Masters of Mobility


1.2 Numbers of Artists on the Move

The fact that Gerson, in his study on Dutch art and artists in an international context, devoted most pages – about a quarter of the book – to the region the German lands, the Archduchy of Austria, and Bohemia, seems to suggest that this region was the most popular destination for Dutch artists. Whether this assumption is true or false, can easily be verified with the help of RKDartists&, as we will see below.

But Gerson’s study elicits yet more questions. As he writes specifically on Dutch art and artists, one starts to wonder if there is a difference in the way Flemish artists spread over the rest of the world. Did artists from the Southern Netherlands travel as much as artists from the Northern Netherlands? Did they move in the same directions and for the same reasons? This seems rather unlikely, given the local differences in historical events and religion. Much attention has been paid to the emigration waves from the Southern Netherlands in the 16th century and the migrating artists that were part of the exodus.1 Nevertheless, in most recent studies concerning transnational aspects of art and artists from the Low Countries in the early modern period, the Northern and Southern Netherlands are dealt with as a unity, even though this is factually incorrect after 1585. It seems worthwhile to have a closer look at the distinctions in their mobility.2

Furthermore, it is commonly assumed that artists from the Low Countries, both of the Northern and Southern countries, travelled abroad more than artists from any other country. In his biography on Jan Soens (1547/48-1611), Karel van Mander made a remark of this nature, stating that artists from the Low Countries, ‘above all others in the world, are inclined to travel, and to visit foreign lands and peoples’.3 This quote was the point of departure of the publication Art and Migration of 2014 and used as the epigraph of the introductory article by Frits Scholten and Joanna Woodall.4 To support their assumption, they referred to a small but remarkable publication in Dutch of 1986 with the title (in translation) Culture and number: aspects of the relation economy-society-culture in Europe 1400-1800.5 The publication contains statistics on artists, based on sampling data from the c. 150,000 artists of all nations in the lexicon edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker that appeared in 37 volumes between 1907 and 1950 in Leipzig [6].6 The samples – 26,529 artists in total – were obtained from one out of three volumes, by history students at Ghent University under the direction of Wilfrid Brulez (born 1927), thus creating a database avant la lettre.7 Despite the fact that Brulez’s work dates from 1986, it is still useful to compare his outcomes with results retrieved from RKDartists&: until now, his publication is the only one containing observations on the mobility of artists which are based on statistics.

According to Brulez’ numbers, Netherlandish (i.e. Dutch and Flemish) artists undertook the most international journeys (28.8%), followed by the German (20.5%) and French artists (15.7%).8 However, this relatively high amount of international trips of Netherlandish artists was partly due to the fact that the mobility between the Northern and the Southern Netherlands was counted as international mobility as well, even in the 15th and 16th centuries, which is debatable, as Brulez explained in a note.9

A quantitative inquiry in RKDartists& presents a more transparent picture [7].10 First of all, I only selected artists who migrated outside both the Northern and the Southern Netherlands until 1800, for which I had to use the modern topography of the Netherlands and Belgium.11 I excluded migration between the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. According to the data in RKDartists&, the percentage of Netherlandish artists – both from the Northern and from the Southern Netherlands – who migrated or travelled outside the Low Countries is 22.11%. But if we distinguish between mobility of artists from the Northern and from Southern Netherlands, it appears only 18.19% of the Northern Netherlandish artists migrated outside the Low Countries, against 30.65% of the Southern Netherlandish artists. In particular when we take into account that they migrated more often to the Northern Netherlands than the other way around, it is clear that the Southern Netherlandish artists migrated far more than their colleagues in the Northern Netherlands. The illustrated tables of Netherlandish artists and their mobility outside the Netherlands until 1800, subdivided in centuries, show that the total number of mobile artists from Southern Netherlandish artists, compared to the ones from the North, was slightly smaller in absolute numbers, but relatively much larger.

Naturally, the rhythms, levels and directions of mobility varied constantly over time and place, due to multiple dynamics. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the amount of mobile artists from the Southern Netherlands is not only higher relatively, but also higher in absolute numbers, even about twice as high. Regarding the international mobility of artists from the Northern Netherlands it is clear that it peaked in the 17th century.12

In summary, on a macro level, the percentage of internationally migrating artists of the Low Countries until 1800 is lower than previously assumed (and calculated by Brulez), unless we are talking about the Southern Netherlands only. The image of Netherlandish artists as the most adventurous, enterprising and internationally operating flock of people is mainly based on the exceptionally high mobility of artists from the Southern Netherlands. Still, according to RKDartists&, there is one group of artists that travelled abroad as much as the Flemings, or even slightly more: German artists. From the 4,352 German artists active before 1800, 30.95% (1,347) travelled abroad. They definitely travelled abroad much more than artists from the Northern Netherlands. In the chart bar showing a breakdown of the mobility abroad of the two Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy [8], it becomes clear that, except for the Southern Netherlandish, all artists migrated most in the 17th century, with Germany in the lead. The mobility of Flemish artists, in contrast, was strongest in the 16th century.

Scholten and Woodall remarked that migrating artists ‘formed a group of a rather particular kind’ within the migrating population, although rather similar to merchants.13 Naturally, groups of migrants, e.g. sailors, soldiers, tramping journeymen and long-distance transhumance shepherds, are all different, being set in motion for other combinations of reasons. But do the migration rates of artists differ from the average rate of the rest of the migrants? Efforts have been made to quantify ‘cross-community migration’ in early modern Europe by Jan en Leo Lucassen, which led to the conclusion that Europe was much more mobile in this period than had previously been assumed. However, it is difficult to compare the general mobility rates presented in this study [9] to the results derived from RKDartists&, among others because the Lucassens included immigration.14 The trend seems similar, with the highest rates in the 17th century, before this level was to be exceeded in the second half of 19th century.15 This pattern has been described as the ‘two waves of mass migration’ in Van Lottum’s study on migration in the North Sea region.16 The first wave, that is the wave in the 17th century, is explained by Van Lottum as a result of the booming economy and magnetic pull of the Dutch Republic. Obviously, this cannot be the only reason for the similar development over the centuries of the mobility of artists in several European countries, including some that do not belong to the North Sea region. To find out if and to which extent the Dutch Republic in the 17th century was a magnet for artists from other European countries, we have to find out more about the directions of their mobility. So far, I have only verified this for the Germany lands (see § 1.6).






Netherlandish artists and their mobility outside the Netherlands until 1800
Source: RKDartists&, reference date February 2019


Mobility abroad of Dutch, Flemish, German, French and Italian artists until 1800
Source: RKDartists&, reference date February 2019


Total migration rates in Europe 1500-1900
Source: Lucassen/Lucassen 2011


1 Van Roosbroeck 1968, Briels 1976, Briels 1978, Papenbrock 2002, Freist 2011.

2 In RKDartists& it is possible to select these 'schools' seperately; this is for instance not the case in the database Ecartico.

3 Van Mander 1604, fol. 288v.

4 Scholten/Woodall et al. 2014, p. 7.

5 Brulez 1986, p. 41; Scholten/Woodall et al. 2014, p. 9. Brulez’ publication contains statistics on a range of characteristics, such as cultural density, subject matter of paintings and investments on cultural goods. For a (critical) review of Brulez: Bok 1988.

6 Thieme/Becker 1907-1950. The 37 volumes contain 148,180 artists’s biographies and 15,9082 ‘hidden’ biographies (AKL Archive 2008).

7 Brulez 1986, p. 34. As these samples all together are one third of the artists active before 1800, this means Thieme/Becker contains c. 80,000 artists (79,587) born before 1800, and c. 70,000 active between 1800 and 1950). Of these 26.529 artists (41.2% of them are painters), the top-four consists of artists from Germany (21.3%), Italy (21%), France (17.8%) and the Low Countries (15.4%: 8.4% Northern and 7% Southern), which together accounts for three quarters of the biographies in the lexicon. Brulez 1986, p. 35, 41.

8 Ottenheym and De Jonge present an inaccurate picture by quoting Brulez’ numbers on both domestic and foreign migrants as numbers of international migrants (Ottenheym/De Jonge 2013, p. 5). Unfortunately, Brulez does not present numbers of international migrants, but numbers of migrations (an average of 2.3 migration per migrant), which he divides in domestic and international migrations.

9 Brulez 1986, p. 100, note 77.

10 In the field ‘nationality/school’ the user can select ‘North-Netherlandish’ or ‘South-Netherlandish’; these terms are assigned to artists born up to 1775. Artists who were active in both the Northern and the Southern Netherlands, are tagged both. The data from RKDartists& I mention in this article reflect the status between December 2018 and April 2019. As the research is ongoing, the numbers of the statistics can change in years to come. We have do take into consideration that Southern Netherlandish artists, compared to Northern Netherlandish artists, are under-represented in dictionaries of artists as well as in RKDartists&. In the ongoing catching-up process I detected that the discrepancies in the mobility of Dutch and Flemish artists observed in this article are re-enforced.

11 The use of the modern topography of the Netherlands and Belgium is a given, as the databases of the RKD use a generic geographic thesaurus, based on the modern topography. Historical names are used as equivalent terms.

12 This corresponds with the peak of artists active the Northern Netherlands, as is established on the basis of data in Ecartico in 2012. Bakker 2011, p. 238-240.

13 Scholten/Woodall et al. 2014, p. 18.

14 Lucassen/Lucassen 2009, p. 370, table 5; adjusted in Lucassen/Lucassen 2011, p. 304, table 1. Furthermore, they state that they are planning to include figures for tramping artisans in a future version of their data collection (Lucassen/Lucassen 2011, p. 303).

15 Lucassen/Lucassen 2009, p. 350, fig. 1.

16 Van Lottum 2007, p. 160-180. One could also not speak of two waves, but about a ‘dip’ in the 18th century, focussing on explanations for that.

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