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Mysteries of Dutch Painting

The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century

by Svetlana Alpers
University of Chicago Press, 273 pp., $37.50

More than two decades ago Svetlana Alpers placed us all in her debt by publishing a strikingly new analysis of Vasari’s famous Lives of the…Painters (1550). She taught us (or in any case me) that we misread and therefore undervalue that foundation charter of art-historical studies if we fail to distinguish between what Vasari sees as the means of art and what is its purpose. Far from naively regarding the faithful imitation of nature as an end in itself, Vasari saw the development of representational skills as the perfection of means which always served their main social function—the evocation of a sacred or edifying story, in other words: dramatic narrative.

Confirmation of this important insight can be found in a neglected passage from Leonardo’s Trattato della Pittura, where the master talks about mechanical means of imitating natural effects (such as the tracing of outlines on the surface of a transparent sheet and observing the shadows and lights). There is nothing wrong, Leonardo avers, if this method is used as an aid, but if artists begin to rely on such shortcuts, “they will always remain poor in inventing and composing narratives which is the aim of that art.”

In the challenging book under review Professor Alpers argues convincingly that we are still the heirs of this tradition, which did indeed dominate the teaching of art in the academies of Europe. Thus Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses could freely acknowledge what he called the “mechanical excellencies” of the Dutch school while regretting the vulgar use frequently made of such skills. But her argument has a further aim. In her view the historiography of art, including the teaching and writing of art historians today, remains wedded to this conception, which introduced an unconscious bias in favor of Italian art. The methods and attitudes appropriate for the critical evaluation of works in that tradition have proved inadequate to explain other types of art and have therefore led either to their neglect or to their misinterpretation.

Both in her introduction and in an appendix Professor Alpers criticizes in particular the tendency of applying to Dutch painting the methods developed by Erwin Panofsky and others for the interpretation of images conceived in the classical tradition. The search for hidden meanings, the reference to emblem books and enigmatic “hieroglyphs” which has enjoyed a certain vogue among historians of Dutch art, has led, in her opinion, to a fundamental misinterpretation of one of the greatest periods of artistic creativity. In this demonstration she has succeeded triumphantly. There is no doubt that thanks to her highly original book the study of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century will be thoroughly reformed and rejuvenated.

True, it might have clarified matters if she had talked of the academic rather than of the Italian tradition of art, for she knows very well that not all Italian art is dominated by the values of “history painting.” Maybe, in fact, adopting this alternative terminology would also have helped her to diagnose the roots of her dissatisfaction with current art-historical practice. Academics are naturally attracted to the academic outlook, for it encourages an intellectual approach that thrives in the classroom. Like it or not, the teacher of art history must talk, and what lends itself better to such discourse than the demonstration that there is more in any image than “meets the eye”?

Marshaling her evidence from a wide range of disciplines Professor Alpers makes a case for the opposite approach: What matters in Dutch art is precisely what meets the eye. One can only admire the zest and erudition with which she drives home this conclusion. But in a sense her insight must create a problem for her, and for all those who still want to (or have to) talk about Dutch seventeenth-century art. It is a problem of which nineteenth-century writers on art were fully aware.

Eugene Fromentin, in his epochmaking study of the arts of the Netherlands, Les Maîtres d’autrefois (1876), begins his account of painting in Holland with a reminder of the surprising fact that there is in Dutch painting “a total absence of what we today call a subject matter…ever since that painting ceased to borrow from Italy her style and her poetics…the great Dutch school seemed to think of nothing but of painting well.” The French critic here takes up a theme from Hegel’s lectures in aesthetics to which Professor Alpers refers but which she does not quote: “Even though the heart and mind are not given their due, we are reconciled by a closer look…indeed if one wants to know what painting is, one must look at these little pictures to say of this or that master: he can paint.”

The author, of course, fully appreciates the role which such masterly “crafting” plays in the tradition of Dutch painting, but though she also acknowledges that “northern art does not offer us an easy verbal access” her book is intended to fill that lacuna. As her title indicates she wishes to pit the “art of describing” as practiced in the north against the art of narration developed in the south. “Narration has had its defenders and its explicators but the problem remains how to defend and define description.” The chapters that follow indicate that by “defend” she means assigning to description a social function different from, but equal in relevance to, the religious and moral message of the academic mode.

In pursuit of this aim the author calls as her first witness that renowned Dutch man of letters, Constantijn Huygens, whose well-known autobiography she uses to good purpose. She quotes an interesting passage in which Huygens describes the experience of looking through one of the early microscopes and being reminded of the art of Jacques de Gheyn II who had drawn insects with consummate skill. If only he could have drawn the creatures of that “new world” which the microscope revealed!

Such drawings were in fact made and engraved in the course of the century and added appreciably to scientific knowledge, and yet it could be argued that in stressing this descriptive function of art as typical of a new concern Professor Alpers somewhat overstates her case. What might be called the recording function of the visual image surely did not have to wait for the seventeenth century to be recognized. Several millenniums earlier the ancient Egyptians recorded on the temple wall of Deir elBahari the appearance of plants and animals that an expedition had brought from the land of Punt. It was neither the first nor the last such use of a pictorial record. After all, what are herbals—which existed since classical antiquity—than visual records of medicinal plants for the use of those who have not seen any live specimens?

The author disclaims any intention of wanting to monopolize this function for Dutch art; but any uninitiated reader of her book may still get a somewhat onesided picture of the true situation. Such a reader might find it useful to glance into the hefty catalog of the Florentine Medici exhibition of 1980 devoted to “Commerce, the Rebirth of Science, Publishing and the Occult,” which shows the Dutch contribution—great as it was—in its European setting. There is no doubt, of course, that the voyages of discovery and the advent of printing gave a new scope to the image as a conveyor of visual information, and that this presented a challenge to the purely verbal education of classical erudition.

In celebrating this movement, which in more than one respect ushered in the modern age, the author tells us that “art can lead to a new kind of knowledge of the world” or even that “pictures challenged texts as a central way of understanding the world.” Not everybody will be inclined to accept this sweeping claim. It is not just hairsplitting to point out that no picture can perform such a feat, when divorced from a caption or other contextual pointers. It is not for nothing that we speak today of “visual aids” when referring to illustrations, diagrams, or films. Nobody would be inclined to underrate the vital role of these aids in supplementing and enriching a verbal account, but the information imparted by images remains embedded in language.

To revert to the wish of Huygens that Jacques de Gheyn could have recorded the new world seen through the microscope, it is clear that any such image without a caption (or its equivalent) could never have imparted “knowledge,” let alone “understanding.” The creature he drew would have lacked a scale and a context, it might have been a mere grotesque or a fabulous monster from Mandeville’s travels. What made the illustrations of microscopic observations so important was the use made of the new knowledge that they incorporated.

This happens to be precisely the point made by Michel Foucault in his book Les Mots et les choses, to which Professor Alpers appeals in her interpretation. He points out that the microscope was used in the seventeenth century to solve problems. Take the example of the Italian physician Francesco Redi who, in his book of 1668 (no. 9.45 in the catalog mentioned above), illustrated among other specimens a louse peculiar to donkeys. He thus disproved Aristotle’s contention that donkeys do not harbor lice, and apparently incurred the wrath of his contemporaries. But what is this slight contribution to knowledge compared with Redi’s conclusion, derived from an examination of the reproductive organs of insects and fortified by experiments, that the universal belief in the spontaneous generation of maggots and vermin in carcasses was untenable, and that all these creatures emerged from eggs laid by files? Here, surely, is a milestone on the road to Pasteur’s achievement which could never have come about without the microscope, but never through the microscope alone, or, be it said, through a collection of pictures or specimens, however accurate and however complete. Important as was the art of describing, the art of thinking also needs its defenders.

The author devotes a number of interesting pages to the books by John Amos Comenius, who rightly championed the use of visual aids in education, because he wanted to free children of the empty drudgery of memorizing. His illustrated textbooks should enable the learner to grasp the parts and varieties of trees, etc., while sitting in the classroom, but the role of the captioned picture here is that of a substitute. The teacher could have done even better with the aid of a pointer if the lesson had taken place in a garden; but knowledge acquired through pointing is not yet scientific knowledge.

There is a splendid passage in Swift’s Gulliver describing the “school of languages” in the grand academy of Lagado, in which he describes

a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever;…since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on…. The room where company meet who practice this art, is full of all things ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.

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