The Art of Describing 
by Svetlana Alpers.
Murray, 273 pp., £25, May 1983, 0 7195 4063 1
Show More
Show More

‘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 door’. ‘You may lay your finger on the canvas; but miles of dewy vapour and sunshine are between you and the objects you survey.’ To think of doing this is to realise that more than ‘deception’ is involved. We know it is a flat canvas and yet are happy to half-forget, indeed find it hard not to half-forget, that it is not a real view.

Why did such astonishing truth to nature – and compelling fiction – flourish in Holland in the 17th century? A simple answer is supplied by John Berger. The world in European realist art is ‘rendered up to the spectator owner’. There is an emphasis on the tactile, and the framed easel picture, conceived of as a window or a mirror, is also like ‘a safe let into the wall, in which the visible has been deposited’. ‘That which we believe we can put our hands upon truly exists for us; if we cannot, it does not,’ he proclaims, implicating us all in the guilt of Western materialism. This, we might suppose, applies especially to Dutch painting, which was certainly produced for people who were keen on domestic safes.

What is remarkable about Dutch landscapes, however, is not that they record the owners’ estates (although a few of them do), but their preoccupation with weather, distance, air, light – ‘dewy vapour and sunshine’ in the case of Cuyp – which cannot be owned or held. Dutch genre paintings, on the other hand, do record with love and care a good deal of immaculate opulence and in many still-lives we are presented with piles of luxury goods. The treasures painted by Kalf nestling against rumpled Turkey carpets on marble tabletops in dark rooms come to mind, although even a desperate burglar would be paralysed by the fragility of the objects and pause with drawn breath at the highlights on the polished silver, the reflections in the glass, the translucency of the porcelain, and the shining silky cells of cut lemon.

In recent years it has been claimed that it was the moral, rather than the acquisitive, mentality of the Dutch bourgeoisie which determined the nature of their paintings. When we look at a bunch of flowers we should remember that they will fade; an open watch should remind us, as effectively as a skull, of Time’s inexorable progress; vessels of glass or porcelain will surely break, lemons will rot. As for women reading letters, they are adultresses; doctors inspecting urine are looking for signs of extra-marital pregnancy; and drinking cavaliers are gluttons or, if they are also talking with women, fornicators.

Dutch still-life paintings clearly contain a far greater emblematic element than those of later centuries which they superficially resemble. And Dutch genre paintings are not simply ‘scenes from everyday life’, as was proposed in the last century, but are ‘stock’ comic episodes, often illustrating proverbs. There is no need, however, to suppose that a moral purpose, even if it can be shown to have been explicitly declared by painters or collectors, was more than a pretext for the gratifications (including perhaps those of imaginary possession) which such art provided. If a high priority was attached to the moral impact of the paintings, the grimmer consequences of sexual irregularity, and rotten lemons, would surely have been shown. And there is also much Dutch art, especially landscape art, which escapes this sort of explanation. Unless, that is, we are supposed to reflect that ‘dewy vapour and sunshine’, like lemons, won’t last.

Svetlana Alpers has caused quite a stir by challenging the now prevalent emblematic interpretation of Dutch art. In her book (and on its dust-jacket) there is a good colour illustration of a self-portrait and still-life painted by David Bailly of Leiden in 1651. A young artist (is it too ingenious to suggest that it represents Bailly himself as a young man?) holds Bailly’s portrait on a table where a wide variety of other works of art appear together with a candle, a skull, an hourglass and rose petals. Bubbles float by and there is an inscription referring to the vanity of vanities. Alpers imagines, with good reason, that the standard flat-footed art-historical response to this picture would be to claim that it amounts to yet another sermon on the futility of worldly – and in particular artistic – pleasures. Instead she suggests analogies between the artist’s attitude and the empirical investigation of the natural world fervently recommended by many members of the Dutch intelligentsia in this period.

I would prefer to think of this picture as a sonnet rather than as a puritan sermon or a scientific treatise – a sonnet which, wittily and paradoxically, both celebrates art and laments the brevity of life. The art which it celebrates consists of vanities – luxury goods – and also, and chiefly, painting itself, which is another vain deception. Yet painting was, at the same time, a highly esteemed skill. The chief interest of Alpers’s book consists in her documentation of the value then attached to accurate visual description, and of the unqualified confidence that was placed in the reliability of the human eye.

Connections have long been made between the character of Dutch art and the contemporary fascination with optical instruments, especially the camera obscura and the microscope. Alpers discusses the character of this fascination with great intelligence, but the novel connections with Dutch art that she proposes are highly improbable. She notes that microscopists illustrated from a number of angles the seeds and bugs which they examined and also cut them open, and then goes on to relate this to the way pies or watches are opened and lemons sliced and half-peeled in still-life paintings. But surely the artists were doing what good shopkeepers had always done: they meant to entice and intrigue, to whet the appetite and to tease the eye, rather than to provide reliable information – for Martians – about pies, watches or lemons. Alpers is, however, right to point out that artists were often involved in assisting science – for instance, by making botanical illustrations – and right to emphasise that fine art was not distinguished from ‘image-making as a craft with’, as she puts it, ‘utilitarian uses’.

The most telling point she makes concerns the coloured map hanging on the wall in Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting, showing the artist painting a model who poses with the attributes of the Muse of History. This map has been interpreted as (yet another) ‘image of human vanity’, and also as an allusion to the past when the provinces on the map were undivided, but as Alpers points out, maps were themselves works of art, and this one is bordered (I feel an idiot for not having noticed it) by views of cities very similar in character to Vermeer’s own View of Delft. So the artist paints History and behind History there is a map which is a scrupulous description, which is what history should be, and the artist who paints this artist, being a good historian, shows us that History is only a model.

Even if the painting isn’t as ingenious as this, it is obvious that it repudiates the grand rhetoric of painting (in which muses abound) as it was practised in Italy and, of course, in the Spanish Netherlands – pre-eminently by Rubens. Italian 17th-century art theory, with its emphasis on imagination and invention as distinct from observation and on ‘history painting’ as heroic narrative not scrupulous description, is impossible to reconcile with the ambitions of the best contemporary Dutch painting. Nevertheless, Alpers is wrong to argue that Dutch painting is the product of a tradition entirely alien to Italy, and it is alarming to find her especially commended for doing so.

Michelangelo’s denigration of Northern artists for their attention to the external, their careful painting of ‘stuffs’ and the meticulous detail of their landscapes is taken by Alpers as a typical Italian attitude. Michelangelo’s words were obviously garbled by Francisco de Hollanda, who reported them and who was probably insensitive to Michelangelo’s irony, so the passage should be interpreted with caution. It would seem likely that what Michelangelo had on his mind was not only Flemish meticulousness, which he disliked, but the praise given to his Italian rivals, at his expense, for their depiction of the visual world, especially in landscape and portraiture. Leonardo, Raphael and Titian, he implies, have been engaged in un-Italian activities. In any case, the passage should be balanced by the warm praise for Northern art in Dolce’s Dialogue on Painting, where Aretino observes that Raphael himself pinned Dürer’s prints on his studio wall and praised the incomparable minuteness of detail with which they represented ‘il vero e il vivo della natura’.

Many of the finest Dutch paintings of the 17th century (including those by Bailly and Vermeer already mentioned) are paintings about the art of painting. The first modern work of art in this category may have been an Italian one: Giorgione’s lost picture of a male nude reflected on several sides by armour, by a mirror and by a still pool of water. This virtuoso demonstration of the power of oil painting to depict reflections, which were themselves highly suggestive metaphors for painting as ‘enchanting deception’, was said to have been stimulated by a desire to demonstrate that a painter can show all sides of a figure just as a sculptor can. Alpers has the cheek to write that Vasari, who described this picture, ‘fails’ to tell us that the artist’s ‘strategy’ in ‘deconstructing’ a figure in this way was ‘decidedly northern’. But Vasari knew of Parmigianino’s self-portrait in a distorting mirror and of the gilded ball painted by Raphael in which could be seen the Pope’s back, the window and the furniture of the room, and he knew that many Venetian artists were especially fond of painting water, mirrors and armour, all of which Alpers forgets, or fails to mention.

Alpers notices that a Dutch writer, Hoogstraten, emphasises the practical uses of drawing in warfare, but does not seem to realise that this is anticipated in the familiar defence of painting in Castiglione’s Courtier, and, of course, it is illustrated by the careers of several Italian artists, notably Leonardo. She implies that mapping and topographical skills flourished among Northern artists because Italian ones were inhibited by ‘Albertian’ perspective. Can she really have forgotten the frescos of cities in the Vatican, Jacopo de Barbari’s print of Venice, and Leonardo’s map of Imola? Similarly, she attaches great significance to the fact that mirrors and pictures had similar frames in Holland but neglects to ask whether this was the case elsewhere.

Italian theorists from Alberti onwards usually thought of painting as providing a window opening onto a fictional extension of our space, but they were not averse to other metaphors, such as that of the mirror, and could make this explicit in the picture itself, as in Parmigianino’s self-portrait and as in the lost Giorgione. Alberti himself remarks, in one of the most poetic of his metaphysical reflections, that Narcissus could be said to have invented painting – for ‘what is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?’ Alpers, however, who neglects to mention this passage, wants to keep the mirror for the North, and the window for Italy.

This is doubly perverse because it was in 17th-century Holland that the conceit of the painting as a window was most consistently and ingeniously adopted. Dou’s pictures invite us to peer into the cottage, the kitchen and the shop. Originally we had to open the picture’s shutters before doing so. In one of his most ambitious paintings, the Quack Doctor (which Alpers illustrates), he painted himself looking out of a window below which, in the street, a charlatan sells his potions and other forms of deceit are practised. Instead of looking at this, he looks at us looking out of our window, deceived by his art but also enlightened by the truth about life’s deceits which his art exposes. This is one of the cleverest of all paintings about paintings, but you miss the point if you don’t recognise that you are, like the artist, looking out of a window.

A view through a window or door is often included in Dutch paintings, making a picture within the picture. Sometimes a window or door frame is actually included in the foreground, as in a piece of exquisite pornography by Jan Steen belonging to the Queen (and admirably discussed in Christopher White’s recent catalogue of Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection*). Through the frame we see a woman seated on a bed putting on her stockings. There are some emblems suggesting danger on the threshold or sill, but there is no harm in looking, and you may ‘lay your finger’ with impunity upon the panel.

As well as the experience of male peeping, that of parental and matrimonial surveillance was evoked by Dutch artists. A rod passes across the top of one of Vermeer’s paintings of a woman engrossed in a letter – a curtain hanging from it occupies about a quarter of the entire painted surface. Astonishingly, Alpers can illustrate such a picture and yet maintain that the assumption of the viewer’s ‘prior and external’ existence is an especially Italian, ‘Albertian mode’. It is just as well that she doesn’t consider Dutch 17th-century portraits which develop the conceits so popular in Italian painting of the 16th century (and pioneered in Flemish pictures of the 15th century) of the lower edge of the painting as a ledge upon which the sitter leans and of the frame as an opening which they touch, or through which they seem to project, sharing our space, as well as looking, smiling, even laughing at us.

Alpers has created as many misconceptions about Dutch art as she has corrected. She has done much to help us to appreciate how truth to nature in Dutch painting may have been valued, but has not helped us to appreciate the compelling visual fictions which such pictures provided.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences