Reviewed April 2016
Philip Dombowsky, Archivist
National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives
http://janbrueghel.net is an open access online resource featuring a comprehensive list of paintings and drawings by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), his workshop, and his imitators. In its current form the site includes entries on 765 paintings, 363 drawings, and a small number of oil sketches and prints. Along with the database of works, the site features a short biographical overview of Brueghel’s life, an extensive bibliography, a note regarding the purpose and development of the site, and a list of the team members responsible for the site’s creation.
Initiated in 2011 by Dr. Elizabeth Honig, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley, the Jan Brueghel website is primarily aimed at scholars, curators, and collectors. It is part of a more ambitious project that will produce similar online catalogues raisonnés for other members of the Brueghel family. Dr. Honig has written extensively on seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish painting, including articles for Burlington Magazine and the Nederlands kunsthistorisch jaarboek, and her expertise in this area is evident in the high level of scholarship conveyed throughout the entries.
While visitors to the site are not required to login to access the resource, there is a registration option for researchers who wish to add information on works in the database and who have been cleared to participate by the site’s administrators. Each comment added is automatically signed so visitors know who has provided specific content. This collaborative (or wiki) aspect is a key feature of the site and means that, unlike catalogues raisonnés in print, it can be updated at a moment’s notice as new information on the artist comes available. This includes new insights regarding the attribution of works, a long-standing area of contention for Brueghel scholars.
As well as being an indispensable scholarly resource, the Brueghel site is exemplary in terms of design, incorporating navigational features that allow users to access the richness of the site’s content quickly and with relative ease. In addition to multiple browsing avenues, the home page offers both basic keyword and advanced search options. Selecting the advanced option opens a dedicated page where users are able to search by title keyword, date, medium, genre, prescribed tags, location (country), and attribution, or any combination of these. The only attribute I would add to this page is a field to allow users to search for works based on past or current owners.
Search results are displayed in the form of thumbnails accompanied by basic information such as title, dimensions, support, and location. Selecting a thumbnail opens a dedicated page for that work, which includes an image and standard metadata such as dimensions, support, genre, collaborators, and attribution. The quality of the images presented in the database is generally very good, however, to the site’s detriment, there are no built-in magnification or zoom options.
Each page includes a separate section for provenance information, exhibition history, bibliographical sources, and related works, along with a discussion area that allows registered users to add comments. The layout of the dedicated pages presents information in a logical fashion and is consistent for each listed object. The single deficiency of the various entries is the lack of contextual information provided for each work. This will hopefully be addressed in time as more registered users add comments to the discussion area.
An assessment of the Jan Brueghel site invariably invites comparison with the monumental four-volume catalogue raisonné by Klaus Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625): kritischer Katalog der Gemälde (Luca, 2008), which is currently regarded as the definitive source on the artist. Catalogues raisonnés such as those produced by Ertz are prohibitively expensive and generally only available to a select group of libraries. They are also bound by time insofar as any new discoveries and scholarship gathered by the author generally lie dormant awaiting the publication of a new edition. The Brueghel website, featuring a high standard of scholarship, elegant and effective design, easy and broad accessibility, and the possibility of collaboration, is a model that I’m hopeful other catalogue raisonné projects will embrace. The wiki feature is particularly enticing and if scholars and curators are inclined to share their findings on the artist (the verdict on this is still out), the open access and collaborative online catalogue raisonné has a very bright future.