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.’

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