Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
Writing on Dutch Art in France
DUTCH AND FLEMISH ART OF THE SEVEN-teenth century has always been a subject of interest and attention for French artists, critics, and collectors and was a favored part of the royal collections of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI even though, during these reigns, the northern schools were not as sought after as the French and Italian schools. A marked increase in attention was paid to Dutch and Flemish art after the Revolution of 1789 when the prices of northern art rose at French auctions. French artists, such as Guérard, Boilly, Drolling and David, also increasingly followed the meticulously detailed painting technique of Dutch and Flemish artists such as Metsu and Teniers the Younger.
The ideas presented in nineteenth-century texts on Dutch art evolved in part from the precedent of eighteenth-century writings by Jean-Baptiste Descamps and Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, who published the first significant French studies devoted solely to Flemish and Dutch art. Lebrun in particular identified Dutch art as a democratic rather than aristocratic pursuit as early as 1795 when he addressed a popular revolutionary society. His characterization of Dutch art as democratic was of great interest throughout the nineteenth century as French collectors gathered increasing amounts of Dutch art and French critics sought both to fulfill and augment the demand for literature on the lives and works of Dutch artists. Although French critics diverged in their views on many elements of Dutch art, a common thread running through the growing critical discourse was the perception of Dutch art as a reflection of everyday life in the seventeenthcentury Netherlands.
The first of the eighteenth-century French studies of northern art, Descamps's La vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandois of 1754, focused on artists’ biographies and a few of their best-known works. Descamps intended to make this information more accessible to the French public as he sought to fill the gaps he saw in previous publications with his own research. While Descamps called Rembrandt “this great painter,” he did not refer to Rembrandt as the leader of Dutch artists, although in his eyes Rubens was the “Prince of Flemish painters.”