Painting and Politics in Northern Europe: Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rubens, and Their Contemporaries

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Painting and Politics in Northern Europe offers a chronological account of political engagement in works by the early modern Northern European painters Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, and Frans Snyders. Offering fresh interpretations of canonical paintings, Margaret Carroll illustrates how these artists registered their pictorial responses to the political events and debates of their day. The imagery of gender and power was often intertwined with these debates. Considering a range of works, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, and Rubens’s Life of Marie de Médicis series, Carroll examines the ways in which these Netherlandish painters seized on that imagery and creatively transformed it into the materials of art.

The narrative follows the way painters responded to the emergence of “modern” theories of politics and natural law from the classical and medieval tradition. Carroll begins by addressing paintings that identify the natural order with consensual social relations in a stable political hierarchy, then turns to paintings that stress the struggle for mastery in a perilous and unstable world. These paintings may be valued not merely as historical artifacts of a bygone era but as interventions in a cultural discourse that continues to this day.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The author’s erudition, lucid writing, and meticulous research make these essays on the themes of marriage, politics, social harmony, and discord excellent reading for undergraduates as well as researchers.”
—A. Golahny, Choice

“In this compelling study, Margaret D. Carroll explores how shifting political and cultural climates, in part the result of longstanding foreign domination, fueled an extraordinary flourish of pictorial invention in the early modern Lowlands. Through six carefully chosen case studies, the author investigates how certain seminal works of Netherlandish art inventively register contemporary responses to local, political discourse. While Carroll casts her sociohistorical net broadly, a focused discursive thread drives the choice and chronological arrangement of her case studies and her broader ideological concerns. She argues that a fundamental philosophical progression in the Brabant—from an ethos of relative social cooperation based in accelerating capitalist interests in the Burgundian Netherlands to one of social strain and conquest wrought by rising demands of absolutist courts in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—stimulated local artistic innovation in very pointed ways.”
—Catherine H. Lusheck, Renaissance Quarterly

“This is an important book that deserves to be listened to, debated, and absorbed into the discourse of this field.”
—Elizabeth Honig, University of California, Berkeley

“With her superb individual studies and her searching investigations into questions of historical belief-systems and their transformations over time, Carroll’s important, clearly written book makes an impressive contribution to contextual art history and the history of ideas. It is certain to stimulate scholars, and likely to engage non-specialists and students who have an interest in this volatile, fascinating extended period and region.”
—Dan Ewing, CAA Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271029559
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 12.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret D. Carroll is Professor of Art History at Wellesley College. Her publications include numerous articles on Van Eyck, Rembrandt, and Rubens, as well as the essay ‚ "Accidents Will Happen: A New Look at the Nightwatch‚" in Rethinking Rembrandt (2002).

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations



1.. The Merchant’s Mirror: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

2. Breaking Bonds: Marriage and Community in Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs and Carnival and Lent

3. The Conceits of Empire: Bruegel’s Ice-Skating Outside St. George’s Gate in Antwerp and Tower of Babel

4. The Erotics of Absolutism: Rubens and the Mystification of Sexual Violence

5. “Womanliness as a Masquerade”: The Case of Marie de Médicis

6. The Nature of Violence: Animal Combat in the Seventeenth Century




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