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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Friday, September 5, 2014

Alpers: Kepler's Model of the Eye

Alpers: ChapterTwo : Kepler's Model of the Eye and the Nature of Picturing in the North

This is Chapter Two  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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Gerard Dou, "Poulterer's Shop", c. 1670

I want to turn from the general cultural role of images in the Netherlands to one specific aspect: their life~like appearance. To deal with this I shall be introducing a new and concrete piece of evidence: the definition of the picture arrived at by Kepler in his description of the eye.

Subsequent to the above introduction, Alpers immediately specifies what she means by "life-like":

Henry James, as acute a commentator as any in this regard, placed the phenomenon I want to deal with in this chapter at the center of his sense of Dutch art:

When you are looking at the originals , you seem to be looking at the copies; and when you are looking at the copies, you seem to be looking at the originals. Is it a canal side in Haarlem, or is it a Van Der Heyden ?

Jan Ver Der Heyden: "View of the Herengracht, Amsterdam", 1670

The maid servants in the street seem to have stepped out of the frame of a Gerald Dou and are equally adapted for stepping back again...... We have to put on a very particular set of spectacles and bend our nose well over our task, and beyond our consciousness that our gains are real gains, remain decidedly at loss how to classify them.

Yikes!  It sounds like Henry was a naïve realist as far as painting was concerned -- but the above fragments are taken from "Transatlantic Sketches",  a travelogue.  Those "very particular set of spectacles"  are needed to appreciate the beauty of the Dutch land itself, not the paintings depicting it.

Where is the art? When images are situated at the threshold between the world and our perception of it how can they be considered as art? These are questions that puzzled Henry James as they have puzzled viewers before and since.

Where is the art?  The more one looks at paintings -- or better yet, makes them -- the more the artfulness is felt - and the less important the question becomes.  So I'm a bit surprised that Alpers is highlighting it.

 We have already touched on a number of pictorial features that conjoin to  produce this appearance of a world existing prior to us which we view. Let me rehearse them once more: the absence of a prior frame-that rectangle or framed window which Alberti offers as his initial definition of the picture so that the image spread out on the pictorial surface appears to be an unbounded fragment of a world that continues beyond the canvas (to frame such a fragment, as Dou often does by painting one into the picture (see image above) , is a decisive act; the world staining the surface with color and light, impressing itself upon it; the viewer, neither located nor characterized, perceiving all with an attentive eye but leaving no trace of his presence.

I am totally puzzled by every statement in  this passage:

1. Dutch paintings are all  framed by their rectangular edges
2. A close examination of the surface reveals paint  - not stains of color and light (which characterize photographs)
3. The viewer is located by the single point perspective.
4. The viewer is characterized by the contemplative  mood or feelings which the painting delivers. The viewer is a poet.

Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660-61

 We might take Vermeer's View of Delft  as the consummate example. Delft is hardly grasped, or taken in-it is just there for the looking. These features are commonly explained by an appeal to nature. The Dutch artist, the argument goes, adds actual viewing experience to the artificial perspective system of the Italians. In this wide vista, which presumes an aggregate of views made possible by a mobile eye, the retinal or optical has been added on to the perspectival. An imitative picture, it is assumed, is perspectival and Italian by definition and the Dutch add nature to it. Images made by the camera obscura and the photograph have frequently been invoked as analogues to seventeenth century  that finding and making, our discovery of the world and our crafting of it, arthis direct, natural  vision. Thus Lord Clark has written (a bit crudely) of the View of Delft that "this unique work of art is certainly the nearest which [sic] painting has ever come to a coloured photograph.,," But the appeal to nature (for that is what Clark means this to be) leaves us justifiably uncomfortable. Nature cannot solve the question of art-particularly in this post-Gombrichian age. And this has now led to painstaking studies of the techniques of these realist painters. Maybe, it is thought, if we look into exactly how Vermeer laid on his paints we can locate and testify to the art in his art. But the craft and skill that produced the Dutch pictorial illusion of life are curiously unassertive. T'hey do not call attention to themselves through the kind of admission to or celebration of the primacy of medium that becomes a hallmark of realist painting in the nineteenth century. With Dutch painting we are, as it were, prior to such recognition. It was a particular assumption of the 17th Century that finding and making, our discovery of the world and crafting of it, are presumed to be as one.

1. Delft is not just there for the looking -- it's there for the entering - beneath the bridge through the canal that enters the city at the center of the scene.

2. The eye must be mobile to see both sides of the painting --no less than it would move around to focus in on that long stretch of waterfront

photo approximating Vermeer's P.O.V.

A variety of photographs in a variety of atmospheric conditions can be taken from this spot.  And Vermeer did not have to deal with pesky, space-killing  lamp posts.

But still, I'm doubting that a photograph could ever make Delft appear as wonderful, inviting, promising, and magical as Vermeer made her

Here's a detail - showing that, indeed, there is paint here -- and it has been daubed and smeared upon the canvas and sometimes upon previous layers of paint.

Here's a higher degree of detail on another painting ("The Little Street" - available on the Google Art Project) --- showing, once again, the work of paint on a brush- creating a delightful, and different, song-like quality.

Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878), The Village, Auvers Sur Oise

A quite different feeling from Vermeer's view of Delft, but neither does this typically 19th C. French painting "call attention to itself through the celebration of the primacy of medium".

Both artists seem to be more about the celebration of place -- the love of it and of being alive in it -- and not especially its discovery as Alpers has suggested.

Vermeer, "The lacemaker", detail

Alpers then discusses the camera  obscura, and rather surprisingly, is skeptical concerning its use by painters."The artist is seen as attending not to the world, but copying the quirks of this device. Of the list of ten phenomena put forth... only one has been generally accepted.... those small globules of paint that we find in several works... are painted equivalents of circles of confusion, diffused circles of light that form around unfocused specular highlights"

But even if Vermeer used it -- "the basic issues remain muddled".  Was it "bad faith" for him to use a mechanical device instead of his own eye --- or is he to be celebrated for "overcoming the limitations of linear perspective in a very innovative way"?

It is less the nature or use made of the camera obscura image than the trust placed in it that is of interest to us in understanding Dutch painting. And this is the relevance of Kepler, to whom we now turn. For in defining the human eye itself as a mechanical maker of pictures and in defining "to see" as "to picture," he provides the model we need for that particular binding of finding and making, in nature and art, that characterizes the picture in the north.

But was Vermeer trusting this device to give him an image that was more accurate to reality- or one that he found strange and therefore fascinating? 

At this point, Alpers launches into the subject of this chapter: Kepler's model of the eye. But fortunately she is as little interested in a technical discussion as I am, so she quickly returns to Vermeer, suggesting that rather than copying nature, he was interested in the artifice of representation (related to Kepler's optics) -- ".... there is no escape from representation".---- even in vision itself, because that involves the projection of a picture upon the retina. (as Alpers notes, Kepler was the first person to make that statement: "Ut pictora, ita visio")

Lawrence Gowing  (1918-1991)

Vermeer seems almost not to care, or not even to know, what it is that he is painting. What do men call this wedge of light? A nose? A finger? What do we know of its shape? To Vermeer none of this matters, the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten, nothing concerns him but what is visible, the tone, the wedge of light. -- Lawrence Gowing

Alpers then shares the above quote from Lawrence Gowing's book: "Vermeer - the Observer" (1952)

By way of my own digression, above I've posted some of his paintings.   According to his obituary in the NY Times, he was a painter before he became a writer, curator, and school/museum administrator.  No mention is made of his academic degrees in art history, other than honorary, so I assume he had none.

Perhaps, eventually I'll get around to reading his book.  Apparently, the theme is that Vermeer was more interested in what was happening on his retina than any social or philosophical concerns. The camera obscura was a useful tool for that project.

Vermeer, "The Art of Painting" (detail), (1665-1668)

But what about the organization of tone and shape that is experienced as beauty ?  That's not a passive response to patterns projected upon the retina.  Did Gowing ignore that in Vermeer because his sense of beauty was so much different?  Vermeer's spaces seem full of delightful possibility - Gowing's spaces feel oppressive - within which his characters need to persevere.

Gowing is describing a common experience we have in looking at Vermeer's works. If we concentrate on a detail-the hand of the painter, for example, in the Art of Painting -our experience is vertiginous because of the way the hand is assembled out of tone and light without declaring its identity as a hand. My point is not that Vermeer is painting retinal images, though even Gowing makes this not too helpful suggestion-but that his stance toward the world pictured can be called Keplerian. Gowing might have had Kepler's strategy in mind when, in the sentence preceding the passage just quoted, he writes: "[Vermeer's] detachment is so complete, his observation of tone so impersonal, yet so efficient."

 Seurat, "Sunday on the Grande Jette", detail

Philippe de Champaigne, "Moses", (detail)

Lawrence Gowing

Pieter de Hooch, "Courtyard in Delft with Woman Spinning", (detail),  1656-7

Here are some other hands - including one by a contemporary Delft master.

Obviously, Vermeer's hand is not the flesh-and-bone kind as perfected by Philippe de Champaigne  Neither is it the angular post-Cezanne hand done by Gowing - or the bundle of colored lights done by Seurat.  But does it really feel "vertiginous" ?

To me - it does assert the identity of a hand -- as  a very balanced, precise instrument.

The retina is painted with the colored rays of visible things. [Retiformis tunica pingitur a radijs coloratis rerum visibilium,] .....Kepler

In its formation the picture evokes that peculiar absorption into each other of drawing and painting that is characteristic of Netherlandish artists. Many drawings are situated on the very border of painting

Alpers offers the additional Kepler quote to show that yes, Kepler really did think that the visual process involved a kind of painting on the retina -- much as the 17th C. English poet, John Milton, was then writing about dreams on the eyelids:

And let some strange mysterious dream
   Wave at his wings in airy stream
   Of lively portraiture display'd,
  Softly on my eyelids laid

But is there any evidence that the merchants and artists of 17th C. Delft also thought of the eyeball as a kind of camera obscura ?  If there is-- Alpers has yet to mention it.

Jacob Matham, 1627, "View of the Brewery and Manor at Haarlem"
(pen on panel.)

Regarding "the peculiar absorption into each other of drawing and painting" -- those notions are so interchangeable, today it's more likely to distinguish "works on paper" from marks made on other surfaces.  But even if that distinction were clear, what does it have to do with Kepler's model of the eye?

Though it was interesting, as Alpers  noted,  that no drawings exist from Vermeer, De Hooch, and Hals -- as well as from Caravaggio and Velasquez.  Alpers suggests that this was because for those artists "representation takes place directly in color and therefore in paint".  Did they really believe that representation was not possible in monochrome?

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, still life, 1664

We've met Hoogstraten before , and since he was an outspoken theorist on visual representation, he will likely be found in any book that discusses Dutch painting, even though he's not an "A" list painter.

In his  1678 "Introduction to the Academy of Painting", he refers to drawing as "imitating things after life even as they appear" -- which Alpers notes is different from Italian "Disegno" which involves "selection and ordering according to the judgment of the artist"

It's hard to believe that Hoogstraten, or any artist,  really believed that  selection and ordering could be  absent from their mark making.  But apparently Hoogestraten thought that it was beneficial to try to paint/draw only what could be seen, nothing more or less.

Alpers refers us to Celeste Brusati's study of this artist, then a work in progress, and published 15 years later as "Artifice and Illusion".  It's now available on JSTOR, so it's too convenient to ignore. The preview quotes Eduard Plietzsch as calling him  "an example of a certain kind of painter, learned and well read, an experienced technician, but lacking a truly artistic nature ... he wasted his enormous manual skill in creating mere illusions"

Apparently, Brusati thinks that the artworld has moved beyond this evaluation -- but still, it's hard to find Hoostraten on display in American art museums.

Hoogstraten, "Resurrection", 1665-1670

Here's a painting that's in the Art Institute of Chicago -- but if I ever saw it, I'm sure I zipped right past it as a mediocrity.  It's currently off-view.


Here's a drawing that is also at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Not that it's so bad.  It would look good on the walls of my art club gallery.   But it would be quite forgettable in any exhibition of great master drawings. It's a nice life study -- but lacks oomph.

Rembrandt, "Diana at the Bath", 1630-31

Hoogstraten was once a student of Rembrandt - so here's a drawing by the master, done when he was about 25 years old. 

It's not really fair to compare just two pieces - especially drawings - where thousands are made but only a few survive.  This is about  the best Rembrandt life study that I've ever seen.

But still --  it  does serve to support  Plietzsch's  judgment concerning the lack of a "truly artistic nature" in Hoogstraten.

Another document of the time is "Praise of the Art of Painting" (1641) by Philips Angels. The quality of his own work is even more problematic.  No paintings survive, and shortly after he published that essay, he formally resigned from the painters guild and began a career of foreign service in the Dutch East India Company.

Angels wrote "Should we do it (paint) in such a way that everyone can see that it was done in a certain manner ?  That it is done by this or that master ? No, by no means "

Obviously, self-expression was not on his agenda!  But if he stopped calling himself an artist - perhaps we should as well.

Hendrik Goltzius, "Venus", 1596

Alpers suggests that the Dutch of that period did not distinguish between real and ideal (as Italians did)  - but rather between images drawn from life and those drawn from memory.  So a statue may be the subject of a "life drawing", and idealization may or may not affect what is drawn from memory.  Goltzius is offered as an example - in that he is said to have had copies of Italian paintings in his memory.  An example of the result might be the above image which I found online. 

Italian, 16th C. (detail) .. from the Morgan Library

But even if Italians placed greater emphasis on ideas---  wouldn't their memory of images have been just as important ?   Did it really make any noticeable  difference in the resulting work ?

Illustration of the working of the eye, Schat der Ongesontheyt
 of JohanVan Beverwyck, 1664

Albrecht Durer, "Draftsman",
from Unterweysung der Messung,, 1538

By way of comparing Dutch with Italian attitudes towards pictorialization, Alpers shows us these two prints.

The first comes from a 17th C. medical text book - showing how the eye works likes a camera obscura.  The second is from an art handbook done by Durer -- exemplifying an Albertian frame and grid -- as well as some gender roles that have greatly exercised contemporary feminists..  (though it's hard to imagine that Durer was not exercising a sense of humor)

Jan Van Eyck, "Madonna and Child with Canon Van Der Paele", 1434-6

Domenico Veneziano,"Madonna and Child with Saints", 1445

Then, to continue the North/South comparison, Alpers offers these two paintings,  done within a decade of each other and presenting similar subject matter.

Before reading her comparison, I would say that the primary difference is that D.V. brings the holy people  into the physical world in which you are standing,   J.V.E. brings them into your imagination, as if they were emerging  in a mystical vision.

 D.V. makes his painting an extension of the Classical architectural space in which it hangs - giving it natural, shadow casting light that reveals an adjoining  architectural space enhanced with figures that fit into it with the form and mass of  figurative statuary.

 J.V.E. assaults the senses with a vision of giant, looming, human  figures that seem to emerge from the picture plane.  Rather than classical statuary based on human anatomy,  the figures are more like hand puppets, with gorgeous cloth bodies and finely carved ivory heads and  hands.

And here is what Alpers has to say:

We might summarize the well-established contrast between north and south in the following ways: attention to many small things versus a few large ones; light reflected off objects versus objects modeled by light and shadow; the surface of objects, their colors and texture dealt with rather than their placement in a legible space; an unframed versus one that is clearly framed; one with no clearly situated viewer compared to one with such a viewer. The distinction follows a hierarchical model of distinguishing between phenomena commonly referred to as primary and secondary: objects and space versus the surfaces, forms versus textures of the world. Whether the Italian perspective system is taken as visual truth or as a convention, and both claims have an arguable basis depending on the force with which one makes a claim for truth, the litany of qualities sets up a duality.

Alpers, I, and the "well-established" ideas do not seem to be that far apart regarding the differences -- even if we  disagree concerning whatever hierarchy may be applied.

Concerning light, she suggests in a footnote  that the Southern artist is concerned with lux (light sent forth from the eye), while the Northern artist is concerned  with lumen (light sent forth by the object). Though it appears to me that the light in D.V.'s painting comes from an exterior, off-stage  source.

And,  I would suggest that these two particular paintings raise issues of spiritual rather than visual truth. They both present the Madonna and Child as they should be seen, rather than as they actually might be physically seen.

As James Ackerman, speaking for Italian art, has put it; "If the artist wants to communicate as precise a record of fact as he can he should follow Alberti; if he wishes to communicate the way things look to him he is not obliged to follow anyone". Modern students of northern art have been moved to speak of artists who are "fully aware of the differences between artificial perspective and natural vision" and to compliment them for using their eyes with fewer preconceptions than their predecessors. ,, With Kepler's assistance I think we can better suggest that the issue is not " record of fact" versus the "look" of things, it is not different ways of perceiving the world, but two different modes of picturing the world : on the one hand the picture considered as an object in the world, a framed window to which we bring our eyes, on the other hand the picture taking the place of the eye with the frame and our location thus left undefined.

Do these generalizations really apply across 200 years of northern and southern European painting?   There was so much inter-penetration of ideas and techniques. And when has "picturing the world" ever been the primary consideration of Italian painting, as it was in the landscape and still-life pictures of 17th C. Netherlands?

Alpers' contrast between the framed window and Kepler's eye is a clever one - but  I have yet to see a painting -- or even a photograph - from Holland or anywhere else - that feels analogous to a retina within an ocular  camera obscura.   Too  much apparent thought has been put into the design.  Still-shots randomly selected from security cameras might provoke such thoughts,  but I try to avoid installations of conceptual art.

Regarding photography, Alpers devotes a long footnote to the topic since "the similarity of the photograph to Dutch descriptive mode that we have been analyzing....has a bearing on the nature and status of photography.

Is photography really art ?  She revives that long-dead controversy with two dissident voices:

For the photograph is an imprint or transfer off the real: it is a photochemically processed trace causally connected to the thing in {he world to which it refers in a manner parallel to that of fingerprints or footprints, or the rings of water that cold glasses leave on tables. The photograph is thus generically distinct from painting or sculpture or drawing. On the family tree of images it is closer to palm prints, death masks, the Shroud of Turin, or the tracks of gulls on beaches. For technically and semiologically speaking, drawings and paintings are icons, while photographs are indexes. .... Rosalind Krauss ("The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism")

QUESTION: can a photograph be a work of art? ANSWER:a photograph is a disposition of
sensible matter and may be so disposed for an aesthetic end, but it is not a human
disposition of sensible matter Therefore it is not a work of art.---
James Joyce, as quoted by Roger Scruton   ("Photography and Representation")

Actually, neither Krauss nor Scruton are claiming, with Joyce, that a photograph cannot be a work of art.  As long as photographs are displayed in major art museums, the  Institutional Theory makes that a moot point.  But they do assert how it differs from painting,  for better or worse, according to the differing axes they have to grind.

Art provides the path from fantasy back to reality......By creating a representation of something unreal, it persuades us to consider again those aspects of reality which in the urgency of everyday existence, we have such strong motives for avoiding...Scruton, expanding on Sigmund Freud.

This is the quote that intrigues me most -- since it gives art a  purpose higher than self expression or entertainment.  It also seems to apply more to conceptual art and photography than the presentations of beautiful people and places that fascinate  me.  And didn't Scruton himself write a book called "Why Beauty Matters" ?

Photography, I shall argue, is properly seen as part of this descriptive mode, rather than as the logical culmination of the Albertian tradition of picture making.

Alpers characterizes the photographic as the "fragmentary, unframed, un-composed recording of the world seen" - to which Scruton would add "unselective", for the photograph captures all details, whether they make some kind of sense (are "representational") or not. And like Scruton, she is speaking of what distinguishes photography, not of actual photographs which can be framed, composed, and modified in various ways, just as she is speaking of what distinguishes the Northern and Southern "modes", rather than actual paintings.

She feels that the Northern mode (Dutch) is more photographic than the southern (Italian) , while noting that Peter Galassi asserts the reverse.

But I'm not sure that even a photograph, unless done randomly,  is necessarily  more fragmentary, unframed, and un-composed  than those modes of painting.

The camera un-avoidably offers one-point perspective - which may have been geometrically analyzed by Alberti, but is also the un-avoidable result of standing on one spot and drawing what can be seen.
Didn't the Dutch pick up one-point perspective from the Italians, and then apply it to more home-centered, earth bound subject matter?   It's more photographic only in the sense that cameras now dominate this kind of subject.  (my friend, John, just took 2400 pictures on his iphone in China)

What photography cannot do is create form - which distinguishes it from every mode of painting since Lascaux. But the discussion of form has been replaced by semiotics  for late 20th C. art historians.

Leonardo Da Vinci, "Virgin of the Rocks"


Moving back to the main body of text:

It is inevitable, I think, that the nature or status of the picture as knowledge is an issue because we are considering pictures produced in a culture that employs a perceptual metaphor for knowledge --- we know what we know through the minds mirroring of nature. Our problem then is how to deal with actual pictures given their assumed overlap with mental or visual ones

This would seem to be a reckless assumption - depending on how thorough  this "overlap" is taken to be.   Much too thorough if one is to  "ground western pictorial representation in the nature of human perception" -- as Alpers tells us Ernest Gombrich has done.  Happily, Alpers does not assume that "art must necessarily be defined by the perceptual model of knowledge" --- but still she accepts it as "the interpretive bias in this book"

I suppose it's a good thing to confess to an interpretive bias -- but if you don't share its assumptions, why continue to apply it ?

There is probably no artist or writer who meditated as continuously and as deeply on the relationship between seeing, knowing, and picturing the world as did Leonardo da Vinci.....Leonardo, who was fascinated by the eye as an instrument (he was one of the first to propose the camera obscura as its model) and by its powers of observation, testified poignantly in his writing and in his picturing to the dilemma presented by the choice between these two pictorial modes-what I am calling southern and northern. His praise of the eye as the road to knowledge of the world is as total as we shall find anywhere in Europe at the time. All the more so because Italian culture was so preoccupied with the question of the comparative value of text and image. In defending and defining the eye he is also defending and defining the painter versus the poet, the image versus the word.

 Leonardo seems to be as northern European, in this regard, as Kepler and Vermeer.

Whoever loses sight, loses the beautiful view of the world and is as one who is shut alive in a tomb wherein he can move and live. Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauties of all the world? It is the master of astronomy, it makes cosmography, it advises and corrects all human arts, it carries men to different parts of the world, it is the prince of mathematics, its sciences are most certain, it has measured the heights and the dimensions of the stars, it has found the elements and their location ,,,, It has predicted future events through the course of the stars, it has created architecture, and perspective, and divine painting. .................

The painter's mind should be like a mirror, which transforms itself into the color of the thing that it has as its object, and is filled with as many likenesses as there are things placed before it. Therefore, painter, knowing that you cannot be good, if you are not a versatile master in reproducing through your  art all the kinds of forms that nature produces - which you will not know how to do if you do not see and represent them in your mind.

But then, Alpers offers  other quotes that seem to diminsh the value of mirroring :

“The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies everything placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.” ........

The painter should be solitary and consider what be sees ,discussing it with himself, selecting the most excellent parts of the appearance of what he sees acting as the mirror which transmutes itself into as many colors as exist in the things placed before it. And if he does this, he will be like a second nature.

Leonardo Da Vinci, details from two versions of "Virgin with Rocks"

Leonardo's ambivalence might be found in the different kinds of  foliage found in  these two versions of the same scene. On the left,  as Alpers notes, he has inserted a nature-study.  But to me, the flowers on the right just seem to be a compositional element.

Of course, one might add that this,  or any, nature study is quite different from the reflection on a mirror.  Any drawing is the result of hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions that ultimately allow the finished piece to  be attributed to one artist or another.

Alpers, following Robert Klein, then introduces the strange idea that "if the picture takes the place of the eye, then the viewer is nowhere".  I'm not sure it's worth puzzling out what Klein had in mind.- though it does seem that "Virgin with Rocks" does not have a single point-of-view.

Leonardo Da Vinci. "Virgin and Child with St. Anne"

Though fascinated with appearances, Leonardo fears giving himself over to total absorption and fears the sacrifice of rational human choices that this notion of picturing assumed.  The conflict is between passive absorption and active making. The tension it produces is evident in the psychological demeanor of figures like his St. John or St. Anne, where it contributes to what we perceive as their powerful and disturbing presence.  These figures are suspended with action and  rest, or between active self assertion and passive receptivity.

Alpers seems to have conflated the active/passive role of the artist regarding nature with the active/passive demeanor of the characters regarding their  depicted interaction. Can't an artist passively depict an active character, or actively depict a passive one?

Either way, I don't see how this image  exemplifies the conflict which Alpers is discussing.

This painting seems to be quite far removed from a nature study - and more like a meditation on ideas suggested by the divine characters represented.

It's quite a curious scene, isn't it?  One woman is restraining a child while she sits in another woman's lap.  She looks, anxiously, at her child, while the other (larger) woman,  is looking fondly at her. The other woman, St. Anne, is her mother - but does not seem to be a generation older.  Freud noticed a  bird-like shape made by the Virgin's dress, relating it to a childhood memory that Leonardo once wrote about.

Poussin, "Inspiration of the Poet", 1629

Alpers then refers to a famous letter by Poussin to De Noyers -- wherein he distinguishes between two kinds of seeing: aspect and prospect -- the former being "the simple and natural reception of its form in the eye", and the latter being more attentive to "the means by which to know that object well"

Apparently this was part of Poussin's attempt to persuade De Noyers to accept some proposed changes to a gallery in the Louvre.  It's notable that  the selling point of this  argument is improved knowledge rather than any kind of aesthetic or spiritual effect.  In that sense, it resembles Leonardo's concern, quoted above,  for "conscious of  their existence"

Though one might ask whether either Leonardo or Poussin  would have claimed that the knowledge of which they spoke could be  independent of aesthetic and spiritual concerns.  They were not illustrating textbooks of biology, but instead spent their adult lives making beautiful paintings that usually were religious and/or mythological.

Poussin went on to declare that "prospect" seeing depends upon "the discriminating eye, the visual ray, and the distance from the eye to the object"  -- as Alpers  notes, this is "seeing according to perspective theory" - i.e. a conflation of seeing and picturing.

Apparently he was borrowing these ideas from an influential Italian book on perspective - rather than offering  original thoughts based on his own experiences with paintings. But how are these ideas different from what Alpers has been telling us about the 17th C. Dutch ?

She introduces us to  Kepler's panoramic camera obscura , made to turn like a windmill, to conclude that:

Northern artists characteristically sought to represent by transforming the extent of vision onto their small,flat working surface. This is true of the sweep of a panoramic landscape that continues beyond the arbitrary rectangle of the canvas,or the multiplication of rooms that are assembled for our view in a Dutch peep-box

This kind of "perspective" is more concerned with the replication of views than with the mathematics of lines projected to a single vanishing point - so Alpers relates it to Poussin's "aspect" rather than "prospect"

Pieter Saenredum, interior of Buur Church, Utrecht, 1636

As an example, Alpers offers this on-site drawing - what she calls a "view of architecture viewed", since it was itself used as the model for the two paintings shown below that were done 8 years later.


What Alpers takes from these three pieces is the  "disregard of a prior frame" in favor of  "the eye position from which the architecture was originally viewed" - so that "in unprecedented fashion.... the drawing is not preparatory to anything, but is the thing, or the representation of the thing itself.

In response - one might note that she has not indicated whether Saenredum, or anyone else, ever did this 3-piece procedure ever again.  She has selected the extraordinary to exemplify a generality.

One might also note that every preparatory study from life, as opposed to a compositional study,  is also a "representation of the thing itself", and also privileges the thing seen to the edges, or frame, of the paper or canvas.

Without further explanation, the eight years that separate the study from the two finished paintings is relevant to nothing.

Saenredum appears to have used on-site drawings the same way that some contemporary painters use cameras to collect reference material for future paintings.

Alpers has leveraged  provocative insights out of very little evidence.  Perhaps this is what might be called "postmodern art history"

Hans Vredeman de Vries,  "Perspective", 1604-5

Alpers then moves the discussion over to the Renaissance presentations of perspective, comparing south  (Alberti) with north (Viator) --- leading up to the above example where:

a multiplication of distance points leads the eye to a variety of views up and down, in and out of an empty room. The effect is that adding-on views of views of the moving eye suggested by Viator. When figures enter, they are captives of the world seen, entangled Gulliver like in the lines of sight that situate them.

Despite whatever bizarre narrative the above image may suggest (a crime scene ?) it does seem to be a typical Albertian box.  Which lines would indicate "a moving eye"?

Hans Vredeman de Vries, "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary", 1565

Similarly, De Vries appears to have followed Alberti in constructing the painting shown above.

Pollaiolo, "Battle of the Naked Men"

Continuing with the "special northern view of perspective", we find Samuel Van Hoogenstraten exemplifying it with a Giorgione nude (now lost) whose back is turned to the viewer, but whose front and side are seen in reflection - leading Alpers to digress into other Italian attempts to achieve "a comprehensive view of the figure.... without sacrificing the authority of the single viewer or the unity of the figure viewed".

One strategy is shown above: two separate but identical  figures taking the same pose but seen from different sides.

Pollaiuolo, "St Sebastian" (detail)

Bronzino, "St. John the Baptist",  1550-55

Another strategy : "a figure twisted around itself to reveal more sides to view"

Picasso, Seated Woman, 1927

And finally we have the above attempt to "reconstruct the human anatomy"

Saenredum after Goltzius: Allegory of Sight, 1598-1601

"The Goltzius print does not answer the challenge of the comprehensive view of the figure, but rather demonstrates that what Hoogenstraten calls a perspective picture is made up of a sum of representations"

I've got to agree with Alpers here.

 Hoogstraten's three examples of "perspective" in his "Academy of Painting" were the Vredeman, Gorgione, and Goltzius discussed above - so it does seem that he was more concerned with how an object might be seen rather than how a  viewer from a fixed position might see it. 

But even if it does "offer the best testimony of what the Dutch could say about images at the full maturity of their own tradition" --- so few testimonies have survived.  And though Dutch painters portrayed mirror reflections more often than Italian painters did -- it's not as if every painting had to have one.  And it's not as if Albertian constructions and a single point-of-view were used any less frequently.

Above is the only mirror I could find in any of Hoogstraten's own paintings (from "View of a Corridor", 1662)  -- and it serves more to measure the space of the room than to reveal another side of the man with a big hat.

But Hoogstraten is much better known for his ingenious peep-box, shown above unfolded,  with its five sides opened out.

Apparently it's the only Dutch peep-box to feature two peep holes - which can be seen above to the extreme right and the extreme left.

Here is a view through the right peep hole, where you might notice that the legs of the dog are painted on the bottom of the box, while the dog's upper body is painted on the vertical wall that faces us.

Here is a partial view through the left peep hole - showing a mirror -- and a man looking in from the distant window.

The project feels more like a child's doll house than an enjoyable painting - but it does feature two views of the same room - which Alpers calls "an unframed sequence of vistas successively viewed"
She then invites us to compare these two quotes:

As long as the diameters of the luminaries and the extent of solar eclipses are noted as fundamental by astornmers, [it needs to be understood that] some deception of vision arises partly from the artifice of observing.. And thus the origin of error in vision must  be sought in the conformation and functions of the eye itself.... Kepler

I say that a painter whose work it is to fool the sense of sight, also must have so much understanding of the nature of things that he thoroughly understands by what means the eyes are fooled... Hoogstraten

Hoogstaten takes the stance toward art's pictures that Kepler had takent toward the pictures on the retina.... with the significant difference that ... "what Kepler accepts as the necessary condition of retinal picturing, Hoostraten presents as the artist's task"

But  Hoogstraten seems more concerned with the nature of the human imagination, than the operation of the  human eye.

Saenredum, "St. Lawrence Church, Alkmaar," , 1661

We might compare Saenredam's view before the library entrance of Saint Lawrence at Alkmaar with Vredeman for diversity of views that enable us to see more. The eye passes low through two doors and through free space to the left, and is stopped by a high, lean slice of space behind the pillar at the right. In turning his attention to actual churches, Saenredam grounds or applies this kind of picturing in a new and surprising way. The small figures at the right are markers, at their eye level, of the horizon line. There is a certainty displayed in what the surface can contain. There are the few decorations of the white-washed church: the painted organ case, the hanging that ends with the truncated image of a man's head, and a death shield. And finally, though not in this work, figures concurrent with the artist's viewpoint in the church make their object of sight into ours.

What a cool, pleasant, and inviting space this is.  Those two pairs of doors seem to welcome me into further, contiguous spaces.  And I like how there are other people here -- but they are off in a corner, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I agree with everything that Alpers has written above -- while noting that despite this "diversity of views", this depiction strictly conforms to a single point of view.

In many of his studies Saenredam marks the eye point, which locates the horizon line and also the point on that line from which the building was viewed. We find the oog point, for example, on the bottom of the pillar at the right foreground of a drawing of the great Saint Bavo in Haarlem. It is from here that the view could be seen across the nave into the complex of space beyond and also up into the vault with the painted shutters of its great organ. One could see this, that is, if one adjusted one's gaze. Once again the surface traversed by the eyes is the field of vision that the panel lays out for us. The definitive gaze of the human eye is then fortified with the figure of a man.


 In a painting that follows , Saenredam introduces (slightly to the left and on the horizon line itself) a small figure, a viewer who directs our eyes to the organ, which in this painting is the end in view. Saenredam's major innovation is to use his upward gaze to establish the view of the organ. Like Vredeman's figures he is, in turn, literally a captive of that view.

In the rendering of the organ, its decoration, and its accompanying  inscription, as in the frequent notation of place and date of execution, that Saenredam enters on the surface of his works, he documents in image and in word the experience of the view that the work represents. It has been argued persuasively that the organ, whose role in the Protestant service and in society was a matter of great public dispute in the Netherlands at the time, is the primary subject of this picture. Its clearly visible inscription, a common one on organs at the time, argues approval for the organ's appropriate use. The picture represents such approval. But it is characteristic of Dutch art and of the visual culture of which it is part that something seen, not performed, bearing witness rather than dramatizing an event, makes for significance.

There is a kind of quiet, dreamy persuasiveness about this painting.   I feel welcomed into it by the figures in the foreground -- one of whom is looking at a fellow in the distance who is looking up at the magnificent doors of the organ screen.  The scene is  quiet and peaceful - but the organ pipes above the central pillar  seem to be thrusting downward like an exclamation mark.

It's probably important to note that this was a commissioned work - probably by someone involved with that church - and a  specialist was sub-contracted to paint the figures.

And it does demonstrate the importance of the recognizability of marks in space.  If that small, distant organ viewer were not recognized as such - this painting would feel quite different.

The only instance in which Saenredam presents a single, central vanishing point, identifying the church viewed with our own external view, is due to special circumstances. It is the design for an etching of Saint Bavo that was published in a book as part of a tribute to the artist's native Haarlem. The hortatory inscription specifically urges us to look at the beautiful church " If your eyes can see." Here the entire church seen is made the object of our view, in order to honor the craft of its making, the city in which it stands, and God.

Yes - I can see how this kind of image promotes a church - rather than imagining a visit to it.  BTW - Alpers notes that another scholar has shown that this image does not coincide with a strict Albertian geometric construction.  Is that because the arches are slightly curving away from the center as they come forward ? 

A careful examination, however, might reveal that very few other paintings, even Renaissance Italian ones,  strictly conform to a geometric projection.

And linear construction is only one determinant  of pictorial. space. The compositional effects of form, tone, and color are more difficult, if not impossible, to verbalize -- but they are still very important. Though, in this case, Saenredum's  painting doesn't offer much more than the etching that Jan van de Velde  derived from it.   The collaboration between architectural and figurative painters didn't turn out so well in the original painting.  It looks like a computer graphics program was used  to cut and paste figures onto the floor of the church.

Alpers concludes this section with a discussion of the difference between:

*the world we see (Albertian) - Italian painting
*the world as seen (Keplerian) - Northern painting

.. and she offers Velasquez' "Las Meninas" as an example of ambiguity.

In Las Meninas the "looker" in the picture-the one whose view it is - is suitably none other than the artist himself, Velazquez, who, however, turns from his canvas to look out at the viewer (at us and the royal couple) in front of the picture. Like so many of Velazquez's works that present powerful human figures through elusive surfaces, this is a conflation of the northern mode (the world prior to us made visible) and the southern mode (we prior to the world and commanding its presence).

As both the representation of a real social setting, the royal family and court, as well as the patrons, the king and queen, and even the artist himself with both his canvas and a mirror --  it's not surprising that this painting has drawn the attention of philosophers: Michel Foucault, John Searle, and others.

The notion of two distinct modes of representation, northern and southern, is Alpers contribution to a discussion that will probably continue as long as Western civilization

Alpers says she would also like to talk about "the poise, power, and fullness" of the Infanta -- and yes, such a discussion is probably more central to this painting.

I would also be hard put to say whether this painting was more about the "world seen" or "the world as we find it".

It's more like the world as the King and Queen would like to find it - as assembled by a self-promoting courtier.    A world of servants, artists, children -- and closest to the royal presence of all: a beloved dog - the only one whose loyalty he can completely trust.

Alpers tell us that Foucalt claimed this image was "born out of and defined by a trust in representation.".  Restating the theme of this book, she then suggests that there were disparate modes of representation in the 17th Century (so far, she has mentioned two).

But I don't believe any such trust was necessary for the king to be emotionally affected by recognizable images of  his dog, daughter, painter etc


Alpers closes out this chapter by noting that unlike  perspective theory in Italy, Kepler's theory of ocular vision did not so much engage northern artists as be influenced by their interest in reflective surfaces.

Rather than being in the avant garde of science, northern artists were in the rear garde of craftsmanship and technique.

Jan Van Eyck, 1434, detail from Arnolfini portrait

Andrew Conklin, "Lake View", 2014

Just as one of my favorite local artists keeps up the tradition of Dutch painting - and shows us a beveled mirror image in the painting shown above.

Finally, Alpers suggests that "we have a case of traditional crafts and skills sustaining and keeping alive certain interests that eventually became the subject of natural knowledge" - which appears to be a rather desperate attempt to incorporate those arts into the scientific revolution - which is still ongoing, especially in Alpers' workplace: the university.  She cites a then recent essay entitled "The Transformation and Storage of Scientific Traditions in Literature" by Wolf Lepenies.

Can't we recognize the importance of those arts - even if science paid no attention to their achievements ?

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