Merry Companies

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Dutch 17th-century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution by Wayne Franits
    Yale, 328 pp, £45.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 300 10237 2

When we admire genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age for their realistic representation of everyday life, we may be responding as much to the spell of the 19th century as to the artistry of the 17th. It was in the 19th century that ‘realism’ began to be used as a description of such images, and one of the earliest uses of the French term in an aesthetic sense comes from an 1846 study of the Dutch and Flemish painters. (The word migrated to England in the following decade.) And while the identification of genre painting with common and domestic scenes can be traced back to Diderot, only in the 19th century did the phrase settle into its present meaning as the representation of everyday life. When Hippolyte Taine evoked the ‘national instinct’ of the Dutch for the ‘representation of real men and real life, just as their eyes saw them’, or Eugène Fromentin pronounced Dutch painting ‘the portrait of Holland, its exterior image, faithful, exact, complete … with no embellishment’, they were helping to establish a way of seeing that has bedevilled art history ever since. ‘Holland has imagined nothing,’ Fromentin notoriously announced in 1876, ‘but she has painted miraculously well.’

Fromentin did not confine his equivocal praise to genre painting, but the first major assault on received ideas about Dutch realism focused on those representations of anonymous figures and commonplace acts that had come to be classified as genre. In the 1960s, an influential group of scholars based in Utrecht began to probe the realistic surface of Dutch painting for symbolic meanings. Inspired by the work of Erwin Panofsky, they adopted an iconological method originally designed to interpret works of the Italian Renaissance in order to demonstrate that 17th-century Dutch art, too, had its allegories and emblems. There was realism and ‘seeming realism’, according to Eddy de Jongh, the most prominent advocate of this view; and ‘countless paintings, particularly genre scenes, had to be “read” in a manner comparable to studying riddles and rebuses.’ The untutored eye might see only a group of men and women eating, drinking and music-making; but the educated viewer would recognise in a Merry Company an allegory of the five senses and read a warning against indulgence in the paintings on the wall behind them. A young boy blowing bubbles in a Jan Steen Brewery should be interpreted as a moralising reflection on transience, and so, too, should a small bone lying next to some playing cards in an Outdoor Party by Esaias van de Velde. The precise message of Gerrit Dou’s Lady at Her Toilet might be difficult to articulate, but the mirror and open bird-cage suggest that we are looking at a commentary on vanity and desire – assuming, of course, that Dou meant us to recall both the vanitas associations of mirrors and the fact that emblem-makers had sometimes used bird-cages to signify lost virginity. Indeed, as painting after painting turns into a reminder that pleasure is fleeting and death inevitable, one begins to wonder why so many people were eager to buy them. It is hard to believe that what has been called the first mass-consumers’ art market in Europe was mainly driven by a collective appetite for moralising.

Unlike emblem books, most of the paintings do not provide their own gloss; and without an agreed syntax for visual signs, even the most conventional icons will usually remain ambiguous. (Does the painted skull offer a warning about mortality or is the artist boasting of his triumph over death?) But by arguing that ‘the so-called realism’ of these pictures had more to do with ‘the mentality’ than ‘the life of the time’, to quote de Jongh again, the iconologists managed to give an intellectual cast to an art that had long been identified with the sensory and the mechanical. At least since the 15th century, when theorists sought to elevate the status of the painter by contending that he dealt in ‘ideas’ worthy of the philosopher or the poet, the opposition between Italy and the North, between history painting and the lesser genres, had turned on the perceived superiority of mental work to craftsmanship: while the Italians were credited with powers of generalising and abstracting, the Dutch were typically seen as content to engage in what Reynolds termed the ‘mere mechanical labour of copying’.

Though the neoclassical hierarchy had ostensibly broken down at the beginning of the 19th century, the fierce debate that erupted when Svetlana Alpers attempted to challenge the iconological consensus in her Art of Describing (1983) made it clear that some of the old sensitivities still lingered. Rejecting an interpretative method that she saw as biased toward the kind of knowledge found in texts, Alpers argued that the 17th-century Netherlands was primarily an empirical and descriptive culture, whose fascination with maps, microscopes and other visual devices had more bearing on its art than the moralising glosses of the emblem books. Both Alpers’s emphasis on the visual rather than the verbal and her apparent effort to generalise about the culture sparked vehement controversy. ‘Pictures,’ she subsequently observed, ‘are an attempt to make sense … rather than meaning out of the world’: a position that seems to have struck some of her opponents as dangerously close to the dismissal of the Dutch as unthinking copyists. Complaining that her generalisations rode roughshod over stylistic differences, Walter Liedtke, the curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, responded testily: ‘Their eyes may have been comparable to the camera obscura, but their heads were filled with ideas.’

Though it would be premature to declare this battle over, a tentative truce appears to have been negotiated over the last decade or so, and most historians of Dutch art have staked out positions somewhere in the middle. De Jongh himself has conceded that not all 17th-century painters were intent on moralising and that many seem to have had little or no use for hidden symbols. Even some who did exploit them, he has suggested, appear to have done so tongue in cheek, as if they were more concerned to entertain their viewers than to edify them. Others have pointed out how little treatises of the time had to say about didactic, as opposed to visual matters – especially when addressing those ‘modern’ subjects later classified as genre. (That the Netherlands produced relatively few such theoretical works, at least by comparison to Italy, has itself been taken as evidence of the visual bias of the culture.) While the iconologists sometimes implied that the habit of looking for veiled meaning was so widespread as to go without saying, most commentators have been reluctant to endorse this argument from silence. Without denying the scriptural and emblematic origins of many of the motifs that Dutch genre painters adopted, recent scholarship has tended to stress the variety of viewers to whom these painters appealed and the multiplicity of interpretations to which their pictures would have been subject. Ambiguity, it has been argued, is both an inevitable condition of much visual imagery and an effect strategically exploited by some artists to increase their market. A brothel scene that might titillate some viewers could justify itself to others as a warning against lust – and there is no reason why both responses might not be triggered in a single person.

Whatever the attractions of a particular subject, the Dutch clearly valued their artists’ imitative capacities: the treatises may provide little support for the iconologists, but they repeatedly emphasise painting’s power to deceive the eye. The ancient story of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius was frequently rehearsed; and the victory of Parrhasius – sealed when his rival tried to pull aside his painted curtain – was not lost on an artist such as Dou, whose own painted curtains boast a similar mastery of illusion. Then as now, Dutch art was famous for such achievements, from the trompe l’oeil niche that Dou virtually invented in the 1640s, to the meticulously rendered satins for which Gerard ter Borch is celebrated.

Yet for all the renewed attention to such reality-effects, current studies of Dutch painting have no intention of reviving the illusions to which the 19th century surrendered. They argue that the image of daily life in these pictures is a highly artificial construction: far more selective and formulaic than those who first celebrated its realism were prepared to recognise. Many common aspects of life in the 17th-century Netherlands were never pictured, or only rarely, while others became standard motifs, elegantly varied from one image to another. Sailors and dockworkers, for example, rarely figure, though they constituted a significant proportion of the population. There are countless images of peasants eating, drinking and smoking, or spending their holidays in taverns and at fairs, but very few representations of them working in the fields or in the dairy; nor is the building of the dikes recorded, despite their omnipresence in the landscape. For much of the Golden Age, the Dutch were at war, but very little violence ever made it into their pictures, though soldiers are shown in guardrooms and brothels, as well as domestic settings. In domestic scenes, perhaps the most conspicuous absence is the man of the house, who is often signified by a portrait on a wall or a cloak thrown over a chair. Certain homely tasks carried out by women were particularly prominent: in his 1993 study of such images, Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in 17th-Century Dutch Art, Wayne Franits noted that spinning often figures as a sign of housewifely virtue, though the evidence suggests that women had by and large stopped spinning for their own families.

As for the detailed interiors that often fascinate viewers: while individual objects are often rendered with extraordinary fidelity, both their disposition in space and the space itself were probably altered by the painter. Drawing on household inventories, recent studies such as Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips’s Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective have argued that the typical room in a wealthy Dutch home would have been much more densely furnished: the impression of peace and order is less a tribute to 17th-century housekeeping than to the exclusions of the artist.[*] These inventories also cast some doubt on the number of musical instruments kept in Dutch households, even the wealthier ones, despite the frequency with which domestic music-making is seen in the paintings. The marble floors that appear in many images of upper-class domestic life were apparently rare in private homes, though there were examples in public buildings, while the brass chandeliers that often figure in such pictures seem to have been manufactured mainly for churches. Oriental carpets were popular among wealthy burghers, but certain carpets which can be seen in more than one picture were clearly studio props, deliberately arranged to display the painter’s mastery of colour and texture. It was also presumably the studio that supplied the light that so often fills these interiors: the inner rooms of most 17th-century Dutch houses were considerably darker than many paintings imply.

Franits’s new study constitutes a massive synthesis of the latest work on the subject. (Its most obvious predecessors, Christopher Brown’s Images of a Golden Past: Dutch Genre Painting of the 17th Century and Peter Sutton’s exhibition catalogue, Masters of 17th-Century Dutch Genre Painting, both appeared in 1984.) The text is supplemented with nearly 250 images, many in colour, as well as more than forty pages of triple-column notes and an extensive bibliography. From the outset, Franits makes it clear that he intends to ‘disabuse’ the modern viewer of ‘any naive assumption that 17th-century Dutch genre paintings are simple “slices of life”’, not by decoding their hidden meanings in the manner of the iconologists, but by highlighting the conventions that govern them. Sutton’s 1984 catalogue began by speaking of ‘a naturalism at the service of more profound realities’, but Franits emphasises the limited repertoire of styles and motifs with which the ‘clever fictions’ of such paintings were woven. Though he does not rule out iconological evidence, he is more concerned to show the way various preconceptions, both specifically aesthetic and broadly cultural, determined the look of those pictures we now categorise as genre. For Franits, pictures are shaped by other pictures – and by the demands of the market – as much as by any desire to imitate the visible world; and the evolution to which his subtitle refers is not the development of a greater fidelity to that world, but a history of changing tastes and values.

Dutch 17th-Century Genre Painting still has a linear narrative, but it concerns the consumers of art rather than its practitioners. (Though the book is subdivided geographically, according to the principal cities in which genre painting flourished, the discussion otherwise proceeds chronologically, from 1609 to 1702.) In an argument openly indebted to Norbert Elias’s concept of ‘the civilising process’, as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s work on distinction, Franits maintains that the increasing refinement of elite tastes accounts for many of the changes in these paintings. Though historians have often characterised them as the first instances of a genuinely middle-class art, Franits argues that the images in his book ‘were on the whole intended for affluent purchasers’ and that by mid-century buyers of more modest means were being priced out of the market. Those who purchased art, by his account, did so primarily to confirm or elevate their status; and they demanded ever greater refinement, both thematic and stylistic. Over the century, ‘elite culture’ increasingly tended to separate itself from popular culture; and pictures that had once seemed acceptable, like those of boorish peasants or blatant prostitutes, ceased to be thought so. Especially after 1648, when the Treaty of Münster was followed by several decades of peace and prosperity, artists predominantly catered to upper-class tastes. Franits suggests that even paintings aimed at less wealthy buyers changed, as a demand for genteel subjects grew among those who sought to emulate the refinement of their betters.

The mid-century vogue for images of letter-writers and readers, for example – a phenomenon recently commemorated in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut – clearly responds to upper-class taste: even in the most literate nation in 17th-century Europe, the writing and receiving of letters was usually a leisure activity, as the elegantly dressed correspondents in so many of these images attest. Satirical depictions of peasants indulging in tobacco, on the other hand, went out of fashion once the habit of smoking became acceptable among urban consumers. As long as the Dutch army was heavily reliant on foreign-born mercenaries, Franits implies, its soldiers typically appeared as rather rough characters; when military careers became more attractive to patricians in the years after 1648, painted soldiers migrated from guardrooms and taverns, where they had gambled and consorted with prostitutes, to join in the civilised pursuits of letter-writing and courtship. Even brothel scenes grow more refined in the postwar period, as the ‘strong sexuality’ in earlier representations is ‘sublimated and rendered innocuous’.

Those marble floors and brass chandeliers that adorn so many images may not reflect contemporary decorating styles, but they clearly speak to the fantasies and aspirations of their buyers. So, too, do the much imitated satins and furs worn by ter Borch’s elegant ladies, even as the labour-intensive surfaces of such paintings announce their own status as luxury commodities. In one of his finest discussions of an individual image, Franits shows that Frans van Mieris’s sumptuous The Cloth Shop (1660), now in Vienna, is also a witty advertisement of the artist’s wares: inviting the viewer to compare and purchase by means of the same Latin inscription (‘comparat[ur?] cui vult’) that comments on the smirking officer who simultaneously strokes the chin of a pretty clerk and fingers a piece of cloth, as he contemplates making more than one purchase of his own. A native of Leiden, van Mieris may also have intended his lavish display of fabric bolts to promote that city’s reputation for textiles, though the spacious interior of the shop doesn’t seem to correspond to an actual model.

Franits’s upper-class consumers also help to explain the transformation of Dutch genre painting towards the end of the century, as the intensely mimetic effects of the 1650s and 1660s gave way to the classicising styles fashionable among an increasingly Francophile elite. (In a familiar phenomenon, income inequality seems to have widened during the bad times that followed the outbreak of war with France and its allies in 1672; and since only the wealthiest were able to afford art in these years, they exercised even more influence over its development.) Early in the 18th century, genre painters were urged to elevate their work with ‘antique’ touches, with old-fashioned drapery and graceful gestures, but well before such practices were codified, elegant ladies and gentlemen, their forms and features subtly idealised, begin to disport themselves among bits of classical architecture and statuary, while even humble types acquire faintly aquiline profiles. Though historians sometimes imply that moralising diminishes as Dutch art progresses towards greater realism, Franits calls attention to a revival of didacticism at the end of the century: a development he predictably attributes to ‘the heightened civility of contemporary society’.

Rather than presume, as many have done, that the economic and political decline of the Dutch Republic entailed a corresponding loss of aesthetic energy, Franits speaks of shifting stylistic conventions: since convention of one sort or another has been shown to govern even the most seemingly realistic images, he implies, why not accept that wealthy collectors at the end of the century preferred their genre paintings touched up with idealised features and antique details? But Franits makes too much of civilising, status-seeking consumers. It is one thing to remind us that ‘contemporary taste, in the form of the art market … continued to play a role’ even in the genesis of Vermeer’s paintings; another to imply, as this book often does, that both convention and innovation are equally determined by market forces. Should we really believe, for example, that the psychological subtlety and elusiveness of ter Borch’s work ‘owe … just as much to the changing desires and expectations of discriminating, moneyed collectors’ as to the ‘ingenuity’ of the artist? Though Franits calls attention to the ways in which genre painters imitated and learned from one another, his insistence on the determining role of their patrons keeps crowding out other motives, such as intra-guild emulation and rivalry. As for the motives of the consumers themselves, Franits is surely right to question the idea that the upper classes bought all those pictures of peasants behaving crudely as a way of warning themselves against vice; on the other hand, his suggestion that their motive was rather to affirm their ‘consciousness of their behavioural and social supremacy’ seems hardly more adequate. To explain the popularity of Jan Steen’s exuberantly comic art by saying that it ‘must have served to affirm a viewer’s presumed social status and respectability’ seems much like arguing that Shakespeare’s clowns appeal to sophisticated audiences by reminding them of their superiority.

It should be said that Franits is willing to acknowledge numerous exceptions to his argument – Steen most prominent among them. Unlike most of the artists considered here, Steen not only wandered from city to city, but refused to settle stylistically: he was immensely prolific, sometimes imitating the meticulous finish of the Leiden fijnschilders (‘fine-painters’), at others adopting the large format and loose brushwork characteristic of the Haarlem tradition. His witty and often scabrous images show no signs of succumbing to the civilising process. With their rowdy subjects and deliberately archaic motifs, Steen’s pictures seem more inclined to mock the refinement of his contemporaries than to imitate it: a tendency that did not prevent his work from rising significantly in value in the very years (after his death) when standards of civility were at their highest. Though Franits briefly wonders whether Steen made his work more marketable by distinguishing it from its competitors, he makes no attempt to reconcile this idea with the economic assumptions that otherwise govern his argument.

For all its impressive range and detail, Dutch 17th-Century Genre Painting does little to resolve the mystery of what constitutes genre painting in the first place. The Dutch themselves had no such term: they sometimes alluded to ‘modern’ works – as opposed, presumably, to history paintings – but for the most part simply classified pictures by subject (a ‘merry company’, ‘a guardroom piece’ etc). Sometime between the late 18th century, when the French first began to distinguish peintures de genre from peintures d’histoire, and the middle of the 19th, when it more or less settled into its present meaning, a word that originally meant ‘kind’ or ‘manner’ came to be identified with the representation of everyday life; and despite repeated demonstrations that the definition doesn’t hold, most of us seem unable to do without it. One modern scholar, Albert Blankert, has usefully proposed that it is the anonymity of the human figures in such images rather than their quotidian character that should determine membership in the category; and anonymity does seem a necessary condition of genre, distinguishing it from portraiture and history painting, both of which depend on the viewer’s knowledge that specific people, whether real or fictional, are being represented. Franits, however, chooses not to worry about this issue, mentioning Blankert’s suggestion only in a single note; and he doesn’t speculate on the fine line that divides a landscape with some anonymous figures in it from a genre painting of rural activities. But he does reproduce one haunting image that challenges the category from another direction: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s The Slippers. The figures in this painting are so anonymous they have disappeared altogether, leaving a well-lit room partly visible through a darkened vestibule, in which isolated objects (a broom propped against the doorway, a bunch of keys dangling in the lock, an extinguished candle and empty chair, the slippers of the title) seem to speak of the people who have abandoned them. On the wall in the distance hangs a loose copy of another famously ambiguous genre painting, ter Borch’s Paternal Admonition; but while the ambiguity of the ter Borch turns on the action represented – does it really show a father admonishing his daughter, or are we meant to see a man soliciting a prostitute? – van Hoogstraten’s painting seems to play with its own status as a representation. We might say that it hovers tantalisingly on the boundary between still life and genre, but only because we are the heirs of the 19th century.

[*] Yale, 256 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09817 0.