Svetlana Alpers

Svetlana Alpers is a professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Vexations of Art.

Open to Words: Vermeer and Globalisation

Svetlana Alpers, 26 February 2009

Timothy Brook’s subject in Vermeer’s Hat is the ‘global world’ of the 17th century. Brook is a historian of China who wants to consider the lure of China for others. The dream of China, he argues, is the imaginative thread that runs through the history of early modern Europe’s struggle to reach the wider world; he admires the energy and drive of the Europeans who...

I was not able to get to the major exhibition organised by the city of Bruges to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Hans Memling. But there is consolation in the fact that if one has ever been to Bruges one knows something of what his art is like. To a remarkable degree Memling has come to be identified with this city, whose centre is a preserve out of time. Swans floating on the surface of a web of canals bordered by medieval houses. This, it seems, is the proper setting for the master of a calm beauty, somewhat removed from the real world.

Questions of Dutchness

Svetlana Alpers, 4 August 1994

Until not so long ago it seemed Fromentin had got it right in 1876 when he celebrated Dutch art as offering a portrait of a new, free state: ‘un Etat nouveau, un art nouveau’, as he put it in Les Maîtres d’ autrefois, an account of his travels through Belgium and Holland. The humanised universe of Italian painting, with its emphasis on an idealised human body – indeed, the very notion of a universal humanity – was replaced, as he saw it and as many have seen it since, by the depiction of a specific and most ordinary visible world: a particular place, its towns, its landscape, its skies, domestic settings, the manners of its people. In Dutch paintings, Fromentin wrote, man was as put back in his place or simply done without. The emergence of such an art during the first decades of the 17th century seemed related to the truce concluded with Spain in 1609 and hence to the birth of a Dutch nation.’

Dutch Interiors

Svetlana Alpers, 15 November 1984

For all the obvious pleasures offered by Dutch art of the Golden Age, it is remarkable how much puzzlement and antagonism it has aroused. Even as it was being made and marketed, commentators throughout Europe reacted against the ordinariness of its subjects, the frequent vulgarity both of the people and of the activities it presented in such loving and repetitive detail. A more interesting objection was put by Reynolds, who, in writing up his tour of Holland and Flanders, complained about the difficulty of talking about such pictures: intended for the pleasure of the eye, he reasoned, they are not easily put into words. He for one did not try, and simply served up for his readers a brief, annotated list of the works he had seen.

Grope or Cuddle

Peter Campbell, 12 January 1995

‘Tiepolo,’ Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write, ‘is not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.’ Well, up to a point. For example, while I did not...

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Gestures of Embrace

Nicholas Penny, 27 October 1988

In the first chapter of Rembrandt’s Enterprise, Professor Alpers devotes much attention to a small etching of 1655. This, she says, depicts a goldsmith in his shop just putting the...

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Paintings about Painting

Nicholas Penny, 4 August 1983

‘The world of art is an enchanting deception,’ Hazlitt confided as he conducted his readers into the new picture gallery at Dulwich and straight to the ‘Cuyp next the...

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