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Karolien De Clippel, Katharina Van Cauteren and Katlijne Van der Stighelen (eds), The Nude and the Norm in the Early Modern Low Countries (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011). ISBN: 978-2-503-53569-2, 220 pp., €65.00.

Reviewed by Amy Orrock


[1] In 1563 the Council of Trent issued a decree stating that ‘one should avoid all that is lascivious [in art], so that images are not painted or adorned with a beauty that arouses carnal desire’. In the treatises published by clerics following this decree it was evident that lascivious image was generally synonymous for nude image. Central to the production of art for centuries, the nude and its powers of seduction were to become highly problematic in the early modern period. Whilst the infamous Italian example of loincloths being added to the naked figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is well known, this volume considers what happened to nude bodies on display in the North.

[2] This collection of essays would certainly have benefitted from a longer foreword exploring the connections between the contributions and contextualizing them within wider art-historical debates regarding the ‘northern nude’. In an all-too-brief introductory paragraph the editors simply state that they seek to ‘clarify’ the ‘ambiguity’ that made the nude such an appealing and prestigious subject despite resistance from the official moral. Nonetheless, the essays are engaging and the range of methodologies that they adopt serves to highlight from a variety of angles the tension that existed in the period between ethics and aesthetics. Contributors attempt to piece together the realities of studio practice, speculate upon patterns of domestic and devotional display and explore the different standards applied to male and female nudes and ideal and non-ideal bodies. In so doing they outline a myriad of ways in which moral strictures were successfully negotiated in order to preserve both artistic integrity and norms of decency.

[3] The meaning of the book’s three sub-headings is not very clear. The first group, ‘Model & Make-Up’, is the most cohesive; all four essays seem to address the links between artists’ working practices and the creation of life-like nudes. Eric Jan Sluijter’s opening essay is drawn from his recent study on Rembrandt’s nudes and their reception in the Low Countries. He argues that Rembrandt first rejected classical ideals in the early and controversial study of A Nude Woman seated on a Mound (1631) and by the 1650s was routinely working ‘from the life’, producing studies of nudes with unidealized bodies and individualized faces. Erna Kok is similarly concerned with identifying when Northern artists truly began working from live nude models. Kok explores how the biographer’s myth of the erotic relationship between the artist and his model often disguised the realities of seventeenth-century studio practice, where life models were commonly prostitutes and artists were more likely to make use of model books, antiques sculptures, casts and their male assistants in the creation of convincing nudes. Addressing studio aids in more detail, Victoria Sancho Lobis considers how printed drawing books were used for artistic training, concluding that students learned by copying detailed fragments of bodies that were male and frequently écorché. Fleshing out or ‘colouring in’ these outlines is the subject of Paul Taylor’s essay. Taking as its starting point the critique of ‘unnatural flesh’ in portraits by Rembrandt and Rubens found in Gérard de Lairesse’s Groot Schilderboek, Taylor explores the dilemmas faced by artists wishing to create convincing flesh tones.

[4] Grouped under the sub-heading ‘Matrix’, the essays in the second section consider the reception of the nude within a wider cultural milieu. Hubert Meeus examines images in parallel with the theatre, reflecting on the shared problems of staging narratives involving nude figures with decorum, from Adam and Eve to Andromeda and Dido. Meeus concludes that in reality there was probably very little nudity on the early modern stage and speculates upon whether images may have functioned as dumb scenes (‘vertoning’) within certain plays. Johan Verberckmoes’ exploration of jests about nudity demonstrates how the norms of a society can often be determined by its transgressions. He argues that seventeenth-century jokes about exposed breasts and buttocks were grounded in the Christian notion of the shameful naked body and attained their humour by reversing civilized norms. Ralph Dekoninck’s essay focuses on Post-Tridentine religious literature, specifically the reaction of the Leuven theologian Johannes Molanus, who voiced a concern over pictures that might ‘provoke some to lust’. Tracing the roots of the link between lust and art, Dekoninck argues that the real issue in the sixteenth century was artistic innovations, with the moralists opposing precisely the kind of excessive virtuosity that artists were striving to achieve.

[5] There can be no doubt that official dogma did impact upon the display of art in the early modern home, as demonstrated by Veerle De Laet’s fascinating study of two hundred probate inventories and the descriptions of nude paintings within them. Comparing household inventories from the court city of Brussels and the mercantile hub of Antwerp, De Laet finds a marked difference in the appetite for and display of paintings containing nudes. More fundamentally, De Laet’s conclusions serve to contextualize the entire volume of essays by revealing that the number of nudes found in galleries and auction houses today belies their marginal nature: within her sample, nude subjects accounted for just 3% of the total pictures inventoried.

[6] The essays in the final section, titled ‘Measure’, are all firmly grounded in the history of the Low Countries. Taking two early seventeenth-century Diana paintings by Hendrick de Clerck, Katharina Van Cauteren argues against the traditional reading of the Diana subject as titillating and erotic. Instead, Van Cauteren discusses architectural details in the landscape settings that connect the nude goddesses to the Archdukes, Albert and Isabella. This suggests that they were the likely patrons of the painting and that Isabella specifically wished to be identified as chaste and good; a new Diana, triumphing over lasciviousness. Fiona Healy’s essay approaches the subject of male nudity in Netherlandish painting with a broad brush and finds many aspects worthy of further scholarly pursuit. Dealing primarily with the sixteenth century, Healy considers the clear distinctions between what was considered decorous when depicting a male and a female nude, and repeats the point found in many of the other contributions: that Biblical narratives were often the safest way for artists to respectably clothe the nude.

[7] With his Counter-Reformation sympathies and love of fleshy nudes, it would be impossible to ignore Rubens within this collection; he is the subject of two of the final essays. Marie Geraerts takes a close look at Rubens’ Feast of Venus (c.1637), which depicts no fewer than fifty-five nude and partially dressed figures. Informed by a re-reading of the classical sources and the modern aids of X-radiographs and infrared reflectogram, Geraerts proposes a more sensual reading of this late work. Finally, Karolien De Clippel’s essay neatly draws together many of the themes of the volume by considering the ways in which Rubens’ nudes may have been altered during the period. Marshaling evidence from documents, oil sketches and finished paintings, De Clippel concludes that some of the nude figures in Rubens’ altarpieces appear to have had clothing added and draperies enhanced, and may even have been physically curtained-off during the early modern period. However, these concessions to modesty are balanced by examples of Rubens’ robust resistance to moral critics, with the artist openly defending the artistic value of nudity in his work to Cardinals and publishers and, on occasion, winning. This diverse collection of essays demonstrates the value of investigating a large topic (the nude) at a specific cultural moment. The findings serve to enrich our understanding of the ‘northern nude’, and will inform and entertain all scholars of the early modern period.

November, 2014