Rethinking Fundamentals: The Important Lesson of Julian Bell’s Art History

Aurora, oil on copper, 1606-9. Man walking on a hill at dusk.

Aurora, oil on copper, 1606-9.

Julian Bell, Natural Light. The Art of Adam Elsheimer and the Dawn of Modern Science (London, 2023).

How do you present a baroque European painter? We are familiar with monographs. Caravaggio, Nicolas Poussin and the other notable figures are the subjects of such treatises. When there is a lot to say about such an artist, he deserves a book. Monographs are now devoted also to Artemisia Gentileschi because she has very recently become a feminist hero. And we have, also, the historical surveys, like Rudolf Wittkower’s classic, often reprinted Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 or the recent revisionist account by Gauvin Alexander Bailey , Baroque & Rococo. Such books useful present the period style, placing the individual artists within the political and social context. But Natural Light doesn’t really fit within these categories. Adam Hilsheimer (1578-1610) died young, and his work is not well known. And as Julian Bell remarks, with one exception, all of his surviving paintings could fit inside a single suitcase. Frankfurt-born, Hlsheimer. emigrated to Rome, like many ambitious young artists of the day, where he saw the newly famous works of Caravaggio; met some of the leading artists, including Annibale Carracci and Peter Paul Rubens; and pursued his career.

Hilsheimer had a fascinating life, and made some marvelous artworks. And Bell’s telling of that story is exemplary. Natural Light offers a most instructive account of the elaborate social conflicts within the Roman art world. Traditional baroque art history reconstructs the working lives of the artists, interprets their iconography, and describes the social support system. Bell does all of that with great success. No one is better at describing intricate pictorial subjects.

A convulsion. Reaching arms, rushing legs, swarming crowd. Something is hoisted aloft, some passive body they all tug at. Hoisted how? By that arm that’s raised and gleaming, high up above? We are looking at a copper panel in the Scottish National Gallery . . . . (p. 149)

This is his account of Elsheimer’s Il Contento, an image of a bizarre contemporary novel Lazarillo de Tormes about fortune. In racy, compulsively quotable prose Bell tells this story. Elsheimer never left Europe, but a number of his engravings traveled to India, where they inspired the Mogul painter Payag. And so in his picture The Siege of Kandahar:

Field mortars flash, bark and recoil. While cannonballs thump against the walls beneath them, the fort’s defenders aim their own artillery from the parapets, and the town on the plain has taken a hit: black billows are rising from a banqueting hall. (p. 207)

It turned out, in ways he could not have imagined, that Elsheimer’s naturalism had legs. (Bell’s earlier book Mirror of the World. A New History of Art is a pioneering world art history.) How surprising now to learn that Elsheimer’s works played a real role in the development of art in India.

Bell is a deliciously seductive describer. And his descriptions are matched to excellent full color plates. Hilsheimer’s name is mentioned in Art and Architecture, but none of his works are reproduced. In the crowded Roman art world, he was a fascinating minor player, too shy or modest (and unlucky) to be a major player. But what more than justifies this monograph, so the full title of Bell’s book indicates, is Elsheimer’s view of nature, and his response the developing astronomy of Galileo Galilei. Natural Light begins by asking: “What is nature?” (p. 7) Like the intellectuals and artists in Elsheimer’s world, we speak of nature. But the concept has changed drastically, in ways that affect how we understand paintings. As Bell indicates after telling the story of the birth of landscape painting and Elsheimer’s response to Galilean astronomy:

Nature was once a ‘book’. There were two books, and the other was Scripture. God had spoken in one manner through the words of the Bible, and in another through what he had created . . . . (p. 86).

Nowadays for most of us ‘the book of Nature’ is a quaint phrase. We don’t believe that Scripture is a reliable truthful account, and we don’t think of Nature as God’s book. And so the relationship between the artist and the scientist has changed. In Elsheimer’s culture, nature was “a book for study and contemplation” (p. 91), by the artist as by the natural philosopher. And so Caravaggio was criticized for presenting unidealized images; his opponents believed that nature “stands behind and apart from what actually appears in this world” (p. 141). The artist, his critics concluded, should show nature as it should be, doing what it “would like to do” (p. 141). Nowadays that claim is very hard to understand. Nature is what it is, and so ascribing this desire to it, as if it were a person, simply is incomprehensible. And that means that it’s devilishly difficult to understand Elsheimer’s concerns in their proper historical context. “Caravaggio’s claim that nature itself was painting his pictures and Annibale’s dismissal of the resulting works as ‘too natural’” (p. 197) are now viewpoints very difficult to reconstruct. And so, given this vast cultural shift, Elsheimer’s artworks have become difficult to properly understand. To speak of nature, as Elsheimer’s contemporaries did, as standing behind “and apart from what actually appears in this world” (p 141) seems to make no sense. Nothing stands behind nature, which is simply there. And if the worldview of Alzheimer’s time is thus hard to reconstruct, what follows is that treating his paintings as attractive works of art may be to miss an essential part of the story. As Bell indicates, by the late eighteenth-century everything had changed.

Bell himself is an art writer and practicing painter, not a cultural historian. But in an earlier book, What is Painting?, he discussed the history of aesthetic theory. And so what’s most interesting, at least to me, writing as a philosopher, is the potentially radical uncertainty about the usual art historical practice generated by his present extension of that earlier analysis. Art historical scholarship takes for granted that baroque pictures, though made in an historically and cultural distant culture, are works of art as much as the modernist paintings that are displayed alongside them in our museums; they look different, but can be understood in the same ways. And so Elsheimer’s landscapes belong in a history extended by John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich and Camille Pissarro. But perhaps that view is entirely mistaken.-Maybe, I am suggesting, Elsheimer’s visual culture was so unlike ours that speaking of his paintings in our terms as works of art involves grave misunderstandings. Perhaps the concept of nature has changed drastically, in ways that cannot but influence how we understand these old artifacts from the pre-modern culture.

Some days, I confess, art history can seem to me an oddly limited discipline. Speaking as a philosopher who was inspired by reading some of its inspiring founding fathers, it’s easy to be a little disappointed with its present practice. History proper deals with larger issues, while art history often seems to have sadly parochial concerns. It’s no wonder, I think, that the discipline is now so often under political attack. Natural Light is a stellar exception to this generalization. This stunning book tackles large, significant intellectual issues, and in stirring prose shows why Elsheimer matters. It therefore is a real masterpiece, one of those rare books that should change how we practice art history.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.