Questions of Dutchness

Svetlana Alpers

  • Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620 by Wouter Kloek, translated by Michael Hoyle
    Yale, 720 pp, £60.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 300 06016 5

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.

It is curious that paintings which take such obvious delight in human satisfactions – the picturing of tables laid, flowers arranged, travels through a peaceful land, neat, well-lit households, orderly meetings of corporate boards – have been the subject of so much dispute. Fromentin’s two basic insights about the portrayal of the visible world, and about the nation have both been contested in recent times.

First came a challenge to the notion of portrayal. Viewers may delight in the depiction of people and objects, but, so a new interpretation went, we were really meant to attend to the moral instruction offered. What you see is not what you ought to get. Is Dutch culture and its art a balancing act: the bountiful returns of early capitalism tempered by a Calvinist discomfort or guilt about worldly rewards? This, the theme of Simon Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches, is not inconsistent with the view that moral warnings against worldly pleasures lurk beneath the surfaces of the paintings. Dutch art in this account is an art of proscribing, not an art of describing.

Combined with the assault on portrayal is another agenda: was there indeed such a thing as Dutch art at all? Or, better put, was there one thing that could be called Dutch art, as Fromentin had proposed? At first, the question seems odd. Surely, to deny that there is something we refer to as Dutch painting is rather like denying that there was an Elizabethan English theatre, or a Russian novel. It is not quite national determination that is signalled here by the terms ‘English’, ‘Russian’, ‘Dutch’, but rather the kinship within kinds or genres of art made at a certain time in a certain place. Further, it is not just Fromentin’s proposal that is at issue. Evidence is offered by generations of painters – from Chardin and Hogarth to Constable, Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque – that a secular, domestically oriented, realist mode of painting with roots in the Netherlands has been a continuing feature of the European tradition.

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