MA in the History of Art

Bodies of Knowledge in the Early Modern Netherlands 1540 - 1660

Main Visual

Course Description

The Southern Netherlands and later the Dutch Republic were not only famous for their art production, but a centre of the fundamental reconfigurations of knowledge that took place in Europe during the early modern period. Cities such as Antwerp, Leiden and later Amsterdam were ‘hubs’ attracting merchants, printers, artists and scholars from all over Europe. Old as well as new models for knowledge were not only debated but also made perceptible through the senses. Moreover, it was in the Dutch Republic that the revolutionary philosophy of René Descartes was conceived and first published. This course will be particularly concerned with the role of visual materials in these exciting developments.

‘Visual materials’ encompasses paintings, drawings and prints by canonical artists alongside works that have often been excluded from art historical study, relating for example to foreign travel and the increasing interest in bodies of knowledge such as anatomy, botany and natural history. Whilst we shall think about the depiction of actual bodies – both human and animal – the term ‘visual materials’ also acknowledges the embodied character of all images in the early modern period, as material products of the human hand.

Vermeer’s Astronomer and his Cartographer (illustrated) were among many paintings in which knowledge was constructed and questioned, as was Rembrandt’s famous Anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp. Cabinets of curiosities – by far the richest in Europe – were productive sites of knowledge, where words and things were connected. They often included previously unknown objects of natural and human creation. Another major theme will be the changing relationship between visual materials and the authority with which they were invested. Rather than separating ‘works of art’ from ‘scientific’ illustrations and materials, the course will consider paintings, drawings and prints by canonical artists alongside, for example, the illustrations to works of natural history, emblem books, travel literature and treatises on optics.

There will be opportunities to conduct research on selected objects in London collections and a study visit to the Belgium and the Netherlands is planned.

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements. Knowledge of Dutch or a Germanic language, whilst not essential, would be an advantage.