them would surpass Rubens in the field of monumental histories, and this might be the reason Martin listed only these ‘lower’ genres. Dutch history painting with the exception of Rembrandt’s biblical and mythological paintings was for a long time neglected, and as such the artistic transmission in history painting between the two regions. Both had their own traditions with diverging styles and themes when in 1609 the situation was completely stirred up when Rubens returned from Italy, and straight away dominated the Antwerp high-end art market for history painting.19 With his monumentality, the expression of emotion, the involvement of the spectator, the colouring and ordonnance (ordonnantie – arrangement in space), Rubens brought a completely new baroque style to the Low Countries. Simultaneously in 1609 – as a result of the Twelve Years’ Truce – the borders between the Northern and the Southern Netherlands opened and made it even easier for artists and art lovers from both regions to be in contact with each other and admire history painting with Italian allure much closer to home.
As a result of the recent growing interest in history painting in the Northern Netherlands from the 1980’s onwards, research concentrates today more and more on the artistic exchange and transmission between both regions regarding this genre.20 Kerry Barrett’s study on Pieter Soutman gives insight in the effect on the artistic choices of the artist as a result of his traveling from the Northern to the Southern Netherlands and back.21 Filip Vermeylen and Karolien De Clippel have published on the prolonged affairs between Haarlem and Antwerp and specifically on the relation between Peter Paul Rubens and Goltzius.22 Christian Tico Seifert devoted a chapter in his monograph on the history painter Pieter Lastman to the possible exchanges between this artist from Amsterdam and his Antwerp counterpart Peter Paul Rubens.23 Nevertheless transmission of new artistic ideas from the Southern to the Northern Netherlands in early seventeenth-century history painting and the creative imitation that followed deserves more attention.
Pieter de Grebber: creative imitation of Rubens
Pieter de Grebber was one of the artists mentioned by Samuel van Hoogstraten who still chose the noblest form of painting.24 Especially his work dating from his early career is closely related to that of Rubens. This is corroborated by visual evidence, but what concerns us here is that his social network gives us insight into the transmission of the ideas that took place.
Despite the fact that, before 1620, few works by Rubens were present in the Northern Netherlands, Pieter de Grebber (born around 1600 in Haarlem) must have been familiar with Rubens’s artistic ideas. He was the eldest son of the Haarlem Catholic history- and portrait painter Frans Pietersz. de Grebber and after an apprenticeship with his father (whose personal relationship with Rubens I will address later) he trained with Hendrick Goltzius – one of the most famous artists of the Netherlands in those days.25 Vermeylen and De Clippel argued convincingly that these two highly esteemed artists had a relation going back to the early beginnings of Rubens’s career.26 Goltzius was a shining example to Rubens who most likely went in 1612 to Haarlem to learn from Goltzius’s print production.27 Vice versa, Rubens was Goltzius’s superior regarding the art of oil painting, a technique that Goltzius only began to use in 1600. Therefore, history painting in Haarlem must have received a new impulse when Goltzius broke – possibly inspired by Rubens – with the mannerist tradition of the late sixteenth century.28 Van Mander tells us that Goltzius instructed his pupils, among them De Grebber, passionately with stories about Italian painting and it is very plausible he brought Rubens to their attention as well, since Rubens was undoubtedly considered the most Italian painter in the north.29
Goltzius was a learned artist who was well embedded in the scholarly community of Haarlem. The director of the Latin school Schoneaus and his successor Schrevelius, were well acquainted with Goltzius and were also in close contact with kindred spirits in Leiden who were connected by the neo-stoic ideas of the former Leiden professor Lipsius. Justus Lipsius had moved from Leiden to Leuven where Philip Rubens belonged to his inner circle, as did Peter Paul Rubens himself, for whose thinking and work the neo-stoic ideas were of major importance.30 Most evident are the expression of emotion and the involvement of the spectator, which he achieved through dynamic compositions, colouring and ordonnance.31 The scholars from both regions appreciated Rubens’s work highly because of the well-integrated neo-stoic ideas. As I will demonstrate elsewhere, there existed a lively intellectual network that held close contact with the art world; humanists from this circle, based in Leiden and Haarlem, with contacts in Leuven and Antwerp, were also the first to promote Rubens’s work in the Northern Netherlands. I argue that Pieter de Grebber was aware of the discussions and ideas that were current among these humanists. Scholars did appreciate De Grebber’s work as can be deduced from Schrevelius’s writings: he wrote that Pieter was not only his father’s superior in the art of painting, but had to be counted among the best painters of the century.32
It is very plausible that Schrevelius had in mind De Grebber’s most ambitious and highly innovative work: Belshazzar’s Feast (1625) now in the Museum Kassel (fig. 1). The painting has been marked as a stunning masterpiece and as a key work in Dutch classicism, displaying a grandeur that was unprecedented in Dutch art.33 De Grebber’s textual source for the painting is the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It tells the story of Belshazzar’s banquet, in which the King of Babylon used vessels stolen from the Temple of Solomon. During the feast a hand appeared and wrote a phrase on the wall that only Daniel could translate: ‘Thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ Belshazzar died the same night.
The painting – which is recently restored and cleaned – shows an unusual strong emotional expression. De Grebber successfully represented in his painting how the dinner party was suddenly beset by fear when God’s hand started writing on the wall. The characters cast their eyes upwards, toward the hand of God. Belshazzar’s wide-open eyes and clenched fists reinforce the notion of fear. The use of light and shadow contributes to the dramatic atmosphere in a way that Rembrandt would exploit to its fullest in the 1630s. The scale of the figures and their arrangement in space is another striking feature. De Grebber opted to position a few close-up characters around a table that is set on a podium. He placed them not on a horizontal line but gradually piled them up. The figures fill the entire picture space, leaving little room for background. The scene takes place in the direct foreground, and as such imposes itself on the viewer in contrast to his master Goltzius who usually painted just one or two full-length figures in a parallel to the picture surface, with hardly any movement in space and emotional expressions.34 De Grebber’s work is also diverging from that of Pieter Lastman – at that time the leading history painter in Amsterdam who had a great impact on many younger painters. The latter had used, like De Grebber, in his David und Uria of 1619 architectural elements and a platform; nevertheless, it is quite different from De Grebber’s painting.35 Lastman leaves much more air in the composition; his figures are not in the immediate foreground, and are positioned parallel to the picture plane in a clear narrative which can be read from left to right, while the background shows a landscape with staffage. Therefore, the viewer is not as directly involved, nor does the painting have the same grandeur as De Grebber’s Belshazzar. De Grebber’s work measures one-and-a-half meter high on more than 2 meters wide, and, as a consequence, immediately impresses the viewer. Such large-scale work was highly unusual. Established masters of a much older generation, like Goltzius and Cornelis Cornelisz, had painted monumental pictures, but Lastman for example did not work on this scale nor did most other artists in the 1620s.
Observing De Grebber’s Belshazzar, one cannot but consider Rubens’s impact on the young master. His Judgment of Salomon (c. 1611–1614) makes another Old Testament scene come to mind (fig. 2). It depicts, similar to De Grebber’s composition, a group of monumental figures, placed on the foreground and cut off on the sides. The focus on a figure at one side of the picture plane is typical for Rubens’s classical phase and present in De Grebber’s Belshazzar as well. The same is true for the compositions that are similarly structured by architectural elements (the platform with the canopy) and the characteristic view from inside an interior to an outdoor landscape. Resemblance is also to be found in the prominent vertical axis: the peacock in De Grebber’s and the executioner in Rubens’s painting. In both pictures the figures are harmoniously distributed over the picture plane. The spatial arrangement suggests a movement towards the viewer. De Grebber attained this effect by stacking his figures and grouping them in a curved composition that starts with God’s hand in the upper right corner, then moves down to the left side (Belshazzar’s eyes) and from there further down to the centre of the foreground (at the feet of Belshazzar). Like Rubens, De Grebber paid great attention to the richness of the opulent draperies, the jewels and other details. Although De Grebber did not borrow motifs, compositions or figures directly from Rubens, his knowledge of the work of the Antwerp master is evident in this painting. This is underlined by his focus on the expression of vehement passion and emotions and his emphasis on the purpose of art as moving the viewer, which originated as a Neo-Stoic precept.
Similar elements can be noted when we observe one of De Grebber’s earliest signed and dated paintings (1623) depicting a resurrection of Lazarus, which is located in the Butcher chapel of the St. James´s Church in Bruges (fig. 3).36 Peter Sutton, who is preparing a monograph on Pieter de Grebber, assumed that the Raising of Lazarus was originally made for the Bruges Chapel.37 Inventories reveal that Pieter de Grebber signed the painting, but also show that the painting was donated to the church in 1806.38 Therefore, evidence for a Flemish commission is missing. However the resemblance with Rubens’s Lamentation of 1613–1614 indicates that De Grebber – already in 1623 – was well aware of the Antwerp master’s work, of which it is highly unlikely that he saw it in the Northern Netherlands (fig. 4).
In Rubens’s version of the Lamentation, we see Christ on the stone of unction, a motif he reintroduced in northern painting.39 The resemblance of De Grebber’s painting with Rubens’s is striking. Most evident is the identical but mirrored composition: a full-length figure, placed on a stone diagonally in the centre of the picture plane. A shroud encircles his hip and is picked up by Joseph on the left in Rubens’s painting, whereas the shroud in De Grebber’s painting rests on the stone on the right. Furthermore, we see how the figures in both pictures are harmoniously placed around the protagonist. Prominent is the resemblance of St. John and Christ respectively; both dressed in a red cloak, reaching their arm upwards. In Rubens’s work we see a crying Mary Magdalene holding her hands to her face and behind her the Mary turning her eyes upwards. In De Grebber’s painting we see similar figures: a woman turning her eyes upwards, and behind her another woman crying, not yet aware of the miracle that just happened.
Notable in this context is the drawing after Rubens’s composition, made by De Grebber’s former peer at Goltzius’s studio: Pieter Soutman (fig. 5).40 Soutman left Haarlem in 1616 to start working in Rubens’s workshop. He made the drawing presumably in Rubens’s studio, where the painting might have been available as an example for pupils. Soutman’s drawing was reproduced in print, but only after 1636 when the latter had returned to Haarlem.41 De Grebber’s painting is dated 1623, and since Rubens’s drawings and other works in the studio were not accessible to outsiders, the question presents itself whether De Grebber did have entry to the studio. De Grebber did not settle in Antwerp – as he had no reason to leave Haarlem, where he had to run his father’s successful workshop – but a visit to Antwerp and to Rubens’s studio is most likely, the more so since his father Frans de Grebber was closely connected with Peter Paul Rubens himself.
Rubens trusted Frans de Grebber in 1618 to be his agent in the famous art deal with the British envoy, Sir Dudley Carleton who was located in The Hague. In the course of this deal Rubens received antique sculptures from Carleton’s collection in exchange for paintings by his hand. Rubens and Frans de Grebber were clearly well acquainted. In his letters to Carleton, Rubens introduced Frans de Grebber as ‘a trustworthy, good and sincere man’, as ‘his friend’ and ‘agent’ who would act on behalf of him.42 It is not known how Frans de Grebber and Rubens became acquainted; most likely this was a result of Rubens’s visit to Haarlem.43 On 1 June 1618, Frans de Grebber arrived in Antwerp with Carleton’s statues and left with Rubens’s paintings for Carleton. Rubens wrote that Fans de Grebber was astonished when he saw all paintings intended for Carleton nicely finished and lined up.44 In art historical literature, Pieter de Grebber is always assumed to have accompanied his father on this trip. However, the sources do not support this: Rubens wrote that Frans’s visit was short as he was hurried, while Pieter was never mentioned in his correspondence.45 Although some caution is appropriate, the resemblance between Rubens’s Lamentation and De Grebber’s Raising of Lazarus supports the argument that Pieter De Grebber joined his father or was shortly after present in Rubens studio.
Pieter de Grebber’s access to models from Rubens’s workshop becomes even more plausible when examining De Grebber’s Reading Paul, dated 1625 (fig. 6). Intriguing is the physiognomic resemblance with Rubens’s Bearded man (c. 1613/15), a tronie (a character head study) and the type of preparatory work that did not leave the studio (fig. 7).46 The hooked nose, long dark beard, deep orbits and arched brows show that both paintings depict the same man. Reading Paul underlines Rubens’s impact on De Grebber also in another way. This kind of large apostle portraits was then a new type of painting, introduced by Rubens’s apostle series now in the Prado; copies of the series were offered, though not accepted by Sir Dudley Carleton.47
Pieter de Grebber most likely saw the paintings which were eventually sent to Carleton; if not in Antwerp, it would have been in The Hague where Carleton gave some painters access to his collection.48 From his correspondence we learn that Frans was in The Hague to survey Carleton’s collection on behalf of Rubens. In that same letter, Carleton mentions the son of Frans de Grebber, which indicates that he knew Pieter de Grebber.49
One might expect that Pieter de Grebber would refer directly to motifs or compositions from Rubens’s paintings in Carleton’s collection but instead, he was more subtle in drawing on the latter’s work, as, for example, in his version of the popular Old Testament story Susanna and the Elders (c. 1620) (fig. 8). De Grebber used Goltzius’s painting depicting the same subject of 1607 as his starting point (fig. 9). It shows unmistakable similarities in the way Susanna casts her eyes upwards, places her hand on her chest and is flanked on both sides by an elder. The main difference is that De Grebber has cut off the sides, and filled the picture plane with the three figures. Rubens’s picture of Susanna that went to Carleton – and was most likely known by De Grebber – comes to mind. Although the original painting is lost, we know the composition through the print by Lucas Vorsterman (fig. 10). The original measurements of the painting were mentioned in Rubens’s correspondence and have a similar proportion, but double the size of De Grebber’s painting.50 It is very plausible that De Grebber recalled Rubens’s work when he chose to let one of the elders actually pull aside Susana’s clothing, a detail that was not seen before in Dutch art, but was picked up later by Rembrandt. Although Rubens’s painting is lost, we learn from the print that Rubens must have used a strong contrast between light and dark. Susanna’s body and the elders’s heads are set against a dark background, this clair-obscure is not to be found in Goltzius’s version, but De Grebber’s use of light is similar to that of Rubens. Again, we notice how De Grebber tries to involve the beholder in the violent emotions of the story depicted. De Grebber might have known Vorsterman’s print, but taking our departure from the idea that De Grebber had access to Carleton’s collection, it seems plausible that he knew the original work by Rubens as well.
What new insight into the transmission of artistic ideas does the preceding discussion of the early works of the Grebber offer us? As we have seen, Pieter de Grebber was about to start his training when Rubens visited Goltzius in his hometown. A few years later Goltzius became his master and Goltzius undoubtedly advised De Grebber to look at the work of the Antwerp master. Furthermore, De Grebber’s peer Pieter Soutman left Haarlem for Antwerp to start working with Rubens. On top of that his father Frans de Grebber became an agent in the service of Rubens in an extraordinary art deal which gave him access to his works (in Antwerp or at least in The Hague at Carleton’s collection). Finally, we have to be aware of the intellectual network of humanists who were steeped in neo-stoic ideas, and were also the first to spread knowledge about Rubens in the Northern Netherlands. Goltzius, Carleton and the De Grebbers were in close contact with this circle of humanists and Pieter would have had the opportunity to study real work by Rubens as well. It is clear that Pieter de Grebber applies important neo-stoic notions – the expression of vehement passions and the involvement of the beholder – in his Belshazzar. It seems no coincidence that these issues are particularly apparent in many of Rubens’s paintings that were delivered to Carleton. Not only in his Susanna, but even more prominent in the Prometheus.51
One may argue that De Grebber’s work diverges in technique and colouring from Rubens; with regard to these aspects he stayed closer to Lastman and Goltzius. However, as shown above, De Grebber appropriated Rubens’s ideas, but did not use exact motifs or compositions directly. Stimulated by Rubens’s inventions he created completely new and ambitious works that were a novelty in Haarlem, or in any other Dutch city. He did not have the illusion to emulate the Flemish master, but creatively imitated his work.
Transmission of Rubens’s artistic ideas and knowledge took place between the Northern and Southern Netherlands through networks and objects and have led to creative imitation with innovative results that constituted a vital contribution to history painting in the Northern Netherlands.