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Niederlandische Gemalde im Stadel, 1400-1550.

Jochen Sander. 1400-1550. Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1993. 40 pls. (32 colt) + 300 b/w illus. + 497 pp. DM168.

What characteristics should a good museum collection catalogue have? Clarity of organization, ease of use, and adequate information immediately spring to mind. This is generally not the sort of art historical book that one reads cover to cover. Rather, when done properly, it functions as an indispensable reference tool. Some of the very best examples, such as John Hand's pair for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, can be enlightening as well as utilitarian. Jochen Sander, the chief curator of paintings at the Stadel Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, has crafted a volume on their early Netherlandish paintings that sets ambitious new standards for scholarly catalogues. The exhaustive discussions, which often run to twenty or more pages per picture, offer the reader a marvelous tutorial about how to look at and to think about early Renaissance art. Sander's detailed analysis, however, would be virtually impossible for a museum with a larger collection. The Stadel-Kunstinstitut possesses only twenty-nine early Netherlandish paintings, yet these include masterworks by Robert Carnpin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Dirk Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, Quentin Massys, Joos van Cleve, and Jan van Scorel, among others, a veritable pantheon of the region's greatest talent. The quality of the collection alone commands our attention.

Sander defines his methodology as an "Archaologie des Bildes" (11), a comprehensive examination of the object, its physical characteristics, and its cultural setting that he adapts from L.M.J. Delaisse's pioneering studies of early Netherlandish manuscripts. After almost thirty-five years, the approach may not be novel but it remains appropriate, particularly when practiced with Sander's thoroughness. Before addressing the specific pictures, the author provides a summary history of the collection and the pivotal role of Johann David Passavant in its development. In 1817 when Johann Friedrich Stadel's collection was bequeathed to the city of Frankfurt, it contained but a single Netherlandish picture, the Brunswick Monogrammist's bordello scene. The early administrators were far more interested in amassing Italian Renaissance paintings and those by contemporary German masters. In 1824 the Institut in fact passed on the opportunity to acquire the famous collection of the Boisseree brothers of Cologne that three years later was purchased by the Ludwig I of Bavaria and subsequently became the nucleus of the Netherlandish holdings of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. There was never a systematic effort to secure Netherlandish pictures for the Institut. Rather the collection grew gradually, indeed haphazardly, as most paintings came from local patrons. Particularly fascinating for readers interested in the history of the study of Netherlandish art is the section on Passavant, who was first an advisor and then -- from 1840 until 1861 -- an inspector at the Institut. Sander includes transcriptions of Passavant's correspondence from the years 1832 to 1834, a period that witnessed their purchase of van der Weyden's Medici-Madonna. The letters reveal Passavant's sensitive understanding of the evolution of Netherlandish painting, notably the contributions of artists such as van Eyck and van der Weyden, as well as a familiarity with such relevant primary literature as the passages on the latter's 1450 trip to Italy by Bartholomeus Facius and Cyriacus of Ancona. Even some of his attributions, disproven by later scholars, tell us much about the prevailing state of connoisseurship.

The entries offer a wealth of both basic information and critical insight. Each contains a biography of the artist, an analysis of the material characteristics of the painting, a detailed description, a provenance, a history of previous scholarship, a technological examination, the author's analytical discussion, a bibliography, and a thorough photographic documentation including x-rays, infrared reflectograms, and a picture reversal. Stephan Knobloch assisted in the technical studies of the pictures while Peter Klein contributed a discussion on their dendrochronology. Their collective comprehensiveness is indeed impressive as they set a high standard that few other museum catalogues will ever match.

Particularly welcome is Sander's willingness to suggest new dates, attributions, and interpretations for some of his paintings. For instance, he proposes a late date for Bosch's Ecce Homo, which traditionally was placed early in the artist's oeuvre, based on the Institut's technical examinations. Sander attempts to link the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl of Haarlem with the workshop of Dirk Bouts in Louvain. The St. John Altarpiece, while known to be a replica of van der Weyden's painting in Berlin, must be dated much later, to about 1510, due to the dendrochronological and technical evidence. Each entry has something astute to contribute to our understanding of these pictures. Regardless of whether all of his suggestions are ultimately accepted by his peers, Sander must be lauded for his thought-provoking dialogue with the Institut's early Netherlandish paintings.
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Author:Smith, Jeffrey Chipps
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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