A memorial installment. The following column, mailed to subscribers in October 1998, appeared in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad in the issue dated 31 October & 2 November 1998. I am putting it online now in tribute to two exceptional colleagues who both died this week. Hessel Miedema was a fellow art historian and Joop van Coevorden a fellow publisher, for both of whom I have measureless respect. Together, they raised to a new level the study of the greatest single book on early Dutch art, Karel van Mander’s Lives. When I wrote “Indeed, one can no longer read van Mander at all without Miedema, whose exhaustive commentary is one of the great achievements of present-day art history,” I should have said in so many words that the appearance of that commentary was due to the entrepreneurship, the good taste and dedication above and beyond the call of normal duty of Joop van Coevorden, in his DAVACO press. Their publication was financed in part by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and Stichting Charema.
The appearance last week of vol. 5 of Hessel Miedema’s monumental edition of the most important source in the history of Dutch art, Karel van Mander’s Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, was a special treat for me. Since the appearance of vol. 4 I have acquired a copy of the first edition of 1604. I can now read Miedema’s commentary alongside the original itself. (Vol. 1 includes decent reproductions of its pages, but it’s not the same thing.) Indeed, one can no longer read van Mander at all without Miedema, whose exhaustive commentary is one of the great achievements of present-day art history.
John Pine, from his series of 1739 The tapestry hangings of the House of Lords representing the several engagements between the English and Spanish fleets. (This impression in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) The monumental tapestries (4.4 x 8.7 meters) commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 were woven in 1592-94 by François Spierincx in Delft, after designs by Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, for the English nobleman Lord Howard of Effingham. In 1616 he sold them to King James I. They were moved to the House of Lords in 1644, and in 1834 were destroyed by a fire that devastated the Palace of Westminster. It is only thanks to Pine’s engravings that a record of the appearance of the ten tapestries has come down to us. In publishing them, Pine wrote that he made them “because time, or accident, or moths may deface these valuable shadows.” His prophetic words, which I type over three days after the fire in Notre-Dame de Paris, remind us that the survival of precious art, relics, buildings and other treasures is the exception in history rather than the rule. See if you will my essay on the mortality of art. (This illustration and caption were not in the 1998 column.)
The new volume includes the life of Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, one of my favorites. As Miedema remarks, the text shows all the signs of being based on first-hand information from the painter himself, who was a contemporary of van Mander’s in Haarlem. Who was Vroom? “Today,” Miedema writes, “he is seen first and foremost as the father of the marine painting.” Indeed, there are few specialties that begin as abruptly in the history of art as the painting of ships at sea, in naval engagements and in harbors, genres which were pioneered and developed by Vroom from 1592, when he designed a series of tapestries of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, through to his death in 1639 or 1640.
Most amazingly, Vroom (through van Mander) actually tells exactly how it came to pass that he began specializing in these subjects. On a voyage to Spain around 1590 to sell some small devotional paintings there, Vroom was shipwrecked on the Portuguese coast. He and his party were rescued rather than murdered because of those paintings. To the monks who found them, they were proof that the passengers were “Christians and not Englishmen.”
Two years later, on another voyage, Vroom found himself in the Portuguese town of St. Huves (Setubal). “Vroom stayed in St Huves in a monastery with a priest, painting and being well entertained. There was a painter in St Huves for whom Vroom painted his own adventure and shipwreck, the painter sold it in Lisbon to a great lord for much money so that he was very grateful to Vroom and wanted yet more seapieces and ships from him. After Vroom had earned a reasonable amount of money here he returned home…. [where] he continued, on the advice of the painters there, making pieces with ships, and gradually he got better and better at making them. And since there is much seafaring in Holland, the public also started to take great pleasure in these little ships.”
Of course many of these elements existed beforehand as well: Vroom himself had painted little ships on tiles and the occasional battle at sea. Great lords had taken pleasure in the commemoration of their military exploits; there was much seafaring in Holland for hundreds of years. But it took a specific, unpredictable combination of circumstances to turn sea painting into a true specialty: (1) a traumatic experience at sea (2) by a gifted painter (3) with the experience to paint it; (4) the presence of an art broker (5) able to sell the work (6) to a wealthy patron (7) so that the broker asked for more; (8) a climate in Haarlem, (9) where the painter happened to live, that was conducive to extreme specialization in painting; (10) an art-buying public that (11) out of its own affinity with the subject created a large and enduring market for it. In the usual accounts of the rise of new genres, only the impersonal factors 8-11 are taken into account. Thanks to Vroom’s narrative, we have authoritative information on the preceding, idiosyncratic circumstances.
Since Dutch marine painting quickly became a great success, with an impact that lasted for centuries and influenced all other schools of European painting, one has the inclination to think of it as an inevitable development. In this view, the specific incident that triggered it is insignificant. Had Vroom not launched the specialty in 1592, someone else would have done so before long, for equally fortuitous reasons of his own.
I do not agree. There are many other genres for which factors 8-11 apply which never turned into full-blown specialties in painting: foreign exploration, gardening, dike-building, public ceremonies, the portraiture of burgomasters in office, to name a few. Holland had a monopoly on authentic images of Japan which it did not exercise for 150 years. Had a Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom been stranded on the Japanese rather the Portuguese coast in 1600, the view of Japan in the west might have taken a very different turn.
A bit to my disappointment, Miedema does not go into this. He passes by the birth of marine painting without comment. Instead, he dwells on another question: how could van Mander write with appreciation about a genre – ship-painting – which he considered inferior to more noble subjects. This business of the hierarchy of the genres is a hobby-horse of Miedema’s which I think he rides too often. Surely one can worship the heroes of art without disdaining its workaday practitioners. But few have earned the right to ride their hobby-horses as often as they like. Heigh-ho, Hessel!
Karel van Mander, The lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, vols. 1-5 (to be completed with vol. 6 [came out in 1999]), is published by DAVACO in Doornspijk.
© Gary Schwartz 1998/2019. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad, 31 October&2 November 1998. Published on the Schwartzlist on 18 April 2019.
Two corrections, which I am afraid pull the rug out from under some of what I wrote, must be made to the above: the section on Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom in the Miedema edition of van Mander’s Lives was written not by Hessel Miedema himself but by Rob Ruurs (1949-2011). And I feel that I accepted too readily his claim that Vroom’s battles at sea were the first of their kind. Pieter Bruegel’s Sea battle in the Bay of Naples from the Galleria Doria Pamphili (included in the great Bruegel exhibition in Vienna, rightly honored as the Exhibition of the Year 2018) should have been credited as the real beginning of the genre, as Bruegel was the initiator of so much else.
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