Painting and Politics in Northern Europe

Painting and Politics in Northern Europe

Pennsylvania State University Press

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Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rubens, and Their Contemporaries


Painting and Politics in Northern Europe offers a chronological account of political engagement in works by the early modern Northern European painters Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, and Frans Snyders. Offering fresh interpretations of canonical paintings, Margaret Carroll illustrates how these artists registered their pictorial responses to the political events and debates of their day. The imagery of gender and power was often intertwined with these debates. Considering a range of works, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, and Rubens’s Life of Marie de Médicis series, Carroll examines the ways in which these Netherlandish painters seized on that imagery and creatively transformed it into the materials of art.

The narrative follows the way painters responded to the emergence of “modern” theories of politics and natural law from the classical and medieval tradition. Carroll begins by addressing paintings that identify the natural order with consensual social relations in a stable political hierarchy, then turns to paintings that stress the struggle for mastery in a perilous and unstable world. These paintings may be valued not merely as historical artifacts of a bygone era but as interventions in a cultural discourse that continues to this day.


Margaret D. Carroll is Professor of Art History at Wellesley College. Her publications include numerous articles on Van Eyck, Rembrandt, and Rubens, as well as the essay ‚ "Accidents Will Happen: A New Look at the Nightwatch‚" in Rethinking Rembrandt (2002).

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