MA in the History of Art

Early Netherlandish painting, reinterpreting the object

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Course Description

In fifteenth century Burgundian Netherlands, painters such as Jean Maouel, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, produced some of the most visually astonishing and complex objects in the history of art. This course will investigate this production, and its debates, by detailed study of the works themselves as well as providing a unique opportunity to learn from practical sessions in The Courtauld's conservation department.

We will consider, in particular, major, often controversial works that are still the subject of recent scholarship, such as the Ghent Altarpiece, the Courtauld's Seilern Triptych, the richly polychromed 'Well of Moses' in Dijon, and the Prado Descent from the Cross.

  • How might we re-write the history of this major period of artistic production if we return to the objects, and their materiality?
  • What can we learn from close looking aided by technical analysis, about their structure, form, materials, their facture, attribution, history, restoration and meaning?

To answer these questions, we will consider documentary sources concerning their making, ownership, and function, learning what remains in terms of primary evidence, and how we might use it: we will read guild regulations, payment accounts, inventories, contracts and shipping records, looking at original documents as well as transcriptions and translations. This body of evidence will help us investigate how painters undertook their craft (including polychroming sculpture, illuminating manuscripts, and designing for other crafts such as stained glass and tapestry). We will consider questions such as how materials (from Baltic oak to lapis lazuli) were acquired, how much they cost, their properties, advantages and limitations, and how they were prepared and employed; we will try and establish how collaboration might have taken place and where we can find documentary and physical evidence for it; how painters designed and planned their images, why works were copied and how, and the role of the patron in shaping their form.

We will also consider throughout the course ways in which we might analyse and interpret the content of these works – what is represented, and how, considering visual strategies in the light of what we know about devotional, liturgical and social practices, as well as material value.

You will develop skills of visual analysis, and use a different range of primary sources, that may be devotional or theological texts, etiquette guides, poetry or chronicles. In addition, we will learn about panel painting by considering it in relation to works in other media – such as carved wood, gold, stone and marble. The emphasis will be on a reconsideration of the objects, their facture and material form, a process that enables us to reassess the secondary literature, sometimes overturning long-held ideas about their original appearance, function and meaning. This focus will also suggest new pathways that might be followed, with the object and its evidence leading the way.

The aim is to provide students with a tool kit for their own research, which may be on any aspect of Northern Europe art in this period, not just painting, and which is undertaken in the two assessed essays (one of which is a 'mystery object' in a collection in London) and the MA dissertation.

We will study works in London collections including The Courtauld Gallery, the National Gallery, the V&A and the British Museum. Handling sessions with objects in the trade and in private collections in London will also be an exceptional experience of this course. We will also spend time in the conservation department of the Courtauld to look at methods of investigation in action.

A practical session on painting in oil paint and egg tempera will also be included, where we will work with materials as close to those of the period as is possible today, to understand their handling properties. There will also be a trip to Belgium or elsewhere in Europe (depending on exhibition schedules and funding permitting).

Language and other requirements

A reading knowledge of French is highly desirable; German will also be an advantage; Dutch classes are normally held once a week to help you attain a basic reading knowledge of this language, but most of the reading will be in English or French.