Susan Koslow, contributor to the

Atlas of World Art, ed. John Onians,

London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2004

Oxford University Press

Part V: Art Exploitation and Display 1500—1800


The South Netherlands 1500—1800, pp. 168—169, bibliography, 319.


For a critical review of the Atlas, see Larry Silver, The Art Bulletin, LXXXXVI, no. 4 (2004), 783—86.

Following, is a more extensive account that was the basis for the Atlas text.

Antwerp became the foremost art capital outside Italy in the early sixteenth century, manufacturing and distributing a variety of  high quality art products, in quantity, for local and foreign markets. Antwerp’s meteorotic rise is mirrored in its phenomenal growth. In 1500, the city counted about 40,000 inhabitants; by 1560 the population had grown to 100,000, making it one of Europe’s largest cities, and the most cosmopolitan. With the establishment of the Portuguese spice staple (warehouse) at Antwerp in 1501, merchants from Spain,  England, Italy, and Germany quickly took up residence there, making it the pivot of European and global trade networks. Thanks to preexisting regional circumstances—the Netherlands was already an illustrious art center and sales policies in Antwerp were exceptionally liberal—the art trade benifited from the extraordinary fiscal innovations and commercial conditions rapidly taking shape there. Moreover, as a unit within the great Habsburg Empire—its independence from the Holy Roman Empire was effected by Charles V in 1548/49—the Netherlands profited from its integration in that vast agglomeration: clients throughout the Habsburg lands bought art from the Netherlands and rare materials and items were marketed in the Flemish city via the same networks. For instance, ivory was imported from Africa, tortoise shell from the West Indies via Lisbon and Cadiz or from the East Indies through Amsterdam; the Portuguese transported diamonds from India, while indigo plants from Guatemala and the insect cochineal, used to make red dye, arrived from Spanish-American lands. These dyestuffs were employed in Antwerp’s important dyeing industry, which was still active in the 18th century. Ebony for the manufacture of luxury furniture, specifically art cabinets, was imported from the island of Santo Domingo in the West Indies via Cadiz and Bilboa or from the East Indies through Amsterdam. This costly furnishing, an Antwerp specialty, appeared on the market around 1620. Coveted by princes, nobility and very wealthy commoners for storing precious objects, the cabinets drawers and shutters were embellished with ivory, tortoise shell, marble veneer or paintings on copper. A considerable number of art cabinets were sold in Cadiz, Lisbon and Seville; others went to Paris and to the Dutch Republic.

Although art continued to be commissioned in the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century, a new phenomenon occurred in the period’s early years, the mass manufacture of art as a luxury commodity. Produced in large quasi-industrial workshops, purchased on spec by merchants, transported abroad along distribution networks established for other wares, south Netherlandish art found eager consumers throughout Europe and globally. These phenomena occurred in tandem with a rapid upswing in population. Ever since the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Europe’s population had been depressed, but around 1500 it shot upwards. Besides supplying ample labor, population growth expanded the consumer base for art well beyond the households of princes and nobility. Wealthy commoners, including government officials, bankers,  merchants, and successful artisans and retailers supported a broader market for art than had ever previously existed. With capital to spend, the quality products of the southern Netherlands were eagerly sought to furnish private residences and public institutions. While money supplied the means for acquisition, desire drove demand. Art, in all its manifestations, was regarded as a status symbol, and it was status that the upwardly mobile craved; the great, in turn, made patent their supremacy, by fashioning a world of inimitable magnificence, covering the walls of their palatial premises with tapestries of south Netherlandish manufacture and embellishing their sideboards and tables with exquisite rarities and sumptuous plate retailed by Antwerp merchants. Besides art for domestic consumption, the intense religiosity of the sixteenth century fueled a great demand for devotional imagery, ceremonial objects, church furnishings, such as choirscreens, altars, tomb monuments and so forth. Centers in the southern Netherlands catered to these needs, producing  ample quantities for export and local use. Finally, the diffusion of humanism in the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century stimulated demand as well as affecting  the subject matter and form of art.

Antwerp led in creating institutions for the exhibition and sale of art as well as in the professionalization of art dealing. As early as 1460, the Cathedral of Our Lady had an art showroom. It was superseded by modern facilities at the Beurs, the very first Stock Exchange. In 1544, thirteen years after its doors opened, no less than 100 stalls were reserved for art.  Another Antwerp venue was an open-air market held on Fridays, where second-hand goods, including pictures, were available. Tapestry was also a major export; to facilitate sales, an exhibition hall was erected in 1551-52 for the display of tapestries and their cartoons. In the first half of the sixteenth century, art was exported by merchants who had no particular expertise in their wares; however, by the second half of the century this situation changed. Merchants and other dealers with expert knowledge appeared, as a variety of documents attest, including the register of the Antwerp guild of St Luke guild. Further specialization is indicated by dealers whose stock consisted exclusively of paintings in the 17th century. Not all art was sold by retailers, however; painters, such as Rubens, controlled their sales.

Among the most important art exports in the first half of the sixteenth century were various types of sculpted pieces, most importantly large oak altarpieces mass produced through the 1530s, in the Brabant cities of Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen. Painted shutters closed over compartmentalized interiors, designed like stages peopled by multitudes of small statues. The appeal of these shrines was indeed extensive, with customers in the Baltic region, Scandanavia (Denmark, Sweden, Norway), Poland, and in Spain and Portugal. The same Brabantine cities produced another prized product, polychromed oak statuettes of the baby Jesus and Mary, known as “beeldjes” or “poupées”; the patent sweet charm of these doll-like pieces aroused nurturant sentiments, especially among women. Perhaps it was for this reason that Magellan offered a Jesus figure to a Philippine princess, in 1521. The extensive availability of oak and walnut in Brabant and in the Ardennes supported these art manufactures, but a third type of religious sculpture depended on alabaster, an import from  Nottingham, England. Workshops centered in Mechelen, but also located in Antwerp and Brusssels, turned out quantities of small alabaster devotional images. These consisted of an unpainted relief inserted into a classicizing frame. A German market existed for these pieces, but many remained in the Netherlands. Alabaster reliefs and statues were also used in Netherlandish choirscreens, their pale beige hue contrasting dramatically with black touchstone architectural elements. Touchstone (pierre de touche or toetssteen), a type of black marble, was quarried along the Maas River, in Namur, and in the principality of Liège, in Dinant. In the seventeenth century, the southern Netherlands ceased being a center for the production of anonymous mass-produced sculpture for export; rather, sculptors of the first-rank were active at home and abroad. François Duquesnoy’s successful career was passed in Rome, where he trained his brother Jerome and Artus Quellinus I. When these men returned to the southern Netherlands, they carried with them the monumental classicist manner fashionable at that time in Rome. In 1650, Quellinus transmitted this new style to Amsterdam, where he spent more than decade, designing and supervising the sculptural decoration of that city’s monumental new Town Hall.

Flemish paintings were extremely desirable outside the Netherlands throughout the fifteenth century. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the sixteenth century their export continued. The difference, however, was that mass production by anonymous masters became the rule. In this respect, painting paralleled the trend in sculpture. South Netherlandish pictures were  available extensively in Europe, with Italy and the Iberian peninsula receiving the greatest number of works. It has been estimated that 30% of the paintings in Florence, Genoa, and Venice originated in the southern Netherlands. Landscape was favored above all by Italians in the 16th century. As early as 1521, Flemish landscapes were noted in Venice, and in 1525, in Verona. Ten years later, 300 were offered for sale to the duke of Mantua, who selected 120, including twenty fiery scenes, in the manner of Bosch. Vasari’s remark, in 1547, that “all cobblers have such pictures,” suggests that the Flemish landscape even reached Italians of modest means. In the Iberian peninsula, devotional themes were preferred. Many of these were inexpensive water-color paintings on linen, originating from Mechelen, where about 150 shops were active around 1550. Paintings on copper were an important export as well, once the technique, which had originated in 16th century Italy, became widespread in the Netherlands by the early 17th century. Copper, mined in eastern Europe, the Alps and the Tirol, was transported to the southern Netherlands via Hamburg. Quantities of paintings on copper were shipped to Seville and then exported to New Spain and the West Indies. One estimate for the overall shipment overseas to Spanish possessions in the 17th century is 24,000 pictures. Madrid and Cadiz were ports of entry for pictures from the southern Netherlands, in addition to Seville. England was another market. In the 1540s, 25 shipments of paintings were sent in two years; however, prohibitions against religious art in the second half of the century cut back significantly on imports. But with the rise to prominence of courtiers conversant with continental trends in the seventeenth century, England once again became an important outlet for south Netherlandish art, especially by leading masters, such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Snyders. Portraiture, history subjects, allegories, mythologies, hunts,  and still life were preferred; religious themes based on the New Testament were problematic, given the anti-Catholic sentiments of the nation. France, the Dutch Republic, and German-speaking lands were also significant importers of south Netherlandish paintings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Flemish artists and dealers resident in Paris in the seventh century assessed taste there and instructed correspondents accordingly in Antwerp. The annual fair held at St Germain also presented an important outlet for the sale of Flemish pictures and art manufactures; courtiers and even the king visited its stalls. 

In the second half of the sixteenth century, prints were exported in quantity from Antwerp, once print publishers established shops there around 1550. At first, reproductions of Italian art were offered for sale, but by 1556 engravings of landscape and genre designed by Netherlandish artists predominated, thanks to the publisher Hieronymus Cock, who recognized their marketability. In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of Antwerp art businesses, Cock organized his firm to produce quality merchandise in quantity, hiring expert engravers. The plentiful supply of copper at this time made the the transition from woodcut to engraving possible. The tradition of superior craftsmanship cultivated in Cock’s shop continued in the following century, allowing Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens to have fine prints made after their pictures. In addition to “art” engravings, inexpensive devotional prints were mass produced, as a shipment in 1651 of more than a 100,000 proves. The ultimate destination for many of these prints was Spain’s colonies in the Americas.

Shortly after Cock opened his print shop, the Frenchman Christopher Plantin established a press in Antwerp, in 1555. In little more than ten years, it was one of the world’s largest publishing houses, thanks to exclusive rights to produce and sell religious texts in Spain and its colonies. In the seventeenth century, the press remained active under the direction of Plantin’s son-in-law. Rubens became involved in the production of books for the firm, supplying designs for frontispieces. The innovative formats Rubens devised became exemplary in the course of the 17th century.

Export of prints and books from Antwerp had an extensive range; in Europe, besides the Iberian peninsula they were sold in Germany, The Netherlands, and France; globally they were available in Persia, India and Asia generally, including China.

Of all art manufactures, tapestry was the most costly and desirable since it was a recognized token of magnificence, a quality the great cultivated. The industry was long established in the southern Netherlands; indeed, the Italian term for tapestry, arrazzo, derives from the Artois town Arras, the first center for tapestry production. In the sixteenth century, major workshops existed in five cities: Brussels, Enghien (Edingen), Antwerp, Oudenaarde, and Tournai (Doornik). The last-named ceased to be important after 1550. The others, however, remained active until the 17th or, in one instance, into the 18th century. Workshops specialized in specific subjects but there was overlap, too. Enghien (Edingen), for instance, was known for heraldic pieces and verdures (landscapes) but verdures were also a specialty of Oudenaarde. Brussels’ international reputation was established early in the 16th century, when Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel series The Acts of the Apostles were sent there in 1517 for weaving. The city’s importance did not diminish in the 17th century,  when nine firms with 600 employees were counted in 1613. Both Rubens and Jordaens turned to Brussels’ shops for the weaving of important commissions, such as the splendid counter-reformation Triumph of the Eucharist series,  designed by Rubens for the Archduchess Isabella. Oudenaarde’s shops employed even more weavers, according to a petition filed by that city in 1625, which claimed the improbably high number of 25,000. Much of Oudenaarde’s manufacture was sent to Antwerp for export. Dealers purchased stock there to vend throughout Europe. London was the main destination in England, Paris and Lyon in France, while in Germanic lands, tapestries went to Cologne, Vienna and Prague. Italy remained one of the primary consumers of south Netherlandish tapestries, which were transported overland to Bologna, Genoa, Mantua, Milan, Naples, Rome, and Venice. Tapestries were also sold in The Hague and Amsterdam despite the Dutch Republic’s continuing hostilities with the southern Netherlands. The Iberian peninsula was a significant market as well, which is not surprising, considering its political ties to the southern Netherlands. Although tapestry manufacture was centered in the southern Netherlands, the raw materials for their production were imported. Spain and England supplied wool while silk thread was sent from Italy.

Flemish weavers were so highly regarded that foreign rulers lured them away. In 1601, Henri IV brought several to Paris; eventually their shop evolved into the famed royal enterprise, the Gobelins manufactory. Likewise, weavers induced to settle in England established the Mortlake shop in 1619 under royal patronage. Although Bavaria never set up a permanent tapestry center, the duke of Baviaria imported an entire shop from the southern Netherlands to produce tapestries for the Munich court between 1604 and 1615. A later example is the tapestry manufactory established by the Barberini family in Rome, in 1627.

In some cases, resettlement was undertaken for religious reasons. For instance, the Spiering family of Antwerp moved to Delft in the later 1580s. Its shop became famous for its superb weavings, which were destined for princely customers. Karel van Mander, the painter-theorist, was intimately involved with the shop, providing drawings for Spiering. Gouda was another Dutch city noted for attracting Flemish weavers. Thus an art perfected in the southern Netherlands expanded far beyond its regional boundaries, generating satellite centers throughout Europe.

Two types of manufacture positioned on the borderline between fine art and utilitarian craft, weaponry and scientific instruments, were also specialties of the southern Netherlands. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, armaments were produced in Liège,  a political entity independent of the southern Netherlands, yet linked to it by ecclesiastical ties.The arms industry depended on raw materials available locally: coal mined in the vicinity of  Liège and iron-ore deposits found nearby in the Ardennes. Moreover blacksmithry was cultivated in Liège as early as the 14th century. The city was famous for the manufacture of small arms and body armor, sold equally to the warring armies of Spain and the United Provinces in the 17th century.

The Coignet (Quingnet) family of Antwerp dominated the fabrication of scientific instrumentation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this family designed and manufactured various astronomical devices, including armilary spheres, navigational instruments, such as astrolabes, surveyors’ tools, and even devices for gauging wine. Books accompanied the instruments to explain their use and and associated theoretical principles. The Coignets were well-known outside the southern Netherlands, not only for their products but also for their erudition in mathematics and physics. Michael Coignet, for instance, corresponded with Galileo as early as 1588. Coignet’s exceptional standing was recognized by the archdukes who titled him court “cosmographe,” in 1604, and bestowed gifts of his instruments on visiting dignitaries.

Luxury furnishings were a specialty of the southern Netherlands, as noted earlier in connection with ebony art cabinets. Related products are musical instruments and cordwain. By the 1540s, instrument production was established in Antwerp, as indicated by the shipment of 140 lutes to England between 1543 and 1545 and the export of spinets and harpischords to the Iberian peninsula in the 1540s and 1550s. The growth of this industry and the need to regulate it is evidenced by its incorporation in the St Luke guild in 1559. Antwerp’s most famous keyboard shop, established by Hans Ruckers in 1575,  remained active until the middle of the 17th century.

Cordwain, that is embossed leather wall hangings, embellished with paint or even gold, was manufactured in various south Netherlandish cities, including Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent. Mechelen, however, was the most important center for this product, where it is mentioned as early in 1504. Production continued there until its cessation in the second half of the 18th century. Originating in north Africa before the 13th century, cordwain spread to Spain and from there to Flanders. Various leathers were used in its manufacture—goatskin, sheepskin and calfhide. Havana was an exporter of leather for this product.

In the seventeenth century, Antwerp was recognized as an emporium for luxury  fashions and fancy fabrics and jewelry. Dressmakers, tailors, glovers, hatters, hosiers and shoemakers supplied attire for local use and export. Decorative embellishments, such as lace and lace trimmings and ribbons and galloons (embroidered trimmings) were also made in Antwerp. But Brussels, too, was famous for lace, particularly at courts in the 18th century. Lace was exported to the Iberian peninsula in the 17th and 18th centuries (Madrid, Seville, Lisbon, Cadiz) and to Rome, Paris, Austria and Russia. While fine linen was woven in Antwerp, Coutrai (Koortrijk) was famous for its refined damask linen. As for jewels, specialists in diamond cutting were well-established in Antwerp in the sixteenth century; the craft still flourished in the seventeenth century, when 164 craftsmen were counted in 1618. Diamonds cut in Antwerp were sold in Rome, Vienna, Cologne, Frankfurt, and London. A related craft, pearl drilling, was also a thriving trade in Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Pierced pearls were used in jewels, for embellishing garments, and for necklaces and bracelets.

Plentiful and diverse materials for construction existed in the southern Netherlands, insuring abundant supplies for residential, civic, and religious structures. Timber came from the forests around Brussels and in the Ardennes, while stone was quarried in various provinces. Luxemburg had sandstone, as did Brabant, in the Brussels region. Whitestone, too, was excavated in Brabant, but it also came from East Flanders. Tournai, in Hainaut, was a significant source for limestone and also for a distinctive type of blue-black marble; Basècles, near Tournai, was also known for this marble. In addition, Basècles had bluestone quarries. This important material was mined at sites throughout Hainaut, including Ecaussines and Arquennes. The latter was situated near Mariemont, a country estate built by the archdukes. Of all the stones available in the southern Netherlands, marble was the most sumptuous and costly. Hainaut marble was very desirable and ranged in color from red, which was quarried at Rance, to a white-flecked brownish ochre; the latter was used in St. Peter’s, Rome. Namur was also one of the chief sources of marble, much of it red, brown, and blue, oftentimes with white flecks or veins. Pure black marble, touchstone, was mined in Namur and Dinant. Marble was used for furnishings rather than construction, as, for instance, at Tournai Cathedral where the splendid choir screen (1572—74) is fashioned in Rance marble and touchstone with stucco and alabaster decorations. In addition to stone, construction depended on brick, which was ubiquitous. Bricks were manufactured in many locales; to mention two, Rupelmond, on the bank of the Scheldt opposite Antwerp and Avesne in Hainaut.

The southern Netherlands was architecturally conservative when considered in the long view; even as late as the second half of the seventeenth century gothic vaulting techniques were still in use in ecclesiatical architecture as was the vertical aesthetic of gothic. A full acceptance of fashionable rococo and monumental French classicism would have to await the later 18th century.

That is not to say that the southern Netherlands lacks architectural interest in the period 1500—1800. In fact, Antwerp was in the forefront of civic building in the sixteenth century. The new Town Hall (1561-1565) reflected the magnitude of the city’s commercial success in its palatial grandeur and fashionable Italianisms; in this regard it foreshadowed the Town Hall of Amsterdam, built about 100 years later, when Dutch commercial dominance was a universally acknowledged fact. But the Beurs, constructed in 1531-1533, was truly original; as the first stock exchange, its design became archetypal. Thus, when the English merchant Sir Thomas Gresham decided to build an exchange in London (1566-1569), he modeled the structure on Antwerp’s; to insure exact likeness, Gresham hired an architect, bricklayers, and artisans from Antwerp to work in London and imported wainscotting, glass, and sculpture, too. Only stone and timber were English; these came from Gresham’s estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. Other civic structures in Antwerp that deserve mention are the Hessenhuis (1564—1569) and the tapestry showroom, a building noteworthy for facilitating the sale of one the city’s most lucrative commodities, but not for its architectural design, which was purely functional. The monumental Hessenhuis, constructed by north German merchants, the “Easterlings,” with well over 100 offices and a warehouse lost its exclusive connection with the Germans when they moved operations elsewhere. Merchants of other nations took it over for storage and to house carts to transport goods. It was also used as a barracks.

In the sixteenth century, in the southern Netherlands, the most remarkable buildings were civic; however, in the following century, religious architecture becomes more noteworthy. This change corresponds to historical circumstances; initially, commercial issues were paramount in the 16th century but with the decline of Antwerp’s economic leadership and the emergence of a counter-reformation culture in the post-tridentine church, religious architecture takes center stage acquiring a formidable propagandistic function. Once the Spanish Habsburgs captured Antwerp (1585), the archdukes gained sovereignty (1599), and the 12 Years Truce was signed in 1609, the church assumed an altogether new importance. Considerable monies were expended on new structures, the reconstruction of damaged buildings and the provision of contemporary décor. Antwerp gives some measure of the intensity of construction undertaken in this period: between 1607 and 1682,  no less than seventeen cloisters were founded, ten between 1607 and 1621.

The archdukes Albert and Isabella along with the Jesuits were instrumental in introducing the proto-baroque architecture of late-16th century Italy to the southern Netherlands. Besides providing extensive financial support, the archdukes entrusted Netherlanders trained in Italy with significant commissions. Wenzel Coeberger, because of his familiarity with contemproary Roman trends was commissioned to design the Brussels Church of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns (1607-1611); essentially, he replicated the façade of the Gèsu. Now demolished, the Carmelite church was the first example of the Jesuit style in the southern Netherlands. An even more important archducal undertaking, the pilgrimage church of Scherpenheuvel (foundation stone laid in 1609), located in northern Brabant, likewise imitated the façade of the Gèsu. The archdukes cultivated pilgrimages in keeping with post-Tridentine practices and their own devotional inclinations. Although endowing the venerable pilgrimage sites at Halle and Laeken with various gifts and improvements, they did not refashion them in an Italianate manner, preferring to maintain their old-fashioned aspect. Scherpenheuvel, on the other hand, an entirely new devotional complex, was designed specifically to show the triumph of the Counter-Reformation, whose Jesuit-style façade was affixed  to a domical structure whose true antecedent was the Pantheon, that marvel of ancient Rome.

Although the archdukes introduced the Jesuit style to the southern Netherlands, the Jesuit order itself diffused it  regionally, although with considerable variations. Antwerp’s Jesuit church (1615-1621) is the most noteworthy instance. Its lavishly ornamented facade and rare white Ligurian marble for the interior columns and walls cost the architect his position because of excessive expenditures. Still, the church was an audacious statement of Catholicism’s renewal in the southern Netherlands; moreover, it gave Antwerp an aura of Roman religious triumphalism, reassuring the devout of their faith’s vitality while on the other hand impressing visitors of the permanency of the Roman Church in the Habsburg Netherlands.

Refurbishing churches was a top priority of the archdukes on account of the devastating loses in the sixteenth century. Liturgical objects, vestments, reliquaries, sculpture, choirscreens, windows—the list is seemingly endless—had to be supplied to old and new religious establishments, and of course, altarpieces. Until the late 1630s, a flood of altarpieces emanated from the studios of Antwerp painters, all infused with the persuasive emotive rhetoric of the Counter-Reformation. The output of Rubens’s studio gives some measure of this superabundance: 60 altarpieces have been counted in the second decade of the century. This massive production could only be achieved through a shop organization that in some respects recalls sixteenth-century quasi-industrial manufacturing techniques.


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