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Mutable Matter.

Netherlandish Painters on Values, Uses and Effects of Gold  

Christine Göttler

In early modern inventories, objects of gold and silver were generally assessed by weight, independent of the skills invested in their making, thus occupying what Rebecca Zorach has aptly termed ‘an ambivalent place between money and art’. On the one hand, items of gold and silverware would have been valued for their craftsmanship and the affective qualities their owners attached to them, especially when they were inherited or gifts. On the other hand, through being melted down, they could be reduced to their ‘material’ or ‘monetary’ value and thus enter or re-enter into processes of exchange. Like the actual artefacts their virtual representations in paintings appealed to the desires of their buyers and owners and helped to construct social and cultural identities. In addition, the painted artefacts revealed the artists’ mastery in the art of depicting reflections, which made them equally, or even more, desirable than the expensive objects and materials they imitated. As astutely noted by the Antwerp Jesuit Leonardus Lessius in 1605, the values of paintings – like those of ‘gemstones, rare dogs, falcons’ and ‘Indian birds’ – relied largely or exclusively on their power to shape and elicit their buyers’ affectations and desires.

Taking these observations as a point of departure this project investigates the ways in which Netherlandish painters in the seventeenth century engaged with precious objects and costly materials to draw attention to the processes and effects of their own art. The resurgence of highly skilled crafts, especially silver- and goldsmithing as well as jewellery making, in the Netherlands (especially in Antwerp) in this period makes it a particularly fruitful area of inquiry in regard to these questions. Silversmithing and jewelry production flourished in the early seventeenth century as a consequence of the increased involvement of Antwerp’s Portuguese merchants in the trade in pearls, shells, diamonds, and gemstones. In Antwerp, goldsmiths were organized in their own guild and/or enrolled in the guild of Saint Luke, whose members also included painters, sculptors, glassmakers, embroiderers, enamellers, harpsichord makers, printers, booksellers and sellers of pigments. The affiliation of the ‘painters’ guild’ with the city’s most powerful literary and dramatic society ‘The Gillyflower’ from 1480 onwards confirmed the significant role played by the arts and crafts in the formation of an urban identity that emphasized the use and commodification of new material and technological knowledge. Recent scholarship has stressed the importance of these institutions and societal venues in the generation and circulation of material-based knowledge.

The project draws on a large archive of visual and textual material, including paintings, silverware and other types of luxury goods, contributions to alba amicorum, travel accounts and other ego documents, and art theory, as well as archival sources concerning the interactions between painters and other professional communities. The focus will be on Antwerp, but Haarlem, as the other, competing ‘city of painting’ will be considered, too. Three related areas of inquiry will be investigated. The first concerns the competing social and cultural ambitions of painters and goldsmiths, and, in particular, the ways in which these closely associated professional groups fashioned their artistic identities in regard to the values and properties of the raw materials used for their crafts. Compared to the investments of goldsmiths and jewellers, painting materials, including pigments were relatively inexpensive. The skills that Netherlandish painters from Van Eyck onward had developed in the rendering of surfaces and textures will be discussed in the framework of recent scholarship on secrecy in luxury crafts. The pictorial imitation of shining objects and artefacts (gold and silverware, jewellery, Chinese porcelain and ‘façon de Venise’ glass) catered to the taste of collectors and connoisseurs interested in the imitation and commodification of new artisanal technologies and knowledge. Like artisans, alchemists and craftsmen, painters used the ‘rhetoric of secretiveness’ to draw attention to the knowledge involved in process of painting; this applies in particular to the ‘secret’ of oil-based painting, presented by Karel van Mander as a ‘noble invention’ that brought about a turning point in the history of art.

A second area of research includes the affinities and rivalries between the alchemy of painting and goldsmithing, on the one hand, and the alchemy of gold-making, on the other. Alchemy played an important role in the formation of a theory of Netherlandish art that traced its origins to Jan van Eyck’s investigations of paints and varnishes through experiments in alchemical distillation. Vannoccio Biringuccio had already made a distinction between the ‘splendid effects’ of the ingenious alchemical arts – especially goldsmithing, glassmaking and the distilling of medicines, fragrances and colours – and the destructive consequences of transmutational alchemy, which he called an unnatural art. Karel van Mander, for his part, contrasted the ‘chemistry of gold and silver’ with the alchemy performed in the pursuit of knowledge about nature and the properties of varnishes and paints. In addition, the fashioning and self-fashioning of Netherlandish painters (such as Hendrick Goltzius, Peter Paul Rubens and David Teniers the Younger) as ‘natural philosophers’ in possession of the philosophers’ stone will be investigated. Within this context, specific Antwerp iconographies of sites of material accumulation such as the forge of Vulcan (linked to the Antwerp world of virtuoso craftsmanship) and the alchemist’s workshop will be re-examined.

A third area of investigation concerns the conflicting interpretations of luxury and wealth. The changing flows of New World silver and gold brought about a crisis regarding the values of a material culture based on luxury and ostentation; this was astutely observed by Rubens in his Arch of the Mint designed for the Triumphal Entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the new Spanish governor, into Antwerp in 1634. Dixhoorn has recently pointed to Lodovico Guicciardini’s distinction between ‘true’ wealth, which depended on large-scale circulation of goods, and ‘excessive’ accumulation of riches that led to overindulgence and conspicuous display of splendour. Little research has been done so far on the emphasis laid on the fortunate junction between a thriving economy and the flourishing of the arts in the art theoretical literature around 1600. Moreover, gold also served as an ambiguous metaphor in the formation of artists’ identities. Here, several contributions by artists to alba amicorum will be introduced, which functioned as powerful tools to forge and articulate identities within larger professional networks of experts and friends. Artists discussed in this part include Hendrick Goltzius, who chose as his personal motto ‘Honour over gold’ and referred to the accumulation of riches (through the alchemy of gold and the art of painting) in several of his works; and Peter Paul Rubens who cast gold-depreciating Silenus as his alter ego.

Thanks to its ability to take on multiple forms and reveal its artifice and potential in both solid and liquid states gold is an ‘entangled’ matter that, in the early modern period, was combined with a whole range of objects, artefacts and materials. Like gems and feathers, gold and silver constituted the types of natural riches from the colonies that affected economies, collecting practices, fashion and taste. The proposed project asks about the intertwined histories of painting, (alchemical) gold-making, and goldsmithing; or, in other words, about the ways in which Netherlandish painters engaged with the artifice and artefacts of related craftsmen. It will be argued that encounters with other types of artistry led, on the one hand, to an increase in virtuoso techniques that could be utilized by a variety of artists, artisans and highly skilled craftsmen, and, on the other, to a growing awareness of both the potential and the instability of material riches. The project will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the relationships, affinities and competition between painting and other luxury arts. 

Michèle Seehafer —  PhD

Transformation and Imitation – Aspects of Materiality in the Collection of Frederik III of Denmark


This PhD-Thesis investigates collections assembled during the reign of the Danish king Frederik III (1609–1670, r. 1648–1670). Michèle's research interests include questions on the interrelationship between collecting activities, dynastic ambitions, cross-cultural trade, and aspects of materiality. 

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