Masters of Mobility


2.3 Netherlandish or Dutch (and Flemish)

In treating Dutch art in its international context, Gerson himself was aware of one issue that points to a problem with this sort of national definition, especially as revealed in the treatment of Dutch painting as a national school. Gerson flatly dismissed the idea that Dutch painting could be treated as a kind of German painting, even though not only German nationalists of his time, but a 17th-century source, Joachim van Sandrart, who had trained in Utrecht in the 1620s and worked in Amsterdam for several years during the 1640s. These could deal with the Hoch und nieder Deutschen, meaning Netherlanders together with Germans in his Teutsche Academie.1 But Gerson explicitly recognized that there was a problem in distinguishing between Flemish and Dutch art. Many other scholars of what has been called a chauvinistic disposition such as Van Regteren Altena or Alpers have effectively glossed over the difference between the Southern and Northern Netherlands.2 Both for example treated Van Eyck as a forerunner of Vermeer in Dutch painting. However, in his book Gerson distinguished between Flemish and Dutch schools, while expressing his discomfort in doing so. He suggested that the terms of the prize question had forced him to make the distinction, and let it go at that.3

Probably a more satisfactory response to this issue is that taken by the RKD, which in organizing a conference and online publication, and also in its project to digitalize and illustrate Gerson, has adopted the more general notion of Netherlandish.4 Still, the linguistic difficulties involved in this attempt suggest that all issues are not thereby resolved. This situation is dramatized by a recent exhibition at the Louvre that was called François Ier et L'art des Pays-Bas in French, but François I and Dutch Art5 on the English-language website, even though an artist important for Fontainebleau under Henri IV such as Ambroise Dubois (1542/3-1614/5) was one of many born in the Southern Netherlands – Antwerp in his case.

The larger question is not merely that of what is Netherlandish, or Dutch, or Flemish, but of speaking in terms of the national or international. As Sandrart suggests, historical sources do not provide easy answers. The meaning of nation in the early modern period was very different from what we may mean. While it might be argued that there are political reasons for treating the United Provinces separately – they did gain de jure independence in 1648 – how should they be handled? Should the national be treated according to the borders of the United Provinces, or of the seventeen provinces? What do we now mean then by the nation in terms of the Dutch nation we are discussing? Is nation simply to be related to place of birth, as in the original sense of natio, or does it mean something more? These are perennial questions that raise fundamental methodological issues, and they have engendered much debate. Moreover, they are not limited to considerations of Dutch, or European art history, as Gerson’s broad view also suggests. Study of world art history suggests that the real story Gerson documented is one that has much more than local, regional, or even European significance; it recurs throughout the history of the species. Human history tells the continuing story of migration, exchange, and mixture, willing or unwilling, in cultural artifacts as in all other aspects of life, that considerably complicate even a narrow definition of the national in terms of place of birth.

These issues are very much still current. While there is obviously not space to go further into them, one may conclude by saying that such questions not only pertain to scholarship, but to the use and abuse of history and art history at the present time, when as in 1930s nationalism is strong in many countries around the world. This trend includes the United States of America, which was founded on the idea of being one out of many, a nation formed out of many, and subsequently all nations, as well as many individual nations in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Pacifica. The implications of the issues Gerson treated have not lost their significance.


Historical Map of the Netherlands - The Wars of Independence
The colored area represents the Netherlands in the time of Charles V. The light green and the dark green distinguish the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands after the former had established their independence. Ecclesiastical territories are colored purple.
University of Texas at Austin. Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912


1 Sandrart/Kirchner et al. 1675/2008-2012.

2 De Jongh 1999, p. 143. According to de Jongh, Alpers was ‘inspired not least of all by a sort of surrogate chauvinism, engaged in a frantic search for what they saw as typically Dutch in the art and culture of the Netherlands’. For Alpers’ ideas: Alpers 1984 . For more of de Jongh’s critique of them: De Jongh 1984.

3 However, in his epilogue of his chapter on the dissemination of Dutch art in the German lands he made a remark indicating he considered the distinction between Dutch and Flemish correct politically: ‘Although we often regretted not to be in the position to deal with Netherlandish influence as simultaneously outgoing trends from Holland and Flanders in the course of our research, this restriction kept us from treating the two politically different territories as an entity’. (Gerson 1942/1983, p. 297; Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2017-2018, § 8).


5 Scailliérez et al. 2017-2018.

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