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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Alpers: The Mapping Impulse

Alpers: Chapter Four : The Mapping Impulse in Dutch Art

This is Chapter Four 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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Vermeer : The Art of Painting (1665-68)

With a complete map of the Netherlands in the background, this piece was chosen to begin  Alpers' discussion of Dutch painting as map making.

As she notes, it's not just a functional map, but also the occasionally creased and peeling surface of it.

She also notes  that the artist has placed his name (Ver Meer) on a horizontal stripe in the map - which may suggest that he identifies himself as a map maker.

... and  the word "descriptio" appears on the maps upper  border - as if "description" was the task at hand.

The aim of Dutch painters was to capture on a surface a great range of knowledge and information about the world.  They too employed words with their images. Like the mappers, they made additive
works that could not be taken in from a single viewing point.  Theirs is not a window on the Italian model of art but rather, like a map, a surface on which is laid out an assemblage of the world.

Though in this painting, the map only serves a decorative function. It might just as well be a carpet, like the one in the foreground,  for all it can tell us about the Netherlands.  The creases and shadows are more important than any reference to geography.

It's far less about the world, than about how the artist enjoys re-creating it - in a context, by the way, in which no religious reference (other than Classical mythology) has been suggested.

Alpers also suggests that mapmaking carried over into making the kind of city profiles that can be seen around the borders of the map in "The Art of Painting" -- and also seen in Vermeer's "View of Delft":

Though  one might note that so much more is happening in the above image.  It may have started as a picture postcard, but it ended up as a great painting.

To blur the line between map making as a science or an art, Alpers points out the cartouche in the Vermeer's map.

Jasper Johns, "Map", 1963 well as this 20th C. painting which is something like a map of the United States.

It takes a certain Platonic way of thinking to get excited about the "true"  meaning of words.
Alpers does not relate that discussion to how one feels when experiencing these paintings by either Vermeer or Johns.. But that philosophical excitement is certainly alive and well in in the contemporary art world

What should be of interest to students of maps and of pictures is not where the line
was drawn between them, but precisely the nature of their overlap, the basis of their resemblance.

One fascinating example would be this depiction of the 1572 siege of Harlem by Pieter Saenredam in 1628.  It's something like a map - and something like an aerial view. The artist is better known for his interior views of Dutch churches.

Claes Van Visscher, Panorama of London, 1616 (detail)

Nowhere are the professional and pictorial links bertween pictures and maps closer han in the Visscher family

Here are some examples of Visscher's work.  At the top is an etching taken from a painting mis-attributed to Bruegel. At the bottom is a rather ornate map of Belgium - which is  strange and ugly enough to qualify as the outsider  art of our time.  The subsequent history of Belgium has exemplified this sad image of a "lion" that more resembles an abused dog.

Alpers proposes that there is "a clear relationship" between Gaspar Van Wittel's sketches used to  map the Tiber river and his view of Montecavallo shown above it.  But that relationship does not appear to be visual.

At this point, we might consider this Spertus Museum online exhibit.

It quotes Harley and Woodward, "History of Cartography", to define maps as “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world.”. An extensive development of that idea can be found in the online edition of their books.

Applying that definition, I cannot find any reason not to include any representational painting or drawing within the category of maps. Though it does seem that the examples they show do not include graphics that might also be called portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, or narratives. Apparently "map" is a category like "porn". It cannot be defined - but you know it when you see it.

Here is the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land, the Madaba mosaic.  As this detail would indicate,  it shows the relative locations of important landmarks - as well as being quite decorative.

Jan Van Goyen, sketch and painting of Dordrecht

Getting back to Alpers,  she notes how artists like Jan Van Goyen traveled to sites in order to "map" them, though the details in the sketch might be modified for the final painting.

The above examples were found online.

If you were familiar with the profile of Dordrecht, the painting would probably be as recognizable as the sketch (though we might question the accuracy of both)

The profile of the  town is strongly asserted -- but still, it's only one form among many in the design. For us, the pattern of clouds might be the most compelling feature of the painting.

The above examples are by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), whom Alpers tells us made the "first "realistic" Dutch landscape images"  (though by her use of scare quotes, she suggests that such realism may not be as real as the effects of jumping off a roof)

She also tells us that "there is a lack of usual framing devices familiar in landscape  representations which serve to place us and lead us in, so to speak, into the space"

Apparently the scenes with foreground figures were done earlier in his career, before he introduced a more map-like, panoramic view.

Thomas Cole, Autumn Twilight, 1834

I just saw an exhibit of the American Hudson River school, so it might be timely to think about whether the idea of "mapping" would apply any less to Thomas Cole.

It does appear that he was trying to portray an identifiable profile of those mountains in the background. And mapmaking was certainly an important practice on the  frontier.  His early supporter, Colonel John Trumbull, made maps for George Washington.

When I read about Cole's early training as a portrait painter, it seems to me that he was painting a portrait of the Catskill mountains.

One might also say that he was mapping them -- but I feel that he was portraying character - and that quality does not seem to apply to whether a representation can serve as a map  or not.

The 17th C. Dutch paintings also seem to be serving as much more than maps.

Here's a Thomas Cole landscape drawing. As in the painting, the  viewer is within the foreground, and a sharp break separates it from the middleground.  Perhaps that is less "map-like".

As Alpers notes, Goltzius "makes us feel that we are situated apart from the land but with a privileged view"

With the Cole painting and drawing, the viewer is immersed in the landscape and/or invited to entet

Pieter Saenredam, Profile  Views of  Leiden and Haarlem and Two Trees, 1617 and 1625

Landscapes and mapping are linked to the Netherlands of the seventeenth century by the  notion of what it is to draw. In the Italian dominated theory of the late 16th Century, drawing (disegno) had been exalted to the point where it was synonymous with the idea of art, and thus with the act of imagination itself.  Hoogstraten, by contrast, introduces  drawing as linked to letters formed in writing, to planning war maneuvers, to medicine, astronomy, natural history,and geography.  Drawing is treated as a craft with specific functions , among which are the description on a page of different phenomena observed in the world.

Alpers offers the Saenredum drawing, shown above, as an example of one such descriptive page - including descriptions of a tree and city as well as calligraphy.

Though it might be noted that one notable Italian, Leonardo Da Vinci,  also filled pages with sketches - including nature studies, fantasies, and studies in drama. (as well as the military and mechanical subjects he rendered on other pages)

Gezicht op de polder Het Grootslag en de stad Enkhuizen, artist unknown, 1610

Gezicht op de polder Het Grootslag, artist unknown, 1606

Starting from  mapping enables us to describe more justly the nature in format and interest in recording place of certain landscapes. The early 17th C. painting by a provincial artist from Enkhuizen (possibly the teacher of Jan van Goyen) reveals a connection to maps in most direct ways - its extremely high  horizon, the grid set forth by the polders and the designation of the landmarks.

Curiously enough, there are two aerial views of the polders outside Enkhuizen, executed about 4 years apart.  Alpers has drawn our attention to the 1606 version, but the 1610 version appears, from the reproductions, to be more aesthetically designed.  Whether either one of them would have been reliable to keep a traveler from getting lost or a property investor from getting cheated -- that is a question that we cannot answer.  And isn't the concern for geographic accuracy what distinguishes a map from a decorative painting?

Craig Yu. "Town Centers II", 2016

Here's a contemporary aerial view that I saw in a university gallery last month.
It feels like an evening view from an airplane window.  But noting how each building complex is identical, it also appears to have been computer generated.

And -- it's has a nice, subtle design - created by that hedge row snaking across the middle.

Breugel, Winter, detail


Alpers now gives us a discussion of  landscapes found in Brueghel's paintings:

We might also want to use mapping terms to distinguish the large geographical ambitions of Bruegel's Season landscapes from the specific chorographic concerns of his drawing of the Ripa Grande or the painting of the Bay of Naples. 

Breugel, Bay of Naples

 Establishing Bruegel's engagement with  mapping helps us not only to distinguish between his works but also to understand them better.  By combining the traditional theme of the seasons with an extensive mapped view of the earth, Bruegel gives the early cycle a world rather than a local dimension.  In works such a the engraving of the Vices and Virtues or the paintings of the Proverbs and Children's games the mapped view is also used.  Though individual proverbs had been represented in prints before as had mapped landscapes in paintings, Bruegel's great invention was to combine the two. 

Brueghel "Ripa Grande"

Children's Games

Children's Games (detail)


 The mapped view suggests an encompassing of the world, without, however, asserting the order based on human measure that is offered by perspective pictures.

This is the first definition for "mapping" that Alpers has offered. It's difficult for me to accept in this context because I feel that Breughel, like most pre-modern artists,  has measured the world that he has encompassed.  "The Bay of Naples" hardly resembles a technical projection of that geographical area.  It's a scenic view that leads the viewer gently into its magnificent space.

By depicting human behavior in this unlikely setting (though the world is so mapped, people are never seen this way on maps), Bruegel can suggest the endless repetitiveness of human behavior in an essentially boundless (unframed) space But the care he has taken to distinguish between such essentially repetitious human actions is not dictated by the format.  The human community seen under a mapped aspect but attended to with such care has a particular poignancy.

Brueghel imagines a very large stage, and the miracle, to my eye, is that he poignantly composes even the smallest details upon it.

I also feel that the figures are performing "endlessly repetitive" movements - but what pictorial scenes do not give the same feeling?  Unlike scenes in a movie, the characters on the surface of a painting never move.  They perform the identical task every time you look at them. While, unlike a photograph, the figures are composed together so that they feel like belong exactly where they are.
Philips Koninck, Extensive Landscape with Hawking Party, 1660
(52" x 63")


This is not the direction taken in Holland, where the land, not its inhabitants, continued as a major interest.  The mapped horizon was not sustained, but was lowered first to let in more sky (the Van Goyen monochromatic works of the forties) and then clouds and effects of light  (as we move on to Ruisdael in the fifties and sixties). Philips Koninck is the artist who sustains the format of the mapped landscape the longest in the century. It is not clear to what extent he did or did not detach it from its recording aspect.  The enormous size of some of his works, which are the largest of all Dutch painted landscapes, rivals the dimension of wall maps.

Rather  than picturing a geographic world view as Bruegel did, or the chorographic places of Goltzius, Van Goyen, and Ruisdel, Koninck aims at making the pieces of Holland he is describing seem a part of the larger world. By introducing a gentle curve to the horizon he lets the earth into what is a mapped view of an area of his native land.  While Bruegel expands his neighborhood to the world, Koninck brings a world view to Holland.


Goyen, 1648, Gezicht_op_Rhenen

Ruisdael, View of Ootmarsum from the Kuiperberg. 1660-1664

Ruisdael, View of Amsterdam, 1665


One might also note that a church steeple features prominently in the examples of Goyen and Ruisdael shown above. They do not appear to be depicting the world so much as some kind of spiritual drama, contrasting the verticality of the human spirit with the horizontality of the land and the billowing maelstrom of the atmosphere.

But Konnick is different.  Like many of the Midwestern abstract-landscapists I've seen, powerful, unbroken horizontal bands dominate his design. I suspect that's all that interested him -- and when he had painted them, he hired a specialist to put in some human figures to make the piece more saleable.

Alpers does not address the luminosity in all these paintings, but that is a remarkable feature as well, even if it has nothing to with any notion of mapping.

Wouldn't a sense of emerging and transcendent lumination be especially thrilling to a practicing Christian? Couldn't that explain the lowering of the horizon line?




By the way -- Ruisdael's vision of the city in dappled light is really wonderful - and enticing - as a place you would want to live.

Goyen, 1641, Gezicht op Arnhem

Many of Jan van Goyen’s view are examples of mapped landscapes. Although the horizon is lowered, the panel gives the impression of being a worked surface. The extent of the land is scattered with standard landmarks – church towers, hayricks, trees, even cows. A city which is never far away in Holland and on which the country so depended, is the major landmark. 

How can a cow be a landmark?  Don't they move around?

But  it does feel, in the above painting,  like the distant city has put there only to tell the viewer where they are standing -- as a map in a large shopping center might do.

This is also true of Ruisdael’s vies of Haarlem, called Haarlempjes at the time, after the city.  Ruisdael, perhaps following the example of the materials added to maps, depicts a major product and economic support of the city – the bleaching linen in the fields.  In these works the mapped landscape approaches the other genre obviously derived from mapping, the topographical city view.



Here's another scene of a city set into a landscape with people working.  Is this one "mapped" as well? 

People passing through the country, some inhabitants, some travelers presumably like the artist himself, stop sometimes to look out or, very rarely, to draw. Nothing ever happens.  Only rarely is work being done. (Ruisdael’s Haarlempjes are a signal exception.)  The working of or bounty of the land is rarely illustrated.   We do not to my knowledge see figures actually engaged in surveying.  But the access to the land and the interest in it (people direct their gazes far out, not at things close by) is related to this.  That was the tradition among mapmakers that one could turn to the natives – to the fisherman or the peasants – for assistance. Those living on the land or sea share an interest in knowing it – that at least is the assumption.  A Cuyp painting of two shepherds looking out and pointing  towards Amersfoort illustrates this.

Here are some pieces by Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) where shepherds may be found pointing, or  maybe just staring, at distant landmarks. But I suspect that it was  the viewer/collector who was supposed to be interested in such things.

We can distinguish a narrower and a broader use of the mapping designation.  Used narrowly, mapping refers to a combination of pictorial format and descriptive interest that reveals a link between some landscapes and city views and those forms of geography that describe the world in  maps and topographical views. Used broadly, mapping characterizes an impulse to record or describe the land in pictures that was shared at the time by surveyors, artists, printers, and the general public in the Netherlands.

Alpers offers an occupation-based definition of mapping, in addition of  the "encompassing of the world" that she offered earlier.  

But was geography a distinct occupation in 17th C. Holland?  I can't recall that she has yet named any professional geographers. (later she will mention people who published books of cartographic maps - but would she call them 'geographers'?)

Then Alpers takes issue with Gombrich's notion of landscape painting as a rhetorical  rather than visual description, based on the 'Minatura' written by Edward Norgate, a miniaturist and illuminator of documents for the English court, and  exemplified by the landscapes of Poussin and Claude..

Norgate wrote about a landscape painter who visualized what a traveler told him about the scenery.

 By contrast, Alpers asserts that Dutch painters were "on the road looking"

Constantijn Huygens, View from the town gate at Zaltbommel, 1669

Alpers offers the above as an example of an artist climbing up a hill or tower to better view, and then record,  the flat  Dutch landscape.

To me, it does feel closer to on-site observation than most of the other landscapes shown above.

Rembrandt, The Goldweigher's Field

Alpers notes that English peasants rented land from the gentry, which put the on-site artist into a potentially confrontational situation, just as a land surveyor might do.  How much land is the peasant working?

By contrast,  Dutch farmers owned their own fields - so the on-site artist would be more welcome.

Alpers offers the above etching as an example of an on-site Dutch artist mapping the countryside.
But if this this field is owned by a goldweigher (who happens to be one of Rembrandt's creditors), how could it be owned by the farmers who work it?  This  example does not seem to fit Alpers' sociology.

She notes that Rembrandt presents "the lay of the land, its churches, towns,  trees, and  grasses and to a much lesser extent its product"  St. Bavo of Haarlem appears on the distant left and the church at Bloemendaal is on the near right.

Rubens, "Het Steen", 1636

By contrast, Alpers notes that the above view "is determined by and engaged in the presence of a signeur" (Rubens himself, who had recently purchased this estate, and the noble title that accompanied it)

Here is the estate - and a few of the gentlefolk to the left.

But it seems that Rubens has also included some distant urban landmarks and skyline in his view.

While  Wikipedia notes that the sky is the "first convincing depiction of a Mackerel Sky", and that John Constable would have seen this painting when he was working for its owner.

One might even note the presence of tall buildings in the background of
Rembrandt's "Three Trees". 

Alpers notes that the merging of town and country distinguishes Dutch landscapes.

It does seem to distinguish them from the French who prefer to find ancient ruins out
in the countryside -- and eventually prefer to find nothing but hills, trees, and streams.

BTW - here's my favorite Rembrandt landscape -- a drawing from the Harvard Museum.
It's much more like calligraphy than mapping.


Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660

Moving on to the topic of "topographic city views" - Alpers presents the above as a famous example.

Esias van de Velde,  view of Zierikzee, 1618

Alpers then notes that several art historians have suggested that Vermeer was influenced by the above - while she prefers to say that both emerged from a common tradition in "city views".

These two paintings are quite different in mood and energy. From the reproductions, they also appear to differ in luminosity and resolution of form.  So I'm guessing that if art historians have often linked them, it's because there's few, if any, other views of cities as they might be seen from a vantage point across a body of water.

Alpers notes that "the interest in city views and their basic models" was initiated by the Civitates Orbis Terrarum;published in multiple editions from 1572 to 1617  by  Braun and  Hogenberg.


Some images are closer to how certain places might appear if one were looking at them from the top of a distant hill.  Others give a better sense of how streets, walls, churches and other structures are disposed relative to each other. None give the "you are there now" feeling that the later painters, especially Vermeer,  could provide.  As he depicts light and shadow, you are placed into a specific moment in time.  In only a few minutes, those shadows will change.


Hendrik Vroom, "Haarlem Gate", 1615

Alpers refers us to these other  views of Dutch cities as seen behind water. The above is the only one that offers an inviting path into the city -- just as Vermeer does with Delft.  Unfortunately, the quality of the reproduction is too poor to make many other comparisons.

Jan Van Goyen, "View of Hague, 1650"


Rembrandt, "View of Amsterdam", 1640

The  etching seems to be far more enjoyable than the place itself.

The  row of windmills receding into the distance reminds me
 of driving route 65 through northern Indiana.


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