Crafting a Natural History of Art

Crafting a Natural History of Art in Early Modern Antwerp

Nadia Sera Baadj

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Jan van Kessel the Elder, Festoons of Seashells, 1656. Oil on copper, 40 x 56 cm. Paris, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.

This project examined the relationship between craft, curiosity, and the pursuit of natural knowledge in Antwerp during the second half of the seventeenth century. Through case studies of artists, artisans, and collectors, it investigates different contexts where art and natural history intersected, and also reveals how artistic production responded to a unique convergence of circumstances in Antwerp that included the growth of a popular, commercial strand of natural history, a thriving culture of art collecting and connoisseurship focused on local artists, and a burgeoning luxury industry.

In contrast to the intellectual and scientific milieu fostered by competing academic centers in the northern Netherlands, the production and dissemination of natural knowledge in Antwerp was aimed at a broader population that included merchants, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs, as well as collectors and connoisseurs of art. Antwerp artists and artisans played an instrumental role in mediating the transmission of natural knowledge to this diverse audience, producing works that encouraged viewers to simultaneously think about art, in terms of collecting, connoisseurship, citation, media, and materials, and think anew about nature. Artists’ workshops and collections served as important sites of knowledge production and exchange. This project explored the objects and networks created by these arbiters of natural knowledge, and considered how they contributed to the representation and marketing of a distinctly Antwerpian vision of the natural world.