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The National Gallery, London has always been renowned for thorough catalogues of its great paintings, and the quality and quantity of coverage of the collection have grown over the years. Particularly for the collection of Netherlandish pictures, highlighted by Jan van Eyck, the trajectory has run from the inexpensively produced (unillustrated!) but definitive paperback by Martin Davies (1955) to the new, lavishly illustrated systematic catalogue by Lorne Campbell (Fifteenth Century, 1998; Sixteenth Century in press), replete with probing technical investigations by the Gallery’s illustrious conservation staff. The general public, however, have never been neglected: very good and affordable surveys, starting with Giotto to Dürer (1991), have introduced these masterworks with full consideration of their production, purposes, and principal subjects.
Now a new, slender but focused volume, timed to coincide with the 2011 major NG exhibition, Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance, provides a welcome addition for the aficionado. Slender but not slight. Written in accessible prose but informed with the latest scholarship (including the forthcoming Campbell entries on later pictures), Susan Jones presents the finest 50 works of this prime collection in portable and affordable compass. Discussions appear on facing pages with clear, large, generous reproductions, all in colour. While confined to a page, Jones’ entries usually address all basic questions of content and details. A brief glossary and suggestions for further reading instruct but do not intimidate, in keeping with the overall tone of the volume. Jones achieves a delicate balance of providing authoritative background and information without talking down to her readers.
Extremely valuable as an introduction is Jones’ essay, which provides the same virtues as Giotto to Dürer, but with an exclusively Netherlandish focus. She begins with discussion of techniques, including both close details of NG works as well as comparable pictures. Then she lays out the varied functions of these paintings: devotional panels, altarpieces, and portraits. Artistic virtuosity and signatures emerged in this period, especially beginning with Van Eyck, as did the copying of celebrated showpieces and representation of the nude. Such self-consciousness of painters is complemented by the author’s consideration of their consumers, both discerning patrons and anonymous buyers in an emerging open art market.
Only one comparable introduction exists: The Flemish Primitives (Princeton, 2002), by distinguished Bruges curator, Dirk de Vos; however, that handsome volume discusses many fewer pictures and does not extend beyond the fifteenth century, though it does encompass multiple museum collections. Jones’ overview remains confined to the National Gallery, but that gives it the additional benefit of providing an actual guidebook on site as well as a more permanent reference resource. Despite the title, which seems to stop with Gossaert, the text extends up to Beuckelaer and Bruegel in the mid-sixteenth century. All lovers of the National Gallery collections should look for this volume and what one hopes will be its complements in future.
This book is published by National Gallery, 2011. 144pp., 77 colour illus. ISBN 978-1-85709-505-0 (hardback); 978-1-85709-504-3 (paperback)