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.

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