The Art Market of 17th Century Holland in Comparison to the Art Market of 17th Century Italy. Including Discussion of Methods of Production, Sale and Distribution and the Roles of Artists, Dealers and Patrons in the Structures of the Markets

Regardless of the fiscal crisis and economic downturn that looms threateningly over all global commerce, it is without dispute that the market for art in the 21st century is a branch of business which has long held its own individual power within the financial system, often resolutely remaining stable during even the most uncertain periods. Burns (2012) identifies a recent ‘pattern of strong sales at Art Basel which indicates a buoyancy bearing little relationship to the problems of the global economy.’ It is evident that the art market is a well-established, secure institution and has been for many hundreds of years. Westgarth (2009) asserts that ‘since at least the seventeenth century, the market for art has had its own specific dynamic’ and it is during this era that the business of trading artwork became widely recognized as an independent market in its own right. This in turn led to the wider spread recognition of art dealership as a profession. Commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Dutch Art’ (Praak 2003) the 17th Century art market was largely dominated by The Dutch Republic; but not entirely.  Italy too found itself at the centre of a growing art industry, renowned for artistic experimentation. The two countries dominated the 17th century art world, and similarities, as well as differences, can be drawn when comparing the systems, structures and ideologies of their art markets.

It is important to take historical context into account while analyzing the art market of any period as social and economical factors invariably affect both its structure and function. In the 17th Century, Holland endured the second half of The Dutch Revolt, which began in 1568 and lasted for 80 years. The revolt was a response to the repressive rule of the House of Habsburg and resulted in the founding of the independent Dutch Republic in the Northern Netherlands (Darby 2001). Growing severity in the Southern Netherlands encouraged a mass migration of the socially elite.  Artisans, scholars and scientists alike fled to the North, where many regions had already gained independence. Here, the Dutch Republic ruled peacefully and grew rapidly into a prominent world power. With a huge influx of skilled workers and the highly educated, the Northern Netherlands flourished and was soon leading the way in the fields of art, trade and science, among many more. Consequentially, the Northern Netherlands became an affluent area, with the vast majority of its inhabitants considered middle-class or bourgeois. Kahr (1993, p.10) acknowledges the wealth of the area as a contributing factor towards the increased demand for artworks; ‘a considerable portion of inhabitants of Dutch towns had more than sufficient income to provide for their fundamental needs. Many chose to spend their surplus on furnishing for their homes, including pictures. This lead to a great demand for paintings..’. This augmented desire for art led to an abrupt and accelerated need for dealers within the art market. Fierce competition arose between both established and prospective art dealers, as the market was flooded with candidates vying for a place in the lucrative business of art dealership.

Montias (1989) identifies four different types of art dealer, typical of the 17th Century Dutch art market. The first type, the ‘uytdraegster’ was a type of dealer who operated solely in the lower-quality end of the art market spectrum, clearing estates and dealing in second hand goods. The second type was frame-makers and innkeepers who used their already established resources to display pieces. Montias (1988) identified the family of venerated Dutch artist Vermeer, as successful dealers who opted for these methods. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer come inn-keeper and his brother-in-law an art dealing frame maker. Such methods generated custom mostly from passing trade.  Merchant-dealers and artist-dealers are the final two types described by Monitas, it is these latter two types that he pinpoints as most instrumental.

Evidence shows that artist-dealers had been present in Amsterdam from as early as the 16th century (Montias 2002) and remained an active part of the 17th century art market. Artist-dealers were very often artists who were drawn into the business of dealership because they could not earn a substantial living from the primary production of art alone, and had instead turned to the secondary art market (Kleiner 2012). Their connections with the practicing art world were invaluable to artist-dealers particularly as the market, and with it specialization, grew. Alternatively, artist-dealers used their knowledge of what was in demand and searched fairs and estate auctions in smaller towns. Here they bought pieces that could be sold at a profit in the fashionable and wealthy locale of Amsterdam.

The second ancillary art dealer operating in 17th century Holland, the merchant-dealer, emerged later than artist-dealers, first appearing in the 1630s. They too often moved into art dealership from a different field. Experienced traders with financial security expanded into the art market after recognizing its lucrative potential. Despite competition between artist-dealers and merchant-dealers, both thrived in the expanding art market. This can be attributed to the increase in demand and as a result, the increased specialization of artists.

As the market expanded, it became evident that there was enough demand to enable artists to focus on acutely specific subjects. Many artists began working in highly specialized areas (Kleiner 2012). Dilettantes who desired or favored such exceptionally particular themes often relied on dealers to locate such specialists in order to produce specific pieces to fit their requirements. If dealers became aware of a sudden demand for a certain subject, they could augment supply by ordering such pieces from a suitable artist. Often contracts were drawn up between artists and dealers to produce a set amount of paintings on a certain subject. It was important to ensure the market was not saturated with a certain genre of painting, which would devalue it, but that demand was sufficiently met.

Very often artists were required to work at a surprisingly swift rate (Franits 1997). As a result, artists developed techniques that improved their productivity and reduced overall costs. Art became accessible to everyone in Holland during the 17th Century. Artists began creating works before they had been commissioned, resulting in a steady supply, which was met with unwavering demand. This was only possible due to financing provided by dealers, who gave the artists monthly wages, as well as material costs and bonuses upon completion.

However, dealers did not operate alone in the business of art, the Guild of St Luke, founded in Antwerp in the 14th century continued to function in Holland in the 17th century, representing a range of artists, dealers and dilettantes. As the 17th Century progressed, The Guild of St Luke began enforcing ever more stringent measures upon the art trade however, this limited artists more than it did dealers. Membership to the guild was required in many places for an artist to own a shop, take on an apprentice and even sell paintings to the public. These restrictions did not apply to dealers. The Guild’s attempt to monopolize the art market was inauspicious; many artists chose to work with dealers, who were minimally restricted by the guild’s rules. Artists chose, or were forced, to work with dealers for a number of reasons. A certain city’s guild limited the deportation of art works, but there was no restriction on guild certified dealers trading works sourced from outside of the city, (Praak 2003, p.246) therefore competition between artists reached an all time high. Contracts between dealers and painters reduced the risk for painters as wages and financial rewards were guaranteed, and often negotiated prior to sale.

However, sale and distribution of artwork in Holland during the 17th century was not limited to direct sourcing and commissioning. Lotteries and auctions played a huge role in the circulation of art works. The two also worked as a gateway for the common public to access art, both as owners and viewers. Auctions would often include lots of starkly ranging prices, and lottery tickets would be sold at a very low price. This gradually made art more accessible to the general population, and no longer was art a privilege of the extremely wealthy. As the availability of art grew many artists also built up a collection of unfinished pieces for potential buyers to view, similar to a gallery. The artist would then finish the painting if a client was interested. A similar practice was also very common in the Italy at the same time.

 The self-generating nature of Holland’s supply and demand equilibrium was not a unique one in the 17th century. Italy, and in particular Rome, also found itself at the centre of a vast and impressive art market fuelled by an ever increasing demand, subsequently met with unrivalled supply. The mechanics of Italy’s art market did vary from that of Holland, but several similarities can be drawn between the two.

     Contextual similarities are immediately noticeable. The art markets of both countries were hugely affected by war. Where war at the turn of the century had eventually led to the flourishing art market in the Dutch Republic; the wars of Castro, between the papacy and the city of Castro, completely transformed Italy’s art market in the mid 17th Century (Daltrop 1982).

     Before the decadal war, the Italian art market was heavily dictated by the ruling pope, his family and their extended entourage of dignitaries and cardinals. Leo XI, Paul V, Gregory XI were all keen patrons of the arts, but none so much as their successor; Urban VIII.  Pope Urban VIII in particular, who ruled with unconcealed nepotism during his 20-year reign of 1623-1644, relentlessly commissioned the most impressive, and expensive, of art works (Nussdorfer 1992). He and his nephews, of the Barbarini family, did indeed enthusiastically support the arts but also depleted an insurmountable sum of money in their attempts to glorify both themselves, and Rome. Their extravagant behavior was imitated by dignitaries and courtiers who cultivated impressive collections and built an array of grandiose churches and palaces; wealth poured into the art market and an in surge of artists began; a catalyst very similar to the mass migration of the Netherlands.  As a result artists who recognized the opportunities available to them in Rome, flocked from across Italy and Europe to the city, which soon became a creative metropolis and saw a remarkable growth in artistic production.

      Many members of the papal entourage viewed Rome as symbol for the church, rather than a nation (Haskell 1959). This lack of patriotism towards Rome as a state was reflected in the support they offered artists. Dignitaries and courtiers were inclined to offer patronage to artists who were from the same town as them. Haskell (1963) also identifies a repetitive pattern of patronage, which was essential to the success of the artist for two main reasons. The chosen painter would be immediately accommodated by the nobleman; often in a monastery or even his own palace and an altar painting would be commissioned for the luminary’s titular church. This commission was of vital importance as it usually brought the artist public recognition for the first time. Secondly, once the artist resided in the cardinal’s palace, he would be introduced to more high-ranking officials and potential future patrons. It was these contacts that would secure the prolonged success of the artist. The painter would continue to work in situ for his patron for many years before his reputation was respected enough by the widespread public for him to risk independent venture.  Even with a respected reputation, the painter had to be financially sound and well connected before he had any chance of succeeding independently.

     Conditions varied greatly between artists and patrons but the type of patronage known as ‘servitu particolare’ was common. Artists would take residence in the patron’s palace and receive a regular monthly wage. In addition to this wage the artist would also receive market price for any paintings he produced. Patrons were also known to incur trade related expenses of the artist, such as visits to view other artworks that may improve the artist’s ability. This form of patronage was popular among artists who were yet to establish a secure reputation as it gave them the opportunity to make important contacts while receiving a stable income. However, this form of patronage could be very restrictive and as an artist’s confidence and reputation grew, this type of patronage became less appealing and many artists opted for independence. Some artists involved with ‘servitu particolare’ patronage maintained a working relationship with their patrons, even after they had moved into their own studio; often artists would receive monthly allowances in exchange for first refusal of any paintings. Even entirely independent artists who worked without the support of patrons were in high demand and particularly well-established artists freely turned away noteworthy commissions, particularly if they were from foreign buyers. This situation however, soon changed.

     The unrivalled success enjoyed by many artists in Italy was short lived and toward the second half of the 17th Century, the country dipped into economic uncertainty as a result of the war with Castro. Pope Urban VIII had tumultuously financed an unnecessary war while he and his sycophants continued abundantly to build palaces and commission paintings. When Pope Urban VIII died, Pope Innocent took the papal throne and launched an investigation into the war. Remaining members of the Barbarini family fled Italy, leaving the papacy with considerable debts.  Acutely aware of the damage inflicted upon the economy, Pope Innocent enforced stringent austerity measures. Nepotism within the church weakened and cardinals were no longer given the funds to commission so many paintings. The art market was metamorphosed.

Artists worst affected by the new stringent guidelines were independent artists, with few official ties. This was because despite the strict regulations, Pope Innocent continued to authorize the lavish decoration of cathedrals across Rome. This was an attempt to project an image of wealth and power to Europe, an image that had been severely damaged by the actions of Pope Urban VIII and the Barbarini family. Rome’s artistic community was now in a state of disarray, as previously artists had been able to frequently turn away commissions and choose work at their will, many now struggled to find any work at all. Art dealers worked to find foreign commissions, which became the main source of income for most artists in the 1740s and ‘50s. Germany in particular became keenly interested in the artistic endeavors of Italy. German aristocrats used art as a tool much like the Italian papacy had done before them, using it to glorify their name and estate. This lead to a huge Italian presence in the European art market.  The importation of Italian art is widely considered a significant catalyst for the European art market to follow.

However, the Italian art market did allow Italian artists much more freedom than that of Dutch painters in their respective market. Commissions for paintings made in Holland were often very specific, whereas Italian patrons placed a considerable amount of trust in the judgment of the artist. Italian artists were left with a great deal of free reign and commissions were often made with little more than a suggested theme or event. Italian artists were known to turn to academics, philosophers and writers in order to create a truly profound painting. Despite the freedom enjoyed by Italian artists, they did face difficulties that were absent in the Dutch art market. Many Italian artists were commissioned to create paintings destined for distant palaces and churches, making it impossible to see the environment in which their painting would reside. Lighting and sizing were frequent concerns of Italian artists.

The art markets of both Italy and Holland during the 17th Century were remarkably resilient. Despite huge changes in the social and political economy, they remained active and thriving; this can be attributed to the extraordinary adaptability of the art market, which adjusts in order to suit the requirements of the time. The importance of supply and demand is tangible when discussing the structures of the markets and both markets benefited greatly from the self-generating nature of their respective markets. The artists practicing in both Holland and Italy during the turbulent era also showed remarkable adaptability. The general public’s perception of art as a profession was in a constant state of flux, changing between inspired artisan to little more than a skilled laborer.




Burns, C., 2012. How Long Can The Art Market Walk On Water. The Art Newspaper [online], July-August Volume (Issue 237). Available at <> [12.12.12]

Daltrop, G,. The Apollo Belvedere. The Vatican Collections. The Papacy and Art [exhibition catalogue; New York, 1982] 63 (1982).

Darby, G., 2001. The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt. London: Routeledge

De Marchi, N., 1995. The Role of Dutch Auctions and Lotteries in Shaping the Art Market(s) of 17th Century Holland. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization [online], Vol.28 (issue 2). Available at [Accessed 19.12.12]

Franits, W. 1997. Looking at 17th Century Dutch Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Haskell, F., 1959. The Market for Italian Art in the 17th Century. Past and Present [online], No.15, Apr., 1959

Haskell, F., 1963. Patrons and Painters: A Study into Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. Bath: Yale University Press

Kahr, M., 1993. Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century. 2nd ed. London: Icon Editions

Kleiner, F., 2012. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 14th ed. Boston: Clark Baxter

Lis, C., and Soly, H., 1997. Different Paths of Development: Capitalism in the Northern and Southern Netherlands During the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Review: Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. Vol.20 (issue 2). pp.210-240

Montias, J, M., 1988. Art Dealers in the 17th Century Netherlands. Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art [online], Vol.18 (issue 4). Available at [Accessed 19.12.12]

Montias, J, M., 1989. Vermeer and his Milieu: A Web of Social History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Montias, J, M., 2002. Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Nussdorfer, L., 1992. Civic Politics in the Rule of Urban VIII [online]. Available at: Accessed: 27.12.12

O’Malley, M., 2005. The Business of Art: Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy.


Praak, M., 2003. Guilds and the Development of the Art Market During the Dutch Golden Age. Netherlands Quarterly for The History of Art, Volume 30 (Issue 3) p. 239-240

Westgarth, M., 2009. The Art Market and its Histories. The Art Book, Volume 16(Issue 2), p32-33


How Art Brut Engaged with the Appropriation of the ‘Art’ of the Marginalised Elements of Contemporary Society and Attempted to Engage with the Notion of the ‘Authentic’

L’art brut is an artistic movement concerned with creative authenticity and originality; it is unequivocally linked with the French artist Jean Dubuffet and the ‘Copagnie de l’Art Brut’ group. Dubuffet consistently rejected traditional standards of aesthetics, favouring the pursuit of authentic art over the conventionally beautiful. His obsession with authenticity lead him to develop a theory proposing raw or crude art as preferential to the cultured, ‘museum-approved’ art typically given precedence to by critics and curators alike. Dubuffet was resolute in his belief that the inclination to make art was universally present in everyone, regardless of circumstance[1]. He argued that this innate inclination was polluted by popular culture, but believed that it remained pure and authentic in those who were removed from culture, existing in the darkened margins of contemporary society.

Dubuffet argued that educated artists absorbed in the cultured art world produced only false imitations lacking in originality. He labelled their fine-tuned attempts at rendering art little more than the product of a socially elite clique and their very act of creation no more than the preferred activity of a privileged group. He concluded that the ‘art of these intellectuals is false art’[2] and claimed to have found instances of true, authentic individuals unconcerned with the latest trends in art, during his time travelling Switzerland.

The term ‘l’art brut’ was first coined in 1945 by Dubuffet and used in conjunction with his 1947 exhibit of artworks which was ‘produced by children, the naïve, the “primitive”, and the psychotic’[3] at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris. He conceived the term in order to label the collection of work he had collected which he felt were uninfluenced by the cultured art world and borne from a pure, innate desire to create. However, although this was the first time the term had been officially used and accepted, the concept was not entirely new.

Following the growth of primitivism at the turn of the twentieth century, which saw both Picasso and Delacroix investigate the authenticity of anti-occidental art, avant-garde practitioners began recognizing huge significance in the artistic output of the mentally ill, the mediumistic and particularly in the work of children. Avant-garde artists regarded children’s art as entirely innocent, unrestricted forms of expression where ‘original, authentic forces of creation were at work’[4]. Many successful artists began placing important emphasis upon the act of creating, rather than solely upon the end product[5].

As the pioneer of Art Brut and advocator of the truly original, it can be easy to label Dubuffet as a heretic of the art world: rejecting the conventional and eschewing contemporary style in favour of the other and the authentic. However, his heterodoxy was not entirely innovative and original, as his philosophy borrowed largely from that of former expressionist artists such as Paul Klee and the fundamental group ‘Der Blaue Reiter’, as well as from the philosophy of Romanticism. Romantics were among the first to associate social outsiders and recluses with artists, as well as identifying a link between insanity and genius[6]. Dubuffet was significantly influenced by these preceding artistic movements and philosophies and showed considerable interest in insane asylums and sanatoriums in an attempt to engage with the authentic.

It can be argued that even Dubuffet’s persistent search for the authentic and original was borne out of mimicry. His ethos concerning authentic art was far from dissimilar to that of artists practicing decades earlier who placed emphasis on the condition of the artist and the act of creating, over the aesthetic outcome.

Dubuffet’s own search for authentic art preceded his definition and in early 1945, although he had not yet come to define Art Brut or identify the conditions under which it was typically made, he felt he had encountered it. Piery argues that because Dubuffet’s ‘investigation and discovery [of ‘art brut’] preceded the theory […] he let himself be guided by his private convictions’[7] signalling that art brut’s engagement with the notion of the authentic is very much dependant upon Dubuffet’s personal perception of the authentic. However, Dubuffet insisted that his declination to form a definition prior to discovery only served to support the authenticity of Art Brut. He asserted that had he defined Art Brut prior to its discovery, it would have only damaged its credibility:

‘It is surely not my business to formulate what Art Brut is. To define something- indeed even to isolate it- is to damage it a good deal. It comes close to destroying it.[8]


Dubuffet formulated the description of Art Brut once he felt he had found authentic and original artwork, he tailored the description to match the characteristics of the artefacts he had encountered. On his return from Switzerland Dubuffet finally offered this clarifying description of the type of art he held in the highest acclaim, and sought to label as ‘l’art brut’:


‘artistic works […] owing nothing (or as little as possible) to the imitation of art that one can see in museums, salons, and galleries; but that on the contrary appeal to humanity’s first origins and the most spontaneous and personal invention; works which the artist has entirely derived (invention and manner of expression) from his own sources, from his own impulses and humours, without regard for the rules, without regard for current convention’.[9]


However, it can be argued that over time Dubuffet and the Campagnie l’Art Brut selected specific works and rejected others in order to sustain this theory and definition, which may not have been accurate representation of authentic and original art in its true form. Dubuffet’s guidelines as to what constituted Art Brut led to frequent cases of seemingly unfair exclusion. Dubuffet declined to include the artwork of children in his collection of Art Brut, alleging they did not have the depth of character to produce authentic art work, even in the exceptional case of the autistic child artist Nadia[10], her work was omitted from exhibition. It can be argued that children are the least likely to be influenced by or exposed to artistic culture, and therefore the most original creators. It can also be inferred that as a result of Dubuffet’s strict criteria and despite his desperate attempt to engage with the authentic, he excluded prime examples of truly original artwork, in turn damaging the notion of Art Brut.

On the other hand, there are occasions of artistic practice that appear to exemplify Dubuffet’s description of Art Brut. One of the most influential artists who Dubuffet felt embodied the notion of Art Brut was brought to his attention by psychiatrist and art historian Walter Morgenthaler. His groundbreaking study ‘Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler: Adolf Wölfli’, translated as ‘A Psychiatric Patient as Artist: Adolf Wölfli’[11], detailed the artistic works of the severely psychotic Wölfli and offered an artistic evaluation rather than just a medical one. It was one of the first studies of its kind that named the patient and identified him as an important artist in his own right. This alongside Hans Prinzhorn’s ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathy of Configuration’[12] revolutionized thinking in the art world, elevating artwork of the mentally ill to the same standard as artwork of sane artists.

Dubuffet argued that Wölfli’s compulsive need to create art, despite his complete lack of artistic training, embodied the notion of Art Brut. His relentless urge to craft various forms of art during his lengthy incarceration in the Waldau Clinic in Switzerland lead Wölfli to overcome any impediment that restricted his ability to create, such as lack of materials. Morgenthaler recalls Wölfli’s obsessive need to express via art:


‘Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.[13]


Wölfli’s compulsive behavior was considered the most authentic form of artistic creation. His artwork was not borne out of desire to align himself with a particular clique in culture or to attain a certain standing in society, but out of a psychological need to create. Furthermore, Wölfli was incarcerated in the institute for the majority of his life, removed from central society and devoid of any formal artistic training. As a result of this, Dubuffet argued that he, and other self-alienated artists, were unconcerned with the reception their work might receive, if any. Self-alienated artists created only for themselves and to satisfy their innate need to create. Advocates of Art Brut argued that this was the most authentic form of art, regardless of aesthetic outcome, and attempted to engage with isolated artists in order to attain authenticity.

This disinterest in peer approval also suggests that creators of Art Brut have no desire, conscious or subconscious, to imitate or replicate the successful works of other artists and movements in the same way that typically cultured and educated artists do.  Although Dubuffet conceded that artwork produced by trained and refined artists were undoubtedly of some value and interest, he argued that because they were irrevocably influenced and inspired by other artists, they could never be deemed truly original and authentic, whereas pieces which fell into the category of Art Brut could. He argued that all cultured art was created as a result of, or in response to, previous art produced by the similarly privileged. In this way, Dubuffet felt that only practitioners removed from all artistic influence could truly produce original and authentic work, Art Brut attempted to engage with the authentic by seeking out artists entirely removed from the influence of artistic culture.

However, it can be argued that it is almost impossible to be fully removed from artistic culture. Even Wölfli, widely considered the most prevalent practitioner and paradigm of Art Brut, was exposed to generic culture for a considerable period of his life, where art would have been widely present. Incarcerated at the age of thirty, Wölfli had actively participated in society and inarguably absorbed cultural influences, which inevitably had an impact upon his later work. Wölfli’s art was frequently iconoclastic therefore he must have had some knowledge of cultural institutions in order to be able to attack those via visual media. Furthermore, Pierre Bourdieu criticized Art Brut’s insistence that the uncultured was the most authentic[14]. He argued that without the educated mind, trained in the field of art, the works of Art Brut would never have been recognized as significant and therefore were still routed in the cultured.

Some promising artists were omitted from the category of Art Brut due to Dubuffet’s stubborn resolve to include only marginalized, untrained artists. His initial aim was to include artists only largely uninfluenced by professional artistic culture.  However, Cardinal argues that even Dubuffet came to accept the impossibility of attaining absolute originality[15]. He conceded that it was inevitable an artist would be influenced by external factors, rather than creating purely from internal impulses. As the Copagnie de l’Art Brut grew, so did ambiguities in the constitution of Art Brut.

 Formed in 1948, the group initially consisted of Jean Debuffet, Andre Breton and Michel Tapie, among other members of the elitist art world, and was established in order to manage the artefacts housed at the Galerie Drouin but also to encourage and promote the production, exhibition and appreciation of works considered to be Art Brut. However, Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut asserted that art could only by authentic if produced without the intent of exhibition or concern of an audience. By actively encouraging the production and exhibition of Art Brut, Dubuffet established an internal paradox.

 However, Art Brut did not attempt to engage with authenticity solely via the work of the mentally ill. The Comagnie l’Art Brut also showed interest in the work of mediumistic artists. Andre Breton took particular interest in the work of spiritualist artists who he recognized as individuals internally compelled to create art.

Breton’s ideology that the most authentic form of creativity came as a result of spiritual or supernatural inspiration also echoed the attitude of Romanticism. The Romantics ‘positioned the artist as prophet and visionary’[16] and Breton recognized these qualities in spiritual, mediumistic and automatic works. Dubuffet had experimented with automatic writing as early as 1919 and considered visionary ability an important part of artistic creativity. He regarded art as an alternative means of knowledge, a more visionary means. Dubuffet defended the work of untrained artists by asserting that ‘knowledge and intelligence are weak instruments compared to vision’[17] and concluded that visionaries have little to do with intellectuals and academics. This premise was proven in the discovery of Augustin Lesage.

As one of the key spiritualist figures involved with the Art Brut movement, Lesage was educated to a low level and had received no formal artistic training. Lesage had worked as a miner for the majority of his life and was disinclined to engage with the arts in anyway, he remained sheltered from any professional artistic culture.  Lesage claimed that, at the age of thirty-five, he heard a supernatural voice which told him he would become a painter. From then on, Lesage is thought to have gained the ability to interact with the spiritual world and act as a medium; Lesage channelled this ability into automatic writing and painting. The Campagnie de l’Art Brut categorized Lesage as a practitioner of Art Brut under the pretence that he was unaffected by contemporary artistic culture and was instead only influenced by a higher power[18]. The Campagnie de l’Art Brut argued that mediumistic and spiritualistic painters were able to produce original and authentic works of art due to their unencumbered nature of being. Mediumistic painters who employed the technique of automatic painting were considered original and authentic, as they were able to filter out the influences and distractions of the cultured world and express themselves from an entirely internal desire. However, such instances were rare and difficult to locate, much like the work of mentally ill patients.

Defining Art Brut as a movement is problematic. Michel Tapié, core member of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, refuted the categorization of ‘movement’ and stated; ‘Our interest is not in movements, but in something much rarer, authentic individuals.’[19] Furthermore, since no ‘purely aesthetic standard for evaluating works of Art Brut[20]’ was ever agreed and Dubuffet’s very description of Art Brut severely limits the amount of possible practitioners and suggests they will exist, along with their work, in the most isolated of conditions. Art Brut attempts to engage with authentic art by examining the notion of original artistic intent.

It can be argued that both spiritualistic artists and mentally impaired artists are driven by a need to create which is, to a certain extent, out of their control. Supporters of Art Brut assert that this is the most authentic form of artistic production. Creativity is unbridled by the conscious thought in the case of mediums, and by rational thought in the case of the mentally unsound.

Art Brut attempted to engage with the notion of the authentic by seeking out the unusual and original and avoiding the stereotypical replicas produced by mainstream society. However, Art Brut’s groundbreaking ethos borrowed largely from preceding artistic movements, particularly that of the Expressionists, Avant Garde artists and the Romantics. Furthermore, their attempt to engage with the authentic was severely limited by the requirements they desired and the strict rules they enforced upon categorization. It could be argued that by formulating such a rigid ‘movement’ the Campagnie de l’Art Brut removed the originality from the individual. Had their guidelines been more flexible and catered to the individual, as they initially intended to do, perhaps more atypical art would have been championed and recognized by the cultured artistic world.



[1] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Let’s Make Some Room for Uncivic Behaviour’ in A Selection of Texts from Jean Dubuffet: Works/ Writings/ Interviews, ed. by Valerie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott (Michigan: Ediciones Poligrafta 1949).

[2] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) pp.557-686 (pp.605-8).

[3] ‘The Individual and the Social’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) pp.557-686 (p.603).

[4] Lucienne Piery, ‘The Other and The Elsewhere’ in Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art, (Michigan: Flammarian et Cie, 2001) pp.14-35 (p.18).

[5] Jonathon Fineberg, Discovering Child Art: Childhood, Primitivism and Modernism, (UK: Princeton University Press,1998)

[6] Joanne Cubbs, ‘Rebels, Mystics, and Outcasts: The Romantic Artist Outsider’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and Boundaries of Culture ed. by Michael. D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994)

[7] Lucienne Piery, ‘The Other and The Elsewhere’ in Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art, (Michigan: Flammarian et Cie, 2001) pp.14-35 (p.15).

[8] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Notes for The Well Lettered’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946)

[9] Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants (Paris: Gallimard, 1967)

[10] Lorna Selfe, ‘Nadia Reconsidered’ in The Development of Artistically Gifted Children (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995) pp. 197-237

[11] Walter Morgenthaler, Madness & Art: The Life and the Workds of Adolf Wölfli, Trans. by A. Esman (USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1921)

[12] Hans Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathy of Configuration (Austria: Springer-Verlag,1922)

[13] Morgenthaler, 1992. p.17

[14] Pierre Bourdieu, Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory. ed. by Bridget Fowler (London: Sage, 1997)

[15] Roger Cardinal, ‘Toward an Outsider Aesthetic’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994)

[16] Joanne Cubbs, ‘Rebels, Mystics, and Outcasts: The Romantic Artist Outsider’ in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and Boundaries of Culture ed. by Michael. D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994) p.77

[17] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Crude Art Preferred to Cultured Art’ from ‘Individualism in Europe’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946) p.607

[18] Romana Fotiade, Andre Breton: The Power of Language (UK: Elm Bank, 2000)

[19] Michel Tapie, ‘An Other Art’ from ‘Individualism in Europe’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000; An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952) p.629

[20] Roger Cardinal, ‘Art Brut’ The Museum of Modern Art – The Collection. (Oxford University Press, 2009) <; [Accessed 01.05.2013]

Review of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction

Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction was deemed an unprecedented success last night (Tuesday 26th June, 2012), after playing host to a series of record-breaking sales, obtained from a particularly fresh crowd. Masterfully led by Tobias Meyer, the auction achieved a more than respectable sale total of £69,307,050/$108,028,899/86,675,518 including buyers premium, against the estimate of £57m-£82m/$89m–$128m/71m-103m, sans premium. This most recent auction, held in London, brings the total for Sotherby’s Worldwide Contemporary Art Auctions to a remarkable £402.7m/$638.2m/501.4m, substantiating a growth of more than 25% compared to this same time last year. These encouraging figures are echoed in the exceptional sell-through rates of last night’s auction, which hold testimony to the promising buoyancy of the current contemporary art market.

A meager 12.7% of lots failed to sell with 93.4% of sold lots selling at value.  Such outstanding sell through rates have been seen internationally this month as Christie’s contemporary art auction, held in Paris, achieved sell through rates of 81% sold by lot and 93% sold by value. Although slightly lower than last night’s rates, it was in no means considered a failure and paired together these auctions give evidence of the growing market surrounding contemporary art. Although not yet stable, the market seems to have all but fully recovered from the worrying contraction it suffered in 2008 and 2009, a remarkable feat considering the instability and recession of financial markets worldwide.

Sotheby’s evening auction also gained welcome attention from newcomers last night, as 8% of the lots were sold to buyers yet to engage with the auction house, further exemplifying the constant, renewed demand for contemporary art. The auction also supported evidence that such demand is global, with buyers from no less than 15 countries participating in the sale.

Disappointingly, I felt the first lot of the evening, a sculpture by Yves Klein, whose artist ranking has plummeted in recent years, was a fairly safe but weak offering by Sotherby’s. Many of Klein’s lots have gone unsold in recent auctions or have failed to meet even the lower end of the estimate. His turnover shrank by a colossal 91% between 2010 and 2011 and I expected more vigor and excitement from the opening lot of such a prestigious auction.   The installation, ‘Untitled’, was met with a half-hearted response. Estimated at between £250,000-£300,000 the sale was closed at £260,000, only just making the lower end of the estimate.

Interest picked up somewhat with the subsequent lot as self-confessed Yves Klein enthusiast Piero Manzoni followed. Manzoni’s richly textured ‘Achrome’ was immeasurably influenced by the conceptual work of Klein, in particular his ‘Epoca Blu’ exhibit. The piece fetched £500,000, reaching the midpoint of its estimate range, perhaps suggesting a decline in the demand for nouveau realism.

Thankfully, this spoke little for the tone of the evening overall, as these lots were closely followed by the runaway success of Jean Dubuffet’s vivacious ‘Cherubin Oiuistiti’, from his most critically acclaimed series ‘Paris Circus’, borne out of celebration for the newly dynamic cosmopolitan city. Dubuffet’s turnover increased to more than £14 million between in 2011, a growth of 88% from 2010. His success has continued into 2012 and several keen bidders fought for the painting, which had been on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. since 1995. The hammer finally fell at the astonishing price of £850,000, more than doubling the upper estimate of £400,000. 

Prices continued to soar as the £1 million mark was broken just 4 lots in, with Alexander Calder’s dynamic sculpture installation ‘Untitled’. The piece was accompanied by an illuminating drawing, allowing the viewer an insight into Calder’s discourse and journey between planning and execution. Calder’s annual auction turnover is higher than ever before, as is his annual number of lots sold, and although his pieces rarely fetch over £125,000 (around 10%) the unusual combination of both sculpture and drawing enabled a channel of communication to be established, which bidders found highly appealing. The lot was sold for £1.3 million, almost doubling it’s lower estimate of £700,000. 

Despite a series of impressive lots, lot 23 was the star of the show last night as Glenn Brown’s epic ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)’ more than doubled it’s already confident estimate of £2.2m-£2.8m. The oil on canvas attracted the attention of several international bidders leading to a tense and memorable bidding war, finally concluding at an astonishing price of £4.6 million. The figure smashed the artist’s previous auction record of £1.25m for ‘Declining Nude’ sold in 2011, also by Sotherby’s, by more than £3million. Despite this phenomenal success, Brown only briefly held the auction record.    Little over half way and the auction reached its peak in price with neo-expressionist luminary Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Warrior’ drawing the attention of four determined bidders, finally selling for £5,585,250. Produced in 1982 in the midst of his most coveted period of 1981-83 the primitivist masterpiece easily met its sanguine estimate of £5-£7 million. The piece sold for almost double that of what it made last time it appeared in auction in 2007, also at Sotherby’s. Basquiat has risen over 600 points on the price index since 2007 and is currently at his all-time peak of 1013 points. Basquiat’s artistic reputation, as well as worth, is soaring and he has now been elevated above the status of ‘major contemporary artist’. Although his works are not yet matching the likes of Warhol in price, they seem to be regarded with the same revere. Perhaps this is due to the current financial crisis, Basquiat’s work is a sound investment and affordable for serious investors.

Attention was universally drawn by the work of German painter Frank Auerbach, who is currently enjoying a peak in popularity, having recovered from a dip in price index in 2010. Auerbach’s work was subject to a growth of more than 92% year. Bidders were spoilt for choice as an outstanding collection of 8 portraits were made available last night and unwavering interest was expressed. Sold separately, each portrait depicted Ruth Bromberg, but were painted over a period of 17 years, illustrating Auerbach’s gradual stylistic changes. ‘Ruth Bromberg Seated’ painted in 1992, attracted the highest bid and sold for £450,000. The octet of paintings was sold alongside an etching by Lucien Freud; ‘Bella in her Pluto T-Shirt’ sold for £48,000, comfortably making its £40,000-£50,000 estimate. His turnover of £21,279,077 in 2011 marks an astonishing growth rate of 256%. The collective were sold on behalf of The Executor of Ruth and Joseph Bromberg’s Estate. The collection of 9 pieces managed a combined total of 2,476,000 including buyers premium which were sold by way of donation to the British Friends of the Art Museums of Israel The proceeds from all 9 sales will advantage The Prints And Drawings Department of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

In addition to providing a visible portrayal of a 17-year stretch of Auerbach’s career, last night’s auction included three consecutive lots by Louise Bourgeois that expertly communicated her career as an artist.  Each lot exceeded the upper end of their estimate, although these were comparatively low considering Bourgeois’ astonishing turnover growth rate of over 240% from 2010 to 2011. With a turnover value of £12,102,591 in 2011 the estimates could certainly have been more ambitious.  The 3 pieces sold for £2 million in total, including buyer’s premium, against a surprisingly low estimate of £900,000 – £1.3 million. Bourgeois’ cast ‘Untitled (The Wedges)’ was the most successful of the trio, surpassing its estimate of £500,000 – £700,000 by £250,000 and selling for an impressive £950,000.

 As the auction came to a close the general consensus was that of renewed confidence in the contemporary art market. Although many lots exceeded all expectations and performed remarkably well, it must not be ignored that there were some disappointing results during the course of the evening. Raqib Shaw’s colourful celebration of hedonism ‘The Garden of Earthly Delight VIII’ failed to reach it’s optimistic estimate of £400,000-£600,000 and Glenn Brown unfortunately failed to match his previous success of ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin) with ‘ Atom Age Vampire’ – both remain unsold. Inspired by Frank Auerbach, ‘Atom Age Vampire’ also failed to mirror Auerbach’s success in the auction and could not meet its high estimate of £600,000 – £800,000.

More positively, Basquiat’s ‘Warrior’ and Brown’s ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)’ now hold the top two hammer prices for contemporary artists sold in Europe since 1st July 2011, respectively. Brown’s record-breaking oil on canvas is a prime example of the growing popularity surrounding ‘The Russian Doll Effect’ where art is inspired by art. Sotherby’s curated the auction with masterful subtlety, and allusions of ‘The Russian Doll Effect’ were often detectable.

The auction was skillfully curated with an eclectic range of contemporary art on offer. The selection also provided an accurate and stimulating representation of the diverse nature of contemporary art, supplying a refreshing blend of styles and medium spanning many sub categories of contemporary art. The auction held testimony as to why contemporary art remains popular with UK buyers and continues to attract growing attention from overseas collectors. Over the course of the evening 21 works went on to sell for over £1 million and 4 works went on to sell for over £4 million, defying the current austerity of the financial market.

All sold prices are recorded without the inclusion of buyer’s premium, and all estimates recorded with the inclusion of buyer’s premium, unless otherwise stated.

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Christie’ (1997) Christie’s – Fine Art Auctions and Private  Sales [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 14 Nov 2012]

Horowitz, N. 2011. Art of The Deal: Contemporary Art in A Global Financial Market. New Jersey: Princeton.

Goodwin, J. 2010. The International Art Markets. USA: Kogan Page

Sotherby’ (1996) Sotherby’s – English [online]. Available at [Accessed: 13 Nov 2012]

Stallabrass, J. 2006. Contemporary Art: A Short Introduction. UK: Oxford Press