It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Monday, August 25, 2014

Alpers - Constantijn Huygens and the New World

Alpers: Chapter One: Cnstantijn Huygens and the New World

This is Chapter One of Sventlana Alpers' "The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century", 1983

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in Orange

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Thomas De Keyser, portrait of Constantijn Huygens and his Clerk, 1627

"Rembrandt is superior to Lievens in judgment and in the representation of lively emotional expression, but Lievens has greater grandeur of invention and boldness than Rembrandt."... Constantijn Huygens

Constantijn Huygens is a fascinating fellow - obviously possessing a lively mind that, under the supervision of  his father, was given a broad education in the arts, sciences, and languages  - preparing him for a career as a diplomat and courtly advisor. (eventually, he would tutor William Henry of Orange, who would become King William III of England).

Today, some of his religious poetry -- and his musical compositions - remain in print.

He was in his early thirties when he discovered the studio of two young painters, Rembrandt and Lievens, then both about 20, and he would promote both of their careers.

Jan Lievens, portrait of Constantijn Huygens, 1627-1630

Huygens' memoir has been  a gold mine for art historians - but unfortunately it has not been translated into English.

Rembrandt, "Judas Repentant", 1627

Here is Huygens' take on the above painting:

"The singular gesture of the despairing Judas - leaving aside the many fascinating figures in this one painting – that one furious Judas, howling, praying for mercy, but devoid of hope, all traces of hope erased from his countenance, his appearance frightening, his hair torn, his garment rent, his limbs twisted, his hands clenched bloodlessly tight, fallen prostrate on his knees on a blind impulse, his whole body contorted in wretched hideousness. Such I place against all the elegance that has been produced throughout the ages. ... I maintain that it did not occur to Protagenes, Appeles or Parrhasius, nor could it occur to them were they return to earth that (I am amazed simply to report this) a youth, a Dutchman, a beardless miller, could bring together so much in one human figure and express what is universal. All honor to thee, my Rembrandt!"

Alpers does not mention the two  quotes shown above, but they do exemplify Huygens'  interest in dramatic narrative that she calls conventional. (i.e. based on the Italian model)

It's so exciting to read a bright, articulate commentary by a contemporary observer who knew the artists, I badly want to agree with his observations.   But I can't.

I saw a Jan Lievens show in Milwaukee five years ago, and  can agree about the  boldness and  "grandeur of invention" in his early paintings, but I'm not familiar enough with Rembrandt from the 1620's to make any judgment.   His 1631 Man With a Gold Chain ,at the Art Institute, hardly lacks those qualities.

But Huygens' comments about "Judas Repentant" mystify me.  The scene seems to be so much more about the hypocritical clerics than about   furious Judas, howling, praying for mercy . And, of course, Huygens had never seen a painting by   Protagenes, Appeles or Parrhasius , so it's a bit fanciful to mention them.  Enthusiasm for Rembrandt's narrative ability seems to have carried him away.

Jacob Van Campen, portrait of Constantijn Huygens and wife, 1635

Michiel Van Mierevelt, portrait of Constantijn Huygens, 1641

Here's two later portraits of Huygens  -- this man liked artists! (as well as himself) -- making it yet more difficult to pay attention to what Alpers has to say about him -- but she wants to direct our attention to his praise for  Francis Bacon and Cornelius Drebbel

Indeed, material objects that till now were classified among atoms since they far elude all human eyesight, present themselves so clearly to the observer's eye that when even completely inexperienced people look at things which they have never seen, they complain at first that they see nothing, but soon they cry out that they perceive marvelous objects with their eyes. For in fact this concerns a new theater of nature, another world, and if our revered predecessor De Gheyn had been allotted a longer life span, I believe he would have advanced to the point to which I have begun to push people (not against their will): namely, to portray the most minute objects and insects with a finer pencil, and then to compile these drawings into a book to be given the title of the New World, from which examples could be incised in metal.

Above is what Huygens wrote consequent to his experience of looking through Drebbel's microscope.

Jacob De Gheyn, sketch of witches and crab

In calling for a fine artist to record what he sees in a microscopic lens, Huygens assumes that picturing serves a descriptive function. It is not tied to received and hallowed knowledge but to new sights of a very individual kind.

Who else could Huygens have summoned to portray this "New World" if not someone we might call a "fine artist" ?

And I wonder how concerned Huygens would have been about the density and accuracy of details in this book he would like to see.

Was he more concerned with biological identification and analysis -- or with provoking the sense of wonder concerning Nature and praise for the God who made it ? 

Alpers does not tell us how he critiqued such depiction, if he ever did.

BTW , the example that Alpers shared, shown above - joining the naturalistic depiction of a crab with some fanciful witches and demons, is unique.  Elsewhere,   De Gheyn depicted such subjects separately -- and no one is sure why he put them here on the same page.  Was it just to save paper - as one might do in a book of random sketches ?

What is interesting to us as viewers of pictures is the immediate connection that Huygens makes between the new technology and knowledge captured in a picture.   This invocation of De Gheyn's skill is supported by a certain notion of  picturing and of sight: we draw what see and conversely to see  is to draw. There is an assumed identity between seeing and the art of drawing that is realized in the artist's image.

The Huygens quote does  not support any of  these assertions.  Huygens has not yet told us about whatever knowledge he might wish to gain from the images.  Perhaps he was only interested in the strangeness of the beauty -- as I have been when looking at magnified images of tiny creatures. (I'm certainly glad that professional biologists can use them -- but I just want to stare in wonder)

But even if Huygens had told us what kind of  knowledge he wanted captured - that would imply a notion of recognition rather than sight:   "we draw what we can recognize" --- rather than "we draw what we see"

Art, as Clifford Geertz has shown us, is part and parcel of a cultural system. Geertz argues that the kind of presence art has is not an absolute fact, vocable in some universally valid aesthetic terms, but is locally specific.

The definition of art in any society is never wholly intra-aesthetic, and indeed but rarely more than marginally so. The chief problem is presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter; what art is in classical China or classical Islam, what it is in the Pueblo southwest or highland New Guinea, is just not the same thing, no matter how universal the intrinsic qualities that actualize its emotional power (and I have no desire to deny them) may be. The variety that anthropologists have come to expect in the spirit beliefs, the classification systems, or the kinship structures of different people, and not just in their immediate shapes but in the way of being-in-the-world they both promote and exemplify, extends as well to their drummings, carvings, chants, and dances. .....(Clifford Geertz - as quoted by Alpers)

The full text of Geertz's 1976 essay, "Art as a Cultural System" (found online here ), argues on behalf of this definition, calling for an interpretative semiology of each period of art, and offering Michael Baxandall's "Painting and Experience in 15th C. Italy" as one example. Obviously, this book is Alpers' attempt to do the same thing for 17th C. Holland.

"If we observe that Piero della Francesca tends to a gauged sort of painting, Fra Angelico to a preached sort of painting, and Botticelli to a danced sort of painting, we are observing something not only about them but about their society".... Baxandall

OK -- but   we  have only some vague ideas about how 15th C. Florentines  preached and danced, while mercantile gauging would have been a worldwide phenomenon until the last century or so. Meanwhile, except for the deterioration of some pigments, we can see the unique qualities of Florentine paintings exactly as they left them.

And even if we could step into a time machine to carefully study preaching, dancing, and everything else in that period, aren't systems  of meaning unstable, and aren't artists notorious for being  incomprehensible to conventional minds ?

...exposing the structure of a work of art and accounting for its impact are not the same thing. What Nelson Goodman has called "the absurd and awkward myth of the insularity of aesthetic experience," the notion that the mechanics of art generate its meaning, cannot produce a science of signs or of anything else; only an empty virtuosity of verbal analysis. --- Geertz

Formal analysis is too reductive to account for the impact of a work of art.  But what is the importance of  conventional impact?    The "Harry Potter" series were among the best selling books (450 million copies)  in history.  But I still don't want to read them  and I don't care why they're so popular, unless someone can write about that in an articulate,  perceptive,  and learned way.

Geertz  proclaims that The chief problem is presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity.

..... but aesthetic force seems to have had a haphazard connection to social activity.  Sometimes (Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel) it's been at the very center of institutional life -- but other times (Van Gogh) it's been created at the margins of society.


Getting back to Huygens, Alpers offers another quote to exemplify his interest in new natural knowledge, and the authority of the visual (of new things seen) over the textual (of old ideas written):

Nothing can compel us to honor more fully the infinite wisdom and power of God the Creator unless, satiated with the wonders of nature that up till now have been obvious to everyone-for usually our astonishment cools as we grow familiar with nature through frequent contact-we are led into this second treasure-house of nature, and in the most minute and disdained of creatures meet with the same careful labor of the Great Architect, everywhere an equally indescribable majesty.

But doesn't this show an interest in worship  more than science?

Jan De Bray, Self portrait with wife as Ulysses and Penelope, 1668

Huygens was also fascinated by the camera obscura, and Drebbel wrote about using it to project the images of various costumes onto people.   Alpers then asserts that "By contrast, Dutch pictures avoid such a theatrical presentation in the interest of embracing the world described."
To make this argument, she refers to some contemporary Dutch portrait painting, like the above, where the subjects are shown in historic costume.

But this looks rather theatrical to me - even if it's not convincing as a scene from Homer.

Jan De Bray, self portrait with family as Anthony and Cleopatra, 1669

This is a curious - and rather awkward painting --  depicting the artist's deceased wife and children.  But does it really reflect an interest in the camera obscura or "embracing the world described" ?

Again, the characters seem to be play acting a famous scene rather than seriously performing it.

Rembrandt,"The Jewish Bride", 1667

It is Rembrandt, unique in this way as in so many others, whose mysterious and probing portraits redeem the genre. A Rembrandt work of this type often poses the unanswerable question as to whether we have a portrait or a historical work before our eyes.

Rembrandt certainly feels profound next to De Bray -- but we're digressing even further, aren't we ?

Rembrandt,"Saskia as Flora", 1634

Rembrandt, Flora, 1650's

A comparison of his awkward [early] Saskia as Flora with the splendid [late] Hendrijcke as Flora suggests that even Rembrandt is not always successful in this.

Alpers continues to digress  -- but who can blame her for showing and mentioning these paintings ?   The Met's "Flora" is one of my favorite paintings of all time.  I stared enraptured by it when I was 15 -- and still do so today.

And though I've never seen the earlier version in person -- yes, it does seem that in 1634 he was playing around with fabrics and costumes -- while in the 1650's he was being profoundly dramatic.

Rembrandt - self portrait as beggar,1630

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1658 (Frick)

If we follow Rembrandt from his early, etched self-portrait as the beggar seated on a mound, in which he dresses himself in rags, to the royal demeanor that he takes on in the Frick Self-Portrait, we are surely witnessing Drebbel's magic lantern rather than Huygens's world described"

It's delightful to contemplate and compare these two images -- but Rembrandt was as much a beggar in 1630 as he was a king in 1658, so I don't see how one is any more play-acting than the other.

 Paulus Potter, The Young Bull, 1647

More on topic is Alpers' discussion of the above painting.

The tiny steeple in the distance, and the tiny flies in the foreground,  are examples of the relative sizes of great and small, a topic which Huygens raised in his discussion of microscopes and telescopes.   When using these instruments to examine the universe, man is no longer the measure (as Alberti asserts in a quote provided), and apparently Huygens was excited by the open-ended world to be discovered.

There seems no better reason for that steeple in the background - but then, I don't sense a good reason for this painting as a whole - though I can see how a farmer might appreciate it.   It might well win a ribbon at a state fair.

I had a friend in college who grew up on a dairy farm near Washington Court House,  Ohio.  He loved his cows, and I'm sure he would have liked this painting.

The painting seems to say "this is how my world looks" -- with no further discussion inspired or required.  Now I understand Reynolds' complaint about Dutch painting - though I might apply it more selectively.

Mark Tansey, "Innocent Eye Test",  1981

BTW - Potter's  painting reappeared 3 centuries later in this monumental monochrome canvas now hanging in the Met, where  I saw it last June.  Apparently it's reference to art theory and history has qualified it as important conceptual art.  But visually, it feels just as aesthetically dead as the original - even if it's been painted for art critics instead of farmers.

Paul Potter, 1647

As it turns out, Potter painted another, much smaller depiction of a barnyard in the same year - and this one is in Chicago, so I got to see it.

I wouldn't call it a great painting... but it does have its charms.


Philips Koninck, Landscape with Hawking Party, date unknown

Alpers offers several other examples of this "characteristic feature" of Dutch painting.

Abraham Van Beyeren, Still Life with Silver Wine Jug, 1660-1666


The curious image of the artist is often reflected in miniature on the surface of a wine jug

Jan Van Eyck, Virgin and Child with Canon Van Der Paele (detail), 1436

Equating through juxtaposition of near and far, or small and large, had occupied northern painters since at least Jan Van Eyck.  He had depicted himself in miniature reflected in his works

.. and had juxtaposed the hands of Chancellor Rolin against the towers of a distant town

Did artists in the north ever, one wonders,  posit any fixed measure or proportion?

It is this question that forms the basis of the famous complaint against northern art attributed to Michelangelo. It is the final sentence of this passage that concerns us:

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 shadows 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 vigor.

One more thing to note about the above paintings:  everything, both near and far, great and small, is in sharp focus.  And nothing is washed out by brightness in the areas of light --- or by darkness in the areas of shadow.

 These paintings are about what's there -- rather than about how the eye sees them or light reveals them.

Michiel Van Mierevelt

Alpers tells us that Huygens singled out Van Mierevelt as his favorite portrait painter.

As you may recall, Huygens hired him to paint his portrait in 1641.

Apparently, he considered his work to be the most "lifelike".   But was he more interested in personality or details of features and textures ?

Similarly, he advocated the practice of drawing.  But was he more interested in an accurate record of details or in whatever lyrical or expressive qualities may compose them?

But perhaps because of the theoretical weight given internationally to disegno (the conceptual role of drawing in the invention of images), the craft and social utility of tekening (the Dutch word for drawing)has not been defined. There is much evidence from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that art served as a pictorial record or description.

Does this evidence include any critiques of drawing ?  Were they held accountable for factual details, or qualities of composition or expression -- or all of the above ?

Without such evidence, the following conclusion seems problematic:

The pursuit of natural knowledge in the seventeenth century provides a model for the consideration of both craft and high art. Here the relationship between craft and theory is a recognized problem. Let us propose that the empirically based pursuit of natural knowledge, for which Huygens opts, contrasts with the classical, mathematically based studies, even as the craft concerns of Dutch artists do with the aims and ideals of high art.

Huygens seems to have a  tangential relationship to both science and art - based more on curiosity than commitment.  It has not yet been shown to me that Huygens opted for "the empirically based pursuit of natural knowledge". It was just something he admired - as he did the paintings of Rembrandt, Lievens, Mierevelt etc.

And remember-- diplomacy was his vocation -- not avocation (as with Rubens). It was his job to impress important people with up-to-date learning and taste.

The social history of the Dutch artist has yet to be written. But to the extent that we acknowledge art as a practical craft, we must reconsider our notion of the occupation of the artist as well as of his product. The advantage of drawing an analogy between the artist and the experimenter in natural knowledge is that it encourages us to focus anew on what went into the making of Dutch images: absence of any learned discourse and no connection to any institution engaged in it. The use of traditional skills; a renewed sense of purpose and delight in discovery.

Pieter Withoos (1654-1693)

Typically, there is also a sense of delight -- a sense of beauty - in Dutch drawings of flora and fauna from that period.  It took me about 4 seconds to Google  the above example.

Biological illustration does not have to look this good -- and, by the way, it won't look this good unless the artist has intended it -- and probably been guided by a teacher.

Utamaro, 1788

Here is another natural and  beautiful insect - from a culture that then had little enthusiasm for empirical science.

Didn't northern viewers find it easier to trust to what was presented to their eyes in the lens, because they were accustomed to pictures being a detailed record of the world seen? Given the extraordinary articulateness and persistence of the pictorial tradition in the north-a tradition that neither the cultural movement of the Renaissance nor the crisis over religious confession managed to undo-one is hard put to assign precedence in these matters. The cultural space that images can be said to occupy in Huygens's world and writing raises but does not answer such questions.

Some of Huygens' commentary about art was quoted at the beginning of this post -- but not by Alpers.     And there's  more that could have been studied -  Huygens liked to write about art.  But Alpers has limited her discussion to his interest in what can be seen through a microscope or camera obscura.   Alpers has barely begun to examine  the "cultural space that images occupy in Huygens' world"

Her comment about the persistence of the Dutch pictorial tradition from the 15th to the 17th centuries is an interesting one. When and why did it end ? But not much has been said, yet, about what characterizes  that tradition.

But like Huygens, and myself, Alpers likes to look at and discuss specific paintings.  So this book is fascinating, despite the inadequacy of its arguments.  The digressions are the best part.

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