Queen's University Queen's University

Art Detectives

Queen's benefactors, Alfred and Isabel Bader, have supported the establishment of research chairs in Southern and Northern Baroque Art.

Gauvin Bailey, Bader Chair in Southern Baroque Art

Gauvin Bailey, a professor of Art History and the Bader Chair in Southern Baroque Art, explores how European Baroque and Rococo art influenced artistic expression in other parts of the world, particularly Latin America. He’s interested in learning how non-Europeans adapted elements of those styles to evolve their native religious art into something new and unique.

[Gauvin Bailey]

In his current project, Bailey is challenging the widely-held view among art historians that Rococo, a style of decorative art born in Paris in the early 18th century, contained little intellectual or religious substance compared to the art of the Baroque period that preceded it. Through years of archival and field research, from France and Germany to Paraguay and Brazil, Bailey has crafted an alternative interpretation of Rococo built on evidence that suggests it had more depth than its detractors claim.

In libraries and church archives across Europe and Latin America, Bailey has unearthed more than 50 religious treatises, and even more sermons, written during the heyday of the French salons – a period when intellectuals and genteel society people gathered in intimate groups to discuss politics, philosophy, literature and other high-minded topics – and relating these works to the development of Rococo beyond France. He finds it noteworthy that the supposedly lightweight style was used not only in decorative objects such as porcelain figurines and chairs for wealthy homes, but also, in Germany and elsewhere, to adorn churches.

“It can be hard to get to these places,” says Bailey. “But boy, it is worth it.”

“Why was Rococo chosen for churches if it was frivolous?” says Bailey, who has taught Renaissance, Baroque, and Latin American art at Clark University, Boston College, and the University of Aberdeen, and curated significant exhibitions at museums including the Smithsonian Institution and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

For his most recent book, Bailey is documenting how and why Rococo spread beyond France to other parts of Europe, and then, via missionaries, to religious institutions in South America. One potential explanation is that Rococo’s emphasis on nature, and on what Bailey calls the “theology of happiness,” helped Christian missionaries – particularly Jesuits – to forge closer connections with New World peoples whose traditional religions and imagery were inextricably linked to the natural world. While it’s difficult to prove this was the case, Bailey has nevertheless found compelling examples of Rococo-derived decor in some remote locales, including derelict Colonial churches in Patagonia and in the Cotahuasi Canyon of Peru, the largest canyon in the world and also one of the most inaccessible. Getting to these places is sometimes risky: over the years Bailey has had some hairy bus rides in the mountains and been mugged three times.

“It can be hard to get to these places,” says Bailey. “But boy, it is worth it.”

Stephanie Dickey, Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art

The work of Bailey’s counterpart at Queen’s, Stephanie Dickey, who holds the Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, has quite a different focus. She is an expert in Dutch Baroque, particularly the art of Rembrandt and contemporaries such as Jan Lievens and the Flemish artist Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Much of what she does is based on trying to understand the social significance of these artists’ works in their times – how their paintings, drawings and prints were perceived by others and what it meant to them.

One way Dickey explores this theme is by studying the history of portraits, as they often depict not only the physical appearance and social status of the sitter, but also, in the hands of masters like Rembrandt, a sense of inner life. Through overt or subtle symbolism, they may also reflect the social concerns of the day.

[Stephanie Dickey]

Printed portraits, a key component of Dickey’s research, offer special insights into the subject. Unlike paintings, prints often combined visual images with inscriptions that suggest how qualities of moral character and achievement were valued – and how artists were challenged to make these qualities visible. Although Rembrandt seldom allowed inscriptions added directly to his work, independent poems and other texts reveal that contemporaries admired his ability to infuse portraits with emotion and liveliness. Together, the visual and literary record provides a window into the mentality of 17th-century Holland, and, by extension, the perennial fascination with human identity.

But the literary accounts aren’t the only way to figure out how the works of the great artists were interpreted and valued. Dickey has also been tracking the history of print collecting, again with a focus on Rembrandt. Uniquely expressive, diverse, and always highly collectible, Rembrandt’s etchings prompted the first-ever effort to catalogue a printmaker’s complete work (1751), and over 30 cataloguers since have attempted to compile accurate lists separating his prints from those of his many copyists and imitators. By comparing factors such as descriptive language and even price fluctuations for specific prints, Dickey can gauge shifting patterns in collecting and connoisseurship from Rembrandt’s own time until today.

“For a person who does the sort of research that I do, this is one of the best places you could be in terms of the resources that are available.”

“The rise and fall of appreciation for Rembrandt becomes a kind of mirror of the history of taste,” says Dickey. Fortunately, by being at Queen’s, Dickey has close access to one of the world’s finest university collections of Dutch Baroque art. That collection, housed in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, is the on-going gift of Alfred and Isabel Bader, whose largesse has also enabled Dickey to convene two important conferences (in 2009 and 2011, at Queen’s Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle in England) that have brought together the world’s leading scholars of Rembrandt and artists in his circle to share their findings and open up new lines of research.

“For a person who does the sort of research that I do, this is one of the best places you could be in terms of the resources that are available,” says Dickey. “I’m trying to take advantage of that in every possible way.”

Profile by Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 2, Fall 2012