Dutch Interiors

Svetlana Alpers

  • Masterpieces of 17th-Century Dutch Genre Painting: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Royal Academy
    Philadelphia Museum of Art, 397 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 87633 057 X
  • The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the 17th Century by Bob Haak
    Thames and Hudson, 936 pp, £40.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 500 23407 8

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.

If we look at the lavish commemorative catalogue of the 1929 Royal Academy exhibition of Dutch art, we find that the problem of Dutch art was still in place. We can understand the genesis of art in a country like Italy, the preface confidently begins – and continues: ‘How then are we to account for Dutch art, a thing from the first almost independent of accepted models, and developing, in the 17th century, into a craft which rivals the great tradition of Southern Europe in its appeal to the human eye? Whence did it come? How could it grow and prosper in that little corner of Europe, hardly ever free from the incursions of man or the sea?’ While the preface ponders the formal nature of the works – much talk of greys and whites, of rounded Italianate forms and Dutch rectangular spaces – the catalogue entries content themselves with presenting what one might call a Reynolds list.

Compared to the exhibition of more than fifty years ago, the current one (prepared in conjunction with the museums in Philadelphia and Berlin) has limited its scope. One century of Dutch art is here instead of three, the genre painters instead of the entire range of Dutch painting, drawings and attendant crafts, a mere 167 paintings instead of the overwhelming 963 objects that were on view in 1929. But while the exhibition is smaller, the catalogue is bigger. Thanks to the support of a number of multinational corporations (and offered by them as a tribute to the continuing economic importance of Holland) visitors can just about afford to take home a volume which includes fine colour reproductions of every picture on view plus 300 pages of text. Reynolds would have been surprised. Indeed, the catalogue is the culmination of the modern scholarly effort to set Reynolds right, or more precisely, to set his 19th-century successors right. In the 19th century, critics like Thoré-Burger and Fromentin effectively accepted Reynolds’s view while overturning his negative judgment. Dutch painting, they argued, was nothing less than the celebration of Dutch life: art for life’s – and art’s – sake. It is this 19th-century view of Dutch art as realism that recent scholarship has been at pains to overthrow.

For more than a decade now the major thrust in the study and viewing of Dutch art has been to point out that the objects and scenes put so persuasively before our eyes serve as veils that conceal intentionally hidden meanings. It is the message, usually the moral instruction, to which the emblematic interpretation of Dutch art, appealing to the Dutch liking for emblem books (illustrated books which combined pictures, brief mottoes and longer legends), has called our attention. The viewer who admires the sheen on a Ter Borch gown is now told that the woman is a whore being sought or bought before our eyes, women looking at mirrors are sinfully vain, and Vermeer’s woman by the window reading a letter is engaged in extra- or premarital sex. Merry drinkers are gluttons. And so on. Some of the leading practitioners of emblematic interpretation have gone so far as to refer to Dutch pictures as realised abstractions.

The current catalogue marks a softening of this by now firmly-established idea and practice. It tends to move away from moral instruction to what are referred to as social and cultural ideas. (The hanging of the exhibit effectively dispels all interpretive issues by mixing very different categories. Some rooms classify works according to the subjects – merry companies, for instance – by which they were known in the 17th century. Others have recourse to debatable modern art-historical groupings – the Leiden School, the School of Delft or the Dutch Italianate tradition. And Jan Steen hangs alone.) In place of moral messages we have, so we are told, reflections of attitudes towards peasant, soldier, professional or wife. Ostade’s peasants are not warning us off violence, drink or lust, but are showing us how the superior classes viewed those way below them. Far from cautioning men and women against seduction, Ter Borch’s paintings are an instance of the maintenance of social decorum among the better classes. In the absence of a clearly identifiable message, social context has been acknowledged as ultimately determining moral precepts.

Thus, it is the historical context in which these pictures were produced that chiefly interests this hefty catalogue with its long entries and introductory essays (including one on life and culture in Holland). But what seems to be held at bay here, as it was in the more purely emblematic studies that came before, is the notion that the Dutch ever produced anything like genre pur, or what is frequently referred to as ‘19th-century art for art’s sake’. In Dutch painting, this argument goes, observed fact or the record of fact – the presumed territory of Fromentin and 19th-century realism – always has, added to it, what is referred to as a creative element or idea.

There seems to be a problem here – in the view taken of 19th-century art, but, more to the point, in the proposed view of the art of the Dutch. If we consider the entire range of Dutch pictures – including landscape, still-life, portraits and history paintings along with genre scenes – we might conclude that far from disguising meanings, or creatively adding them to observed fact, Dutch pictures assume that meaning is by its very nature lodged in what the eye takes in, however deceptive that might be. The beguiling visual presence of works as different as Vermeer’s dazzling View of Delft or Heda’s still-lifes testifies to this. Dutch pictures are bound not to a textual but to a visual culture. It is an art of brilliantly crafted surfaces, not one of searching moral depths. And indeed in the 17th century, just at the moment of the great flowering of Dutch art, there was a widespread notion of knowledge in which the model of the picture played a central part. In distinct but nevertheless related ways, Bacon in his notion of experimentation based on observation, Comenius in his theory of learning, and Kepler in his analysis of the eye, all turned to the model of sight. This notion of knowledge did not simply identify reality with the seeing of it. What characterises the visual culture of the 17th century is a belief that reality is not given but has to be found out through what was considered to be the investigative craft of seeing – of which painting itself is an exponent.

For all the cautionary messages and manifest social content of Dutch pictures, their particular visual interest resides in an acute sense of the nature and limits of pictorial representation. The play with frames surrounding images and mirrors within, the delight in trompe l’oeil, and the invention of peep-boxes, all testify to this persistent concern. To acknowledge the appeal that a corner of a De Hooch with sociable men at table had for Cézanne, or the pleasure we take in the limited palette, calculated, self-referential brush-strokes and subtle asymmetry of Codde’s Young Man, is not to fall victim to an ahistorical taste for 19th-century art for art’s sake (whatever that may be): it is to acknowledge a historical situation. Although this art was produced at a particular time when knowledge was itself construed as pictorial in nature, the Dutch artist’s trust in representation has continued to play a central role in the Western pictorial tradition. The birth and continued life of this particular visual interest is of course not without its own social grounding.

As an ensemble, the paintings at Burlington House display that visual immediacy which is characteristic of Dutch art: there are splendid examples of Ter Borch’s shining gowns, a sculpted cupid and hourglass emerge by the candlelight of a Dou, light-licked still-life offerings of wine and fruit perch on a Steen table and at the foot of a statue on Berchem’s southern shore. Nevertheless, something different strikes one in the rooms of the Royal Academy: the acting or performing character of the figures. Imagine the works as peopled by actors, each of whom plies his or her trade with such single-mindedness that one is hard put to say where truth leaves off and acting begins. I do not mean to call attention to stock types – though there are undoubtedly some of these – nor to stage-like settings, though Ter Borch’s windowless and doorless rooms or Steen’s curtains might be understood in a theatrical context. It is rather the sense that from the gay blades of Esias van de Velde’s garden fêtes to those in Codde’s interiors, from the raucous inhabitants of Brouwer’s interiors to the elegantly outfitted gentlefolk and their servants in Ter Borch’s chambers, the many human figures are consciously declaring themselves, or setting themselves forth in poses, gestures or other bodily performances. The interest seems to be, not in the feelings such actions might convey, but in people defined through performative actions.

The works of a number of artists can be looked at in terms of this habit of performance. Steen, like others (including, most notably, Rembrandt), is often a performer in his own works. He appears in at least four of the paintings now in London and often plays a most disreputable role. In the so-called Dissolute Household, for example, Steen is the husband smoking a heady pipe, who slings his leg over a most available buxom miss while his wife slumbers from drink and the rest of his household goes quite wild. We have no reason to take this autobiographically, as was once done, and to conclude thereby that the brewery-owning. Steen was himself a drunken sot; nor, I think, is the effect of his witty self-presentation to do with self-castigation (the artist as the leading sinner in a domestic den of iniquity). The recognition that Steen is performing casts the entire work in a particular light. Why is what is true of him not true of the other folk as well? Monkey, dog, cheese, shells, hat, clock, even an unlikely basket suspended from the ceiling burdened down with the accoutrements of chastisement: all take on a life of their own. Indeed the marked disorder or scatter of his paintings is due to the universal enlivening or extension of performance to everything in the world, man and beast, objects both animate and inanimate. There is no end of fact and beginning of fancy here: in Steen’s pictures the two are inextricably intertwined.

The habit of performance has a particular history in the life and the practice of Northern artists. The well-known story of Pieter Bruegel disguising himself to mingle with peasants, like the account of Goltzius exchanging his dress with that of his servant to deceive those he met in Italy, may be apocryphal. But they testify to a persistent relationship between depicting the world and performing it. Bruegel, like Ostade and Brouwer, who, in their peasant scenes, were his heirs in the following century, was a great producer of performative figures playing out seasonal occupations, say, or proverbs. All this suggests that these artists’ frequent membership of societies or chambers of rhetoric was as much due to an interest in performing as in texts or set design. It is a curious feature of the Western tradition of pictorial realism – from the Dutch to Velazquez, Watteau and Manet – that a fascination with pictorial illusion has so often fastened on the problematic presence of a performer.

It is quite different with Ter Borch. The fame of his so-called Parental Admonition is partly due to a long history of misinterpretation. A young woman, splendidly outfitted in Ter Borch’s favourite white silk, stands to the left, addressed by a man seated at the right, while, between the two, a woman drinks from a glass of wine. The spare furnishings are pushed aside to concentrate our attention on the interchange between the group of three who are lit from the front and isolated against the dark background of his painted ‘box’. The most famous account that we have of the painting is Goethe’s, who referred to it as the ‘Parental Admonition’. But ever since it was discovered that the young man’s raised right hand holds a coin – a sign that he is negotiating for the sexual favours of the young woman – it has seemed clear that Goethe totally mistook the appearance of the work (basing himself on the print after it that he knew) This is not a family under strain but a brothel scene. And Goethe’s misinterpretation has been generally taken as amusing evidence of how wrong one can go in innocence of the historical context.

But was Goethe’s view of the work really so far off the mark? He introduced Ter Borch’s painting in his novel Elective Affinities as the subject for an evening entertainment – the occasion for a tableau, that popular 18th-century form of charade. That we now think that Goethe misread the action is of less interest than the fact that he rightly saw Ter Borch’s painting itself as a performance. And quite appropriately what fascinated him was the artist’s signal idea of depicting the silk-clad woman from the back. (A device that was later enthusiastically taken up, and for similar reasons, by Watteau.) With its face hidden and without an overt gesture a figure becomes unreadable. Very recently it has been suggested that the coin is offered in the name of marriage rather than in a bargain for sex. Perhaps, but who knows? It is the very invisibility of the young lady, or the impossibility of interpreting her, that fascinated Goethe, as it had fascinated Ter Borch before him.

While Steen extended performance to include one and all, Ter Borch here is opting out, as it were. He calls attention in his own way, as Vermeer and Rembrandt were to do in theirs, to the fact that what lies beyond what is known through visible performance cannot be penetrated by the observer. Such paintings point, in other words, to the private preserve, the interior psychology of the performer.

One could suggest the reach of Dutch genre painting by contrasting in performative terms Berchem’s splendid and little-known Moor presenting a Parrot to a Lady with Vermeer’s great Music Lesson from the Queen’s collection. Both are works in which men proffer their love to women with uncertain results. Both works address our eyes with the extraordinary display of surfaces which is the hallmark of this school of painting – the brilliant still-life of wine and fruit in the Berchem is matched by Vermeer’s familiar white pitcher on the foreground table. And both admit to an equal sense of artifice. In Berchem’s picture the statue of Venus echoes the lady’s stance, just as in Vermeer the visible bit of the picture of Roman Charity (an imprisoned father suckled by his daughter) echoes the young man in thrall to love. Different as they seem, what connects the scene at Berchem’s exotic harbour to that in the Dutch interior is a relationship to performance. But while Berchem extends visible performance until it ends in an improbable fantasy, Vermeer abandons it to end in an equally unexpected intimation of interior life.

Both the hanging of the paintings at Burlington House and the catalogue accompanying the exhibition propose that these paintings offer a reflection, albeit a selective one, of the larger social situation in Holland in the 17th century. This is doubtless true. But the pictures themselves also suggest something else. Anyone who knows the history of Amsterdam will be aware of how much of this world of trade, competition and far-flung enterprise does not appear in the art. (It is interesting in this regard to think of the so-called Italianate painters like Berchem as attempting to deal with Dutch foreign affairs – though it was an Italian, Tiepolo, who was to be the greatest exponent of this pictorial mode.) For all the conflict and suffering in the society at home and abroad, the art is amazingly up-beat. There are few deaths and not much suffering. Over and over again, the images resolve qualms and worries through celebration, effectively fastening attention on social and pictorial performances. Rather than expanding, altering and adjusting in order to take in the pressures of the society, the art did just the opposite. One might say that it beat a retreat. The ambiguous status of the young woman in Ter Borch’s Parental Admonition is not, I suspect, a record of ambiguities in a society torn between capitalist gain and Christian conscience, nature and culture, instinct and morality, whore and wife. What it marks is the artist’s withdrawal from all of this to the uncharted area of the individual psyche. This pictorial move is of course itself not free from social implications. For all the hustle and bustle recorded in these often teeming images of Dutch life, it is characteristic that the finest paintings turn away from social concerns to a psychological inwardness which was understood to be inaccessible to pictorial representation as it was then practised. It is not the public scenes but the private person whose depiction finally stands out: those isolated figures so finely painted by Codde, Ter Borche, De Hooch or Vermeer are clearly the pictorial highlights of this show. In distinguishing these artists and their works from the others, I am making both a critical and a historical point. We can, after all, discriminate with some confidence between the accomplishments of these Dutch genre painters. It was the best among them who, for better or worse, were among the first artists to claim for painting the socially narrowed but pictorially fruitful domain that has had such a long life in the West.

When the show at the Royal Academy has closed, one might want to sit down with The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the 17th Century, a new book by Bob Haak, director of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. This survey offers a fine introduction to Dutch art, to the country in which it was produced, and to the current ‘state of the art’ of Dutch art history. After an ample introductory section, the book is arranged chronologically and by city – with the effect that artists’ careers and the life in each city tend to get a bit chopped up. The approach is encyclopedic. One might almost speak of an eye-witness effect, for one has the illusion of being on the spot, of seeing and hearing about most of the art that was produced in an intensively art-producing country. Like any approach, this one has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantage in this case is sheer coverage. The disadvantage is the sacrifice of that knowledge which is suggested by the act of selection itself. Haak clearly favours documents over speculation (‘There can be no question of the meaning of Vermeer’s painting of the artist in his studio’), and this is a taste which bears an interesting relationship to the art with which he is concerned. Haak’s book will give both amateur and professional the fullest account of Dutch art available at this time.