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The Artistic Taste of Nations Art Collecting, School Classification and Identity Formation in Western Europe, 1600-1800

Museums of early modern art – such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Gemaeldegalerie in Dresden or the Louvre in Paris – are often characterized by a national display of art works. However, due to the effects of globalization such displays are now confirmed or transgressed to show not only that art emerged in a variety of artistic schools, but also that it appealed and still appeals to a range of regional, national or international communities

Art historically, a national display is often referred to as an arrangement of art works according to national school. The earliest manifestations of art perceived as a national phenomenon and classified according to national school in collections seem to have occurred already in the sixteenth century, and spread widely in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Collectors shared the use of this classification system with art scholars who adopted it in their books to map Western European art. Thus, in collections and books Western European art came to be arranged according to the Italian – with a range of local schools – , the French, the Flemish, the Dutch and the German school. The school system soon became successful and quickly spread over the continent. In the beginning its application seems to have appeared primarily in collections of prints and drawings and subsequently – from the second half of the eighteeenth century onwards – also in picture galleries. 

The Artistic Taste of Nations aims to explore how the school classification of art in the intertwined fields of collecting and scholarship contributed to (national) identity formation in the seventeenth and eighteent centuries. It thereby hypothesizes that a national orientation on art was not a matter of course in this period. First of all, the meaning of the school concept shifted drastically. Initially it was only used to denote an artist and his close circle of assistants, pupils or followers; later on it also came to comprise groups of artists affiliated to academies, courts, cities, regions and ultimately nations. Secondly, the national reception of art did not yet carry such political overtones as the modern association of the term with the nation-state and nationalism suggests. It equally entailed cultural associations with the taste, character, achievements, civilization, curiosity, customs and traditions and the natural conditions of nations. Thirdly, the classification of art according to (national) schools and their achievements were negotiated in international rivalry among a network of collectors, scholars, dealers and artists. And lastly, national views of art were demonstrated and displayed to publics by increasingly precious artistic media of prints, drawings and pictures. 

This early modern perspective on school classification and identity formation in the fields of collecting and scholarship has been neglected. Museum historians have paid a lot of attention to issues of national identity from the point of view of the modern public art museum, but they have paid little attention to the early modern roots of this phenomenon. Collecting historians often seem to observe the classification of art according to national schools as a matter of course. Art historians in their turn are rewriting national art histories by concentrating on the transnational dynamics of artistic relations of artists, motives, techniques or styles, but they largely do this from the perspective of the production rather than from the reception of art. Historians of nations and nationalism provide a framework for the present research, but they fail to acknowledge the full extent of the contribution of the visual arts.

The research for The Artistic Taste of Nations will be conducted on the basis of a select group of casestudies. Firstly, research will be conducted in cooperation with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam about the art collections of Pieter Cornelis Baron van Leyden (1717-1788). His internationally renowned print collection, which was arranged according to national schools, was acquired by the Dutch state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and formed the founding collection of the Dutch National Print Room in the Rijksmuseum. His print collection completed a collection of Northern-Netherlandish pictures which was sold on the art market at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Secondly, under the title of The Artistic Taste of Nations a set of smaller case studies will be investigated within an international context. For this a selection will be made of early modern print or drawing collections and/ or picture galleries with a (national) school classfication that survive in museums or libraries or that are recorded in documents, such as for example print collections and picture galleries in Dresden, Paris, or Florence. 

Project details 
Funding Funded by: NWO Aspasia Budget: EUR 200.000
Project leader/ PhD supervisor/ Researcher dr. Ingrid R. Vermeulen

PhD Supervisor 
Prof. dr. Katja Kwastek e-mail:

PhD Researcher 
Huigen Leeflang e-mail:

Publications 2016

  • ‘The Mediatization of Vasari: A Paradigm Change of Art History in the Enlightenment’, in: F. Jonietz and A. Nova (eds.), The Paradigm of Vasari. Reception, Criticism, Perspectives, Venice: Marsilio Editori 2016, pp. 235-246 
  • ‘Reproductions of Art: Humbert de Superville’s Observations in the Leiden Print Room’, in: J. Schaeps, E. Kolfin, E. Grasman and N. Bartelings, For Study and Delight. Drawings and Prints from Leiden University, Leiden: Leiden University Press 2016, pp. 260-281
    Publications 2014 
  • ‘Paper Museums and the Multimedia Practice of Art History. The Case of Stefano Mulinari’s Istoria Pratica (1778-1780) in the Uffizi’, in: M.Wellington Gahtan (ed.), Giorgio Vasari and the Birth of the Museum, Farnham: Ashgate 2014, pp. 215-231

Publications 2010 

  • Picturing Art History.The Rise of the Illustrated History of Art in the Eighteenth Century, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2010 
  • ‘Het prentenkabinet als papieren museum. Een visueel overzicht van de Europese kunst door Pieter Cornelis Baron van Leyden (1717-1788)’, De Achttiende Eeuw 42 (2010) 1, pp. 73-99 
  • ‘Michel de Marolles’s Volume of Rembrandt Prints and the Reception of Dutch Art in France’, Simiolus. Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 34 (2009-2010) 3-4, pp. 155-18