Aelbert Cuyp, "Herdsman with Cows", 1645
Until recently it was the descriptive aspects of Dutch art that held the attention of viewers. For better or for worse, it was as a description of Holland and Dutch life that writers before the twentieth century saw and judged seventeenth—century Dutch art. Sir Joshua Reynolds, an antagonist, and Eugene Fromentin, an enthusiast, met in their agreement that the Dutch produced a portrait of themselves and their country—its cows, landscape, clouds, towns, churches, rich and poor households, its food and drink. The issue of what one could say, how one could convey the nature of such a descriptive art was felt to be a pressing one. Reynolds could only come up with an annotated list of Dutch artists and subjects in his journey to Flanders and Holland of 1781. He acknowledges that it provides “barren entertainment” in contrast to the lengthy analysis he can give of Flemish art. Here are some excerpts from the list:
Cattle and a shepherd, by Albert Cuyp, the best I ever saw of him; and the figure is likewise better than usual: but the employment which he has given the shepherd in his solitude is not very poetical: it must, however, be allowed to be truth and nature; he is catching fleas or something worse.
I couldn't find any Cuyp images with a solitary shepherd scratching himself, but I'm guessing that Reynolds would not have found this one any more "poetical" -- though it feels quite dream-like to me.
Jan van der Heyden and Adriaen van de Velde.
View of Düsseldorf with the church of St. Andrew, 1667
A View of a church by Vander Heyden, his best; two black friars going up steps. Notwithstanding this picture is finished as usual very minutely, he has not forgot to preserve, at the same time, a great breadth of light. His pictures have very much the effect of nature, seen in a camera obscura.
The above image is as close as I could come to two black friars going up steps.
I've never looked at outdoor scenes projected upon a camera obscura, but if it resembles the view finder of a camera, it seems that the above painting is different, in that it manages to show details in areas of bright sky as well as shadow, while still producing that kind of luminous glow specific to Dutch painting of that era.
Gerard Ter Bosch, "Suitor's Visit", 1658
Two fine pictures by Terburg, the white satin remarkably well painted. He seldom failed to introduce a piece of white satin in his pictures.
Terburg is now called Gerard Ter Borch the Younger (1617-1681). Above is an example of a picture that includes a piece of white satin.
Was Reynolds looking at a figurative scene similar to above ? There is plenty of narrative content to the above visit to a brothel - but as a painter, perhaps Reynolds would only have been fascinated by the sheen of the satin.
JanWeenix, Still Life with Swan and Game, 1685
Dead swans by Weenix, as fine as possible. I suppose we did not see less than 20 pictures of dead swans by this painter.
This area of detail seems to far surpass the painting as a whole.
These quotes are now found in "The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds", which may be downloaded here
Where we may also find his report concerning the leading Flemish painter, Rubens:
Rubens, Great Last Judgment
There is nothing very interesting in this picture, perhaps there is a too great quantity of flesh. Three naked women and a naked man join together to make the great mass of light in the picture. One of the women who is looking out of the picture, has for that reason the appearance of a portrait, and is said to be one of Rubens' wives; and a figure rising out of the grave in the foreground is said to be his own portrait, but certainly neither of these suppositions is well founded.
Nor might those suppositions be included in a serious discussion of the narrative or formal aspects of this painting. Reynolds is chatting away like a tour guide.
The next large picture is Michel combating the fallen angels - Michel is but an ungraceful figure. His red mantle has but a heavy appearance. It seems as if it were only laid in flat to be afterwords finished. The picture has certainly suffered by cleaning. There wants upon the whole a solidity of effect.
All of these Rubens paintings are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum which must be rather restrictive about the proliferation of images since no good big ones are yet to be found on the internet -- and their website does not mention this painting at all. Yet here it is -- in a snapshot of the gallery shown below:
Rubens, Small Last Judgment
The next is called the small Last Judgment. As in the large picture the blessed are the the most conspicuous. Here the damned make in a manner the subject of the composition; the blessed are faintly represented at a distance in the upper part of the picture, near Christ and the Virgin Mary. This picture is far superior to the large one on the same subject in every respect.
There is no less "quantity of naked flesh" in this version than in the "Great Last Judgment" -- but the twisting of the entire design is far more energetic.
Rubens, Fall of the Damned
But there is another picture of the Fallen Angels, of the same size as this, which even exceeds it. It is impossible to form an adequate idea of the powers of Rubens without having seen this picture: he seems here to have given a loose to the most capricious imagination in the attitudes and invention of his fallen angels. who arc tumbling one over the other, with "hideous ruin and combustion, down to the bottomless perdition"
If we consider the fruitfulness of invention which is discovered in this work, or the skill which is shown in composing such an infinite number of figures. or the art of the distribution of the light and shadow, the freedom of hand, the facility with which it seems to be performed. and what is still more extraordinary, the correctness and admirable taste of drawing of figures fore·shortened, in attitudes the most difficult
to execute, we must pronounce this picture to be one of the greatest efforts of genius that ever the art has produced.
Spoken as the president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds' first priority seems to be technical accomplishment. (Though I far prefer Rubens' drawings, since they come from his own hand. The drawing in these paintings appears quite uneven.)
Alpers must have been referring to some other Reynolds' commentary about Flemish aritsts -- because these comments about Rubens hardly qualify as "lengthy analysis"
It is hard for us, as heirs to the art of the nineteenth century, to get back to the frame of mind that made Reynolds disparage this descriptive art. We are after all convinced, as he was not, that a great painting can be made as Cezanne made it, for example, of two men playing cards, or a bowl of fruit and a bottle, or as Monet did of a patch of water lilies in a pond.
Yes - and it's the interior contradiction of Reynold's statement that is even harder for me to accept. One the one hand Reynolds tells us that these Dutch paintings "afforded so much pleasure" -- but on the other "their merit often consists in the truth of representation alone". Surely he would have allowed that some representations (street maps, medical illustrations) may be judged true but still give no pleasure to the eye.
And I'm wondering what "other sense" Reynolds had in mind. It must be something to do with the viewer's ability to talk about the painting. Verbal descriptions of Dutch painting could be nothing more than "barren entertainment" for him- and apparently Reynolds cultivated clever and intellectual conversation in his circle of friends.
Three Ladies Adorning a Temple of Hymen, 1773
It might also be noted that Reynolds was the son of an Anglican clergyman and might not have had much sympathy for the more Protestant world of the Dutch. His practice, as a painter, was to portray the elegance of the English aristocracy - which was also foreign to the world of Dutch painting.
Eugene Fromentin, 1847
But it is equally hard for us today to value Dutch art for the reasons given by a nineteenth-century enthusiast like Fromentin. In an often-quoted passage, Fromentin in 1876 argues, with reference to the 1609 truce with Spain and the founding of the new state, that ''Dutch painting was not and could not be anything but the portrait of Holland, its external image, faithful, exact, complete, life-like, without any adornment." He put the central issue succinctly at one point: "What motive had a Dutch painter in painting a picture? None.,
Alpers then introduces us to Eugene Fromentin, a French painter born about a hundred years later, who also considers 17th C. Dutch painting to be all about description. But as you can see above, Fromentin may well have thought that he was doing the same thing.
We feel a loftiness and a goodness of heart, an affection for the true, a love for the real, that give their works a value the things do not seem to possess.
Above, Fromentin begins to speculate on what the painting is offering besides "truth in representation"
We live in the picture, we walk about in it, we look into its depths, we are tempted to raise our heads to look at its sky.
Alpers asserts that the above quote suggest that "he was always on the verge of denying that which makes the art separate from, different from the life."
That is not a conclusion that I would draw - but Fromentin also wrote that Dutch painting is:
"an art which adapts itself to the nature of things, a knowledge that is forgotten in presence of special circumstances in life, nothing preconceived, nothing which precedes the simple, strong and sensitive observation of what is."
As Alpers reminds us, the art historians of our time are concerned with the elements of pictorial and narrative style that precede the "observation of what is"....and suggests that "there has been too great a price paid in visual experience in this current appeal to understanding verbal depths. Dutch art itself challenges such a view"
.... though it appears to me that all art challenges that view - as indeed, actual works of art challenge whatever can be said about them.. Which is why I would suggest that art talk is better the closer it holds to the specific rather than the general. Unfortunately Fromentin's art commentary has not been translated into English, so I cannot find the original context for the above excerpts.
Veronese,"Wedding at Cana", 1562
The Italian attends only to the invariable, the great and general ideas which are fixed and inherent in universal Nature; the Dutch, on the contrary, to literal truth and a minute exactness in the detail, as I may say, of Nature, modified by accident. The attention to these petty peculiarities is the very cause of this naturalness so much admired in the Dutch picture, which , if we suppose it to be a beauty, is certainly of a lower order that ought to give place to a beauty of a superior kind, since one cannot be obtained but by departing from the other.... Reynolds
Curiuosly, Alpers does not share the above quote, which comes from the same book that she quoted earlier.
It leads right into her main theme:
Since the institutionalization of art history as an academic discipline, the major analytic strategies by which we have been taught to look at and to interpret images-style as proposed by Wolfflin and iconography by Panofsky, were developed in reference to the Italian tradition.
Following the lead of other dissenters that she lists (Alois Riegl, Otto Pacht, Lawrence Gowing, Michael Baxandall, and Michael Fried), she will abandon that doctrine and propose a different way to discuss a group of images:
A major theme of this book is that central aspects of seventeenth-century Dutch art-and indeed of the northern tradition of which it is part-can best be understood as being an art of describing as distinguished from the narrative art of Italy
This distinction of narrative/descriptive is identical to Reynolds', but presumably she will not join him in judging the descriptive art to be of a "lower order" (but since she is a professional art historian rather than the director of an art school, she is probably reticent to rate any art tradition above another)
In the seventeenth Century and again in the nineteenth some of the most innovative and accomplished artists in Europe - Caravaggio and Velasquez and Vermeer, and later Courbet and Manet - embrace an essentially descriptive pictorial mode.
Caravaggio, "Crucifixion of St. Peter", 1600
Velasquez, 'Water Seller", 1618-1622
Vermeer,"Woman with Scales", 1662
Manet, "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe", 1862
Caravaggio's "Crucifixion of St. Peter", and Velasquez "Water Seller" ,Vermeer's Woman with Scales, and Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe figures are suspended in action to be portrayed. The stilled or arrested quality of these works is a symptom of a certain tension between the narrative assumptions of the art and an attentiveness to descriptive presence. There seems to be an inverse proportion between attentive description and action: attention to the surface of the world described is achieved at the expense of the representation of narrative
It is not apparent to me that all four of these paintings are examples of "an essentially descriptive pictorial mode"
But Zola did make a good argument about "The Luncheon on the Grass":
.... of the Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists. Thus, assuredly, the nude woman of The Luncheon on the Grass is only there to furnish the artist the occasion to paint a bit of flesh."
Jan Van Eyck, "Annunciation" , 1434-1436
Jan van Eyck's eye operates as a microscope and as a telescope at the same time ... so that the beholder is compelled to oscillate between a position reasonably far from the picture and many positions very close to it .... However, such perfection had to be bought at a price. Neither a microscope nor a telescope is a good instrument with which to observe human emotion .... The emphasis is on quiet existence rather than action .. .. Measured by ordinary standards the world of the mature Jan van Eyck is static.
What Panofsky says of Van Eyck is quite true. But the "ordinary standards" that he calls on are none other than the expectations of narrative action created by Italian art.
As a final example, Alpers offers up Pankofsky's discussion of Van Eyck. (I don't know if he had any specific piece in mind .... I picked the Annunciation from the National Gallery because I'll be seeing it this Sunday)
Simone Martini, 'Annunciation', 1333
Is this Annunciation less static ? The answer does not seem obvious.
It does seem that both paintings portray events in a world - a spiritual world - whose actions are far removed from flesh-and-blood existence.
But that is not the issue that Panofsky and Alpers were raising.
Although it might appear that painting by its very nature is descriptive-an art of space, not of time, with still life as its basic theme-it was essential to the Renaissance aesthetic that imitative skills were bound to narrative ends. The istoria, as Alberti wrote, will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movement of his soul. ..... Because of this point of view there is a long tradition of disparaging descriptive works. They have been considered either meaningless (since no text is narrated) or inferior by nature ..
Would not the same disparagement have been directed toward works which had a narrative - but that narrative was considered wrong or less important. ?
Time and again the hierarchy of mind over sense and of educated viewers over ignorant ones has been summoned to round out the argument for narration with a blast at an art that delights the eyes .
Isn't "art that delights the eye" a category that only sometimes overlaps with an art of " literal truth and a minute exactness in the detail,"?
"Eye candy" is the current pejorative for that which seems untethered to an important idea.
Dutch pictures are rich and various in their observation of the world, dazzling in their display of craft, domestic and domesticating in their concerns. The portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and the presentation of daily life represent pleasures taken in a world full of pleasures: the pleasures of familial bonds, pleasures in possessions, pleasure in the towns, the churches, the land. In these images the seventeenth century appears to be one long Sunday, as one recent Dutch writer has put it, after the troubled times of the previous century. Dutch art offers a delight to the eyes and as such seems perhaps to place fewer demands on us than does the art of Italy.
The above qualities may also be found in contemporary photography.
But a painting can offer all that -- plus something else --- can't it ?
Vermeer, "Little Street", 1657
Presumably, the three women shown above were not intended to be characters in a story told elsewhere, so we are not required to know that story, analyze this interpretation, and compare it with others.
Alpers might then assert that this painting is placing fewer demands on us than if there had been such a story.
But can't this, and any, depiction of multiple human figures, demand some kind of explanation? Who are these people ? What's going on here ? What kind of world are they living in ? Why is it important for us to see them ? Why is this scene so attractive? How does the artist feel about them ? Does the absence of a known narrative make those questions any easier?
Perhaps this painting would not have provoked such questions from Alpers. Indeed, most paintings with multiple human figures do not interest me enough to provoke any questions at all from me. The entire oeuvre of Thomas Kinkaide for example. Curiosity is proportional to attraction -- at least for me -- and the same might be said about everyone except scientists - or art historians who think of themselves as cultural anthropologists.
From the point of view of its consumption, art as we think of it in our time in many respects began with Dutch art. Its societal role was not far from that of art today: a liquid investment like silver, tapestries, or other valuables, pictures were bought from artists' shops or on the open market as possessions and hung, one presumes, to fill space and to decorate domestic walls. We have few records of commissions and little evidence of buyers' demands. The problem faced by a modern viewer is how to make this art strange, how to see what is special about an art with which we feel so at home, whose pleasures seem so obvious.
Why should we try to make something "strange" ? To what extent is that possible ? And how important are financial and decorative considerations ?
17th C. Dutch Art-- indeed all historical art -- already appears quite strange to me --i.e. the art of each period is identifiable as such -- and feels quite distant from 21st Century America.
Flemish painting ... will ... please the devout better than any painting of Italy. It will appeal to women, especially to the very old and the very young, and also to monks and nuns and to certain noblemen who have no sense of true harmony. In Flanders they paint with a view to external exactness or such things as may cheer you and of which you cannot speak ill, as for example saints and prophets. They paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges, which they call landscapes, with many figures on this side and many figures on that. And all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skillful choice or boldness and, finally, without substance or vigour.......It is practically only the work done in Italy we can call true painting, and that is why we call good painting Italian.
To further establish the distance between northern European and Italian art, we're given this quote from Francisco de Holanda, a Portuguese artist and writer who met Michelangelo and attributed the above judgment to him.
Francisco/Michelangelo may have faulted the northerners for "external exactness", but no direct reference is made to narrative. It's mostly about formal qualities like symmetry, proportion, vigour, substance, harmony, and boldness.
Hugo Van Der Goes, Portinari altarpiece, 1475
Surely Francisco and Michelangelo were familiar with the Portinari altarpiece which then hung in a chapel in Florence. Did they really think that it would only appeal to very young and very old women ? Yikes!
Durer, "Great Piece of Turf" (detail), 1503
The Italian bias is still evident today in the writings of those art historians who are anxious to demonstrate that-Dutch art is like Italian, that it too had its classical moment, produced its significant history paintings, that it too signified. Art history has witnessed powerful attempts to rework northern art in the image of the south. I think this can fairly be said to be part of the thrust of Panofsky's studies. He ranked the southern aspirations of Durer over his northern heritage: in Panofsky's account the Durer who depicted the nude and was in intrigued with perspective is favored over the descriptive artist of the Great Piece of Turf. But even Durer's exercises in the nude and his architectural settings which are often devious in their complexity, hardly reveal a southern sense of picture making.
Giovanni Bellini, "Ecstasy of St. Francis", 1480 (detail)
Would Panofsky have considered the botanical details in the above somehow less descriptive than the plants in "The Great Piece of Turf" ?
Durer, "Fall of Man", 1504 (detail)
Titian, 'Fall of Man", 1550
Titian also seems no less interested in botanical detail - and, curiously enough, his human figures seem more natural, and less artificially constructed than the "Adam" in Durer's version.
Chen Wu, Orchid (detail), 1832
The botanical concerns of Chinese artists might also be considered. The notion of "description" is rather tangential to their Taoist philosophy of natural forces, internal and external, but the resulting images seem quite similar.
Many students of Dutch art today view the notion of Dutch realism itself as the invention of the nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the rediscovery of the relationship of a number of motifs in Dutch paintings to prints affixed with mottoes and texts in the popular emblem books of the time, iconographers have concluded that Dutch realism is only an apparent or schijn realism. ................... as I shall argue, northern images do not disguise meaning or hide it beneath the surface but rather show that meaning by its very nature is lodged in what the eye can take in however deceptive that might be.
What are the benefits of speculation concerning the un-articulated thoughts of an artworld ? Especially one that vanished over 300 years ago.
It's so difficult to keep historic notions distinct from one's own. In the above quote, Alpers moves seamlessly from historic to contemporary.
In the following paragraph, she moves in the opposite direction - from contemporary to historic:
How then are we to look at Dutch art? My answer has been to view it circumstantially. This has become a familiar strategy in the study of art and literature. By appealing to circumstances, I mean not only to see art as a social manifestation but also to gain access to images through a consideration of their place, role, and presence in the broader culture. I begin with the example of the life and some of the works of Constantine Huygens, secretary to the stadholder, a voluminous writer and correspondent and a leading cultural fi gure in the Netherlands. His early discovery of Rembrandt and his engagement with the arts have long been of interest to historians of art and of literature.
It would be more direct to access an historic culture through its images, rather than the other way around - but that would be outside the interpretive function of academic art history.
The distinction between this seventeenth Century emphasis on seeing and representation and the Renaissance emphasis on reading and interpretation has been illuminated recently for us in the writing of Michel Foucault.
It's helpful for this introduction to identify the author's allegiance to postmodern theory -- but since I don't share it, the above distinction remains highly speculative to me - except regarding the world of contemporary art which does privilege reading and interpretation above visual qualities.
Aligning herself with the notion of "visual culture" and "period eye", Alpers then offers several characteristics of that culture in 17th C. Netherlands:
*The Dutch present their pictures as describing the world seen rather than a imitations of significant human actions.
*Already established pictorial and craft traditions, broadly reinforced by the new experimental science and technology, confirmed pictures as the way to new and certain knowledge of the world.
*A number of characteristics of the images seem to depend on the frequent absence of a positioned viewer, as if the world came first
* a formidable sense of the picture as a surface (like a mirror or a map, but not a window) on which words along with objects can be replicated or inscribed
*an insistence on the craft of representation (extravagantly displayed by a Kalf who repeatedly recrafts in paint the porcelain, silver, or glass· of the craftsman along side the lemons of Nature herself).
All of which might apply to many Dutch painters, especially to the landscapists -- but none of which applies to Rembrandt. Was he such a total anomaly ? Didn't any other Dutch painters portray religious dramas ?
"Amnon and Tamar", 1661-1670.
And though a concept of "visual culture" seems relevant to our commercial advertising driven contemporary world, doesn't any analysis of the intellectual life of 17th C. Holland need to address its Christian faith ?
It is, finally, hard to trace stylistic development, as we are trained to call it, in the work of Dutch artists. Even the most naive viewer can see much continuity in Northern art from Van Eyck to Vermeer, and I shall often look-back from the seventeenth century to similar phenomena in earlier northern works. But no history on the developmental model of Vasari has ever been written, nor do I think it could be. This is because the art did not constitute itself as a progressive tradition. It did not make a history in the sense that art did in Italy. For art to have a history in this Italian sense is the exception, not the rule. Most artistic traditions mark what persists and is sustaining, not what is changing, in culture.
There seems, at least to me, a similar development towards naturalism in both the Van Eyck-Vermeer and Giotto-Titian comparisons shown above.
In the beginning, it seemed as if Vasari measured progress by truth to nature: "That very obligation which the craftsmen of painting owe to nature ... should be owed, in my belief, to Giotto"
But when he got to Titian, it wasn't very clear just what that artist was supposedly doing so well. He seems less like an historian of the development of ideas -- and more like a chronicler of famous people.
In Holland the visual culture was central to the life of the society. One might say that the eye was a central means of self-representation and visual experience a central mode of self-consciousness.....Having said so much about what the book will include, I should perhaps mention what it will not. On the subject of religion this book does not,directly, have much to say.
Alpers then suggests that Dutch visual culture, from Van Eyck to Vermeer, did not reflect the change in religious conviction of the Protestant Reformation -- and "To the argument that secular subject matter and moral emblematic meanings speak to Calvinist influence, one must counter that the very centrality of and trust to images seems to go against the most basic Calvinist tenet-trust in the Word. Such a view is surely supported by the contrasting absence of images in Presbyterian Scotland or Calvinist New England." "
Which is a point well taken.
Were the Dutch more interested in what artists were showing than in what preachers were preaching?
God bless them!
But their story should not omit the previous hundred years of political/religious conflict with the Hapsburgs.
Pieter Saenredum, 1660
We sorely need a social history of Dutch religion (and Dutch society). There one would have to consider such things as the extraordinary lack of religious prejudice or aggression in Holland ... Dutchmen seem to have suffered much less than other Europeans from a sense of the threat posed by conflicting views of society or of God. A recent study locates this right in the art by pointing to the ecumenical.nature of Saenredam's church portraits: he adjusts arches so as to blend different architectural styles and thus efface historical and confessional differences.
Saenredum has been mentioned several times in previous books that I've read, and this is the first I've heard about the 'blending' That's fascinating.
Toleration has its practical side. Like the merchants' insistence on trading with the enemy during the continuing conflict with Spain, it insures that business will continue as usual
Toleration is one thing that can be said for a social order that places commerce over everything else. That's been the U.S.A. as well. The downside is that war, slavery, prostitution, drugs, and toxic food can be good for somebody's business.
Father Cats is more distinctive as a taxonomist of social behavior than as the dogmatic moralist he is often taken to be. Dutch art is involved with this view. Pictures document or represent behavior. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive. A constant pressure is felt to make distinctions, to portray each thing-be it a person, a flower, or a type of behavior-so as to make it known. But along with this anxiety to define there is an ease with boundaries. Dutch art is notoriously subject to confusion with life. And those cultural and societal boundaries so basic to the definition of the urban West that mark off the city from the country, or the whore from the wife, can be curiously blurred.
Notions of 'descriptive' cannot be value free -- because a description advocates that some particular kind of thing is important enough to notice -- and in the case of many Dutch paintings, make exceptionally beautiful. Accompanying prescriptions can be tighter or looser, but descriptions still apply pressure on what to seek or avoid.
This book is not intended as a survey of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Certain artists and certain types of images will get more attention than others, some will receive little or no comment at all. I have concentrated on those artists and works that seem to me to show most clearly certain things that are basic to Dutch art. While I think that the emphasis on the art of describing is not of exclusive importance, it is essential to an understanding of Dutch art.
I'd prefer to say that 17th C. Dutch painting is one among many (including Italian) painterly arts of describing. But we'll see how she elaborates "the art of describing" -- and I'm especially looking forward to how she will show that how Vermeer "reflected deeply on it" while Rembrandt was "in conflict with it"