Jan Dirk Baetens: Building an art historical research 'case' like a litigator

This Research in the Picture features a researcher of pictures: art historian Jan Dirk Baetens (1977). After having worked for three years as a commercial litigator with the international law firm Linklaters, Baetens decided to pursue his interest in art history full time. He does not consider his years as a lawyer wasted, however, and he draws comparisons between both lines of work. “As a litigator, you build a case by presenting your evidence with well-formulated arguments. This is very similar to what one does in art historical research and publications.”

“I’m especially fascinated by historicizing salon paintings, produced by technically brilliant painters in the second half of the nineteenth century. Because of art history’s traditional emphasis on stylistic innovation, these works fall largely outside the canon, in spite of a strong ‘revisionist’ current in art historical research that has revisited these painters for thirty to forty years now.” When explaining his fascination for the nineteenth century, Baetens quotes a comment made by the art critic Théophile Gautier on one of Baetens’ favourite nineteenth-century painters, Henri Leys, who specialised in historical scenes of the sixteenth century executed in the style of that time. Gautier wrote that as the result of some mysterious event, Leys’s soul accidentally ended up in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth century, where it actually belonged. “Something similar must have happened to me: I was accidentally born in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth century."

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Baetens is currently working on a series of articles on the Dutch-British painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), whose works were recently shown in a large retrospective exhibition that travelled from Leeuwarden to Vienna and London. “Tadema’s historical scenes, set in ancient Greece and Rome, are often seen as contemporary scenes in classical disguise, depicting “Victorians in toga” in situations that clearly refer to Tadema’s own time. Such an approach to these paintings has yielded fascinating results, but it has also tended to make us forget that Tadema’s vision was first and foremost a vision of the past, especially perhaps in the first stages of his career, when he trained to be a history painter. These early years have not been studied very thoroughly because Tadema spent them in Belgium, not in London where he moved in 1870 and rose to fame. By studying Tadema’s 1861 painting The Education of the Children of Clovis, a milestone in his artistic development, I am trying to figure out what kind of image of history Tadema presents in these early works and how that image relates to contemporary ideas about history and history writing. Rather to my surprise, I was able to dig up quite easily a lot of unknown but fascinating material that sheds a completely new light on Tadema’s early work. I can’t wait to finish that article!” Baetens’ other principal line of research relates to the development of the modern art market in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “I am especially interested in the impact of commerce on the ways in which art was, and is, produced and consumed.” He has just finished an edited volume on the internationalisation of the modern art market with his colleague from the History Department, dr. Dries Lyna, which will be published by Brill in 2018.

Several smaller case studies relating to the international (and even Trans-Atlantic) art trade in the nineteenth century are still in the pipeline. “And after that,” Baetens says, “I hope to finally find the time for a thorough, panoramic study of the reception of old master painting in nineteenth-century Belgium and its influence on the artistic development of modern Belgian painting.”

CV: Jan Dirk Baetens is senior lecturer of Nineteenth-Century Art at the departments of Art History and Arts & Culture Studies at Radboud University. He studied law at the University of Antwerp and Art History at the University of Leuven. He has published widely on historicist painting and the nineteenth-century art market. He is co-editor of a volume on the internationalisation of the nineteenth-century art market to be published by Brill in 2018 and is currently preparing a book-length study on the Belgian historicist painter Henri Leys.