Art: The Theatre of Painting

    But I would like to recommend an alternative to the usual book-purchasing regime of flick through, pay and leave. First, survey the ocean of art literature before you with the suspicious eye of a sailor checking the horizon. Next, divide all the stuff you see into clumps: there are the super-huge ones that invariably cost about £100 and claim to be the final word on any given artist; the little pocket guides with blurred reproductions; the books published by the BBC to accompany the corporation’s annual art series; the ones translated from Russian or Bulgarian and printed on what seems to be blotting paper; the Taschen books with all the soft porn in them; and the library within a library devoted to Picasso. Personally, I find that tomes about minor Italian figures of the Renaissance embody the art book more triumphantly than any other of the groupings.

    Feeling the width of this output and recognising its categories won’t necessarily make you a better buyer. But it will soften you up nicely for a weirdly stimulating exhibition at the Courtauld Institute about the first real art book. Called The Theatre of Painting, it was published in Brussels in 1660 by David Teniers the Younger. Released in four languages and known officially by its Latin title, Theatrum Pictorium, this famously significant literary endeavour can be seen as both a beginning and an end. Everything good about the genre, as well as most of its questionable aspects, is in fledgling evidence here.

    Teniers was a pleasantly minor Flemish painter who specialised in peasant scenes: Brabant Landscape with Beer-Drinkers, that kind of thing. His father had been a painter before him, and his son went on to be a painter too. So the busy artistic history of the Teniers clan offers a typical example of the transformation of art into a productive family business that took place in the Netherlands in the 17th century.

    Teniers the Younger soon had a thriving career on his hands, churning out his boisterous peasant scenes. Rich people liked them because, of course, it is always entertaining to see how the other half decays. The peasant paintings were bought by dukes, counts, bishops and kings. In particular, they tickled the fancy of the Hapsburg archduke Leopold William, cousin of the Spanish king, Philip IV, and newly installed governor of the Spanish Netherlands. In Teniers’s time and place, there was no more important patron available in the Netherlands than the Hapsburg archduke, and when Leopold William made Teniers his court painter in 1651, it was a promotion of rare magnitude.

    The archduke was a collector. A mad one. You can see him striding through his own unbelievable amassment of pictures in an unusually large painting by Teniers that dominates the tiny but charming exhibition devoted to these issues at the Courtauld.

    Imagine all the Italian pictures in the National Gallery crammed into one tall room: that’s the archduke’s collection. As far as we know, everything you see on these walls, the Titians, the Giorgiones, the Veroneses, the Bassanos (old master buffs can have a whale of a time identifying them, because so many of the paintings still exist), was acquired between 1647, when Leopold William became governor, and 1656, when he returned to Vienna. All this in less than a decade. It beggars belief.

    Thus, the first insight provided by this punchy little show is into the workings and hungers of a rabid collector. On this scale, collecting ceases to be a noble pursuit and turns into something crass and, yes, cheap. The archduke bought in bulk. When the Duke of Hamilton was executed after the English civil war, his entire collection of Italian paintings ended up being sold to Leopold William. For the hunting collector, other people’s misfortunes are an excellent acquisition opportunity. It has nothing to do with the appreciation of art. It’s about possession, positioning, hoarding, flaunting, shopping and power.

    Teniers, the former painter of peasants, had a taste for belchy details. He was a little painter by instinct, and the arrival of a full-blown Hapsburg noble on his doorstep may have affected his subject matter, but you don’t feel it affected his rhythms. The little man in the tall black hat who doesn’t look like an archduke in the middle of the crowded gallery scene is the archduke. He could be an army captain in civvies, or a mayor with his clerks. I like the dogs, too, scampering among the many Titians. You can easily imagine one of them darting behind a Raphael and relieving itself against the frame.

    There is, however, something Teniers gets absolutely right here. Grandeur and elegance may always have been beyond him, but he was a people-watcher by instinct, and in the little scene of the miniature archduke being loomed over by his pictures, Teniers does indeed capture the thrill of unhindered possession.

    Or let’s call it what it is: greed.

    But we’re ignoring the book, Theatrum Pictorium: The Theatre of Painting. Having acquired a stupendous collection of paintings in record time (the reclining nude, top right, is Titian’s Danae, now in the Prado; the big picture of a woman trampling a dragon to the right of the Archduke is Raphael’s St Margaret; and the second painting from the bottom on the right is Giorgione’s Three Philosophers, now in Vienna), the archduke decided he wanted everyone in the civilised world to know what he owned. So he commissioned Teniers to organise the publishing of an illustrated catalogue of his holdings. It was the first such illustrated catalogue ever to be desired or produced. And whenever you go to any exhibition today and buy the catalogue, you are extending a journey begun here.

    Teniers went about producing this book with exceptional tenacity and resolve. To make possible the hundreds of plates that were needed, he painted a small copy of every Italian picture in the archduke’s collection. This show features a couple of dozen of these wobbly copies. There were, originally, 243 of them. They were sent to the print-makers, who turned them into etchings; and these etchings, together with a short introductory text in four languages, constituted the Theatre of Painting: the first illustrated catalogue, a huge milestone in the story of the art book.

    Of course, history in the making never feels like history in the making, and the show has about it an unexpectedly comic air. Teniers’s diminutive copies tell you far more about his own folksy rhythms and tastes than they do about the original Titians or Veroneses or Giorgiones. Witness Titian’s swarthy and gorgeous Gypsy Madonna becoming, in Teniers’s rendering, a plump Flemish butcher’s daughter. Or Palma Vecchio’s languid and sexy scene of 13 naked nymphs bathing turned into the women’s football team of Flanders, sulking around the bath after a lost game.

    Portraits he just can’t do. And the big visions of religious agony, such as Mantegna’s heroically expiring St Sebastian, studded with arrows, really show him up. Arranged alongside the prints they were made to inspire, the unsteady reductions raise all manner of intriguing questions about the usefulness of reproductions and, by extension, of the art book.

    Yet I’m not sure if Teniers the Younger wasn’t exactly the right artist to undertake this momentous task. His innate inability to capture grandeur manages to make the acquisition of all this stuff feel like a low-grade act of greed, worthy of a card-player in a tavern. Which is about right, isn’t it?