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Mysteries of Dutch Painting

Swift goes on to commend this invention as a “universal language to be understood in all civilized nations.”

The butt of Swift’s satire, of course, is the Royal Society and its tendency to value the immediacy of observation above the use of words, and indeed it is to this tradition that Alpers refers us in her central chapter. She quotes amply and suggestively from the writings of Francis Bacon whose emphasis on visual observation reminds her of the Dutch “art of description”: “Bacon too manifests an intense interest in the minutiae of the world. This is combined with an anonymity or coolness (it is as if no human passions but only the love of truth led him on) that is also characteristic of the Dutch. The world is stilled, as in Dutch paintings, to be subjected to observation.”

The passage offers a fine and characteristic example of the author’s forensic skill, but it is to be feared that Bacon would have let her down in the witness box. True, she is able to quote him for his dictum “I admit nothing but on the faith of the eyes,” but she also knows that he uttered many warnings against reliance on our fallible senses. In fact she is too good a historian to pin the efflorescence of Dutch art on the author of the New Atlantis. She writes:

It will not do, of course, to claim Bacon as a cause for the effect of Dutch painting, in spite of the Dutch enthusiasm for his writings. However, in arguing for craft or human artifacts and their making, Bacon, who lived in a country without any notable tradition of images, can help deepen our understanding of the images produced in Holland, a country notable for its lack of powerful texts.

The question arises whether in yielding to this desire to find “texts” she has not succumbed to the academic temptation she has been trying to banish. Do we need these texts for our understanding? Alpers herself very rightly stresses the continuity of Dutch art, which can be extended as far as the fifteenth century. There is a famous chapter in that classic of cultural history, Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, where the author meditates on the contrast between the miraculous art of Jan van Eyck and the tedious texts composed by his contemporaries. Both, he concludes, pile detail upon detail, but what is tiresome in literature becomes enthralling in painting. Maybe Huizinga exaggerated, but his warning against the search for such identities should not fall into oblivion.

For stressing the relevance of traditions not only implies an attention to the way art feeds on art, it should also make us aware of the cumulative nature of any such skill. What happens in such a hothouse atmosphere is that ambition leads to competition and frequently also to specialization, as it notoriously did in Holland. But if the Dutch masters vied with each other, trying to outdo their rivals in certain accomplishments, it was hardly the didactic function of the image that drove them on. “Consider the lemon, one of the favored objects of Dutch vision,” writes Professor Alpers:

Its representation characteristically maximizes surface: the peel is sliced and unwound to reveal a glistening interior from which a seed or two is frequently discarded to one side. In the hands of Willem Kalf, particularly, the lemon offers a splendid instance of what I have termed division. The representation of the wrinkled gold of its mottled surface, with the peel here pitted, there swelling, loosened from the flesh and sinuously extended, totally transforms the fruit.

Alpers’s own “art of describing” here splendidly matches Kalf’s, but while her prose is didactic, Kalf’s painting is surely not. We go to her book to learn about Kalf, but not to Kalf to learn about lemons.

It is true that the “sincere hand and faithful eye” that emerged from centuries of cultivation could also be put into the service of a didactic purpose. Here the author’s most striking demonstration concerns a print of 1628 after Pieter Saenredam “to belie rumors about the images found in an apple tree.” Apparently the dark core of an apple tree which had been cut down near Haarlem was interpreted as a portent since the dark patches resembled images of a Roman priest and thus raised fears among the Protestants that an invasion was threatening them. The print in question carefully copies and explains the portentous black shapes and shows how little they resemble the figures that had been projected into them. Clearly such a demonstration presupposes a developed skill in the faithful rendering of surfaces, which is a “spinoff” of Dutch virtuosity. But is Dutch painting also an offshoot of scientific observation? There are few artistic traditions which equal the arts of the Far East in the minute observation of flowers and birds, but it seems that Japanese culture at any rate was largely devoid of scientific interests. Admittedly the absence of such a parallel elsewhere does not disprove its importance in Holland, but it suggests at least that the autonomy of artistic traditions should never be underrated.

The case is different with the comparison to which the author devotes a special chapter, the relation of geographical maps to Dutch prints and paintings of landscapes and towns. In the period of its greatest commercial expansion Holland was also the principal center of cartography, and the maps and atlases published there set the standard for centuries to come. This remains true and significant even though it might have helped the reader again if she had acknowledged at least in passing that what she calls the “mapping impulse” was not confined to the Dutch. Another catalog of a recent exhibition, this time devoted to Leonardo’s astounding achievements in this field (Leonardo e le vie d’acqua, Florence, 1983), might serve to adjust the balance since it shows his drawings of Tuscan mountain ranges found in the Madrid codices in connection with the project for regulating the Arno, side by side with striking photographs of these and other areas he drew and mapped. Not that Professor Alpers needs reminding of Leonardo, but maybe she has forgotten the proliferation of townscapes in Italian decorative murals (such as the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence), not to speak of the Galleria Geographica in the Vatican through which we tend to hurry on our way to the Sistine Chapel. And remembering the Vatican, she should also, perhaps, have made a nod in the direction of Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura when formulating her claims for the role of the written word in Dutch paintings.

By themselves these precedents do not, of course, invalidate the important conclusions of this instructive chapter concerning the common frontiers which, in Dutch culture, extend between paintings and maps. But it is not easy to see how this kinship between painting, print-making, and cartography can be reconciled with the thesis of Professor Alpers’s second chapter, called “Ut pictura, ita visio,” which offers a most stimulating account of Kepler’s contributions to the science of optics. It was Kepler, we learn, who first regarded the image formed on the retina as the equivalent of a painting, and this definition, once more, serves the author as an argument for her identification of picturing with seeing and knowing. Leaving aside her extension of the chapter into the much contested field of perspectival theory, I would not want to dispute the relevance of these discoveries to the theory of painting, but of course they cannot have much bearing on the theory of mapping. Maps are made by surveyors who record pointer readings, not retinal images.

But then, do paintings ever record them?

Far from wishing here to mount my old hobbyhorse and canter across the field of my book Art and Illusion to which the author pays such generous tribute, I should like to take it into another direction, that of aesthetics. To put it less portentously: Why did and do people enjoy looking at Dutch paintings and cherish the best of them, as Professor Alpers so movingly cherishes Vermeer’s masterpieces? Here, obviously, the line of “defense” she has adopted for the “Art of Describing,” by pleading its value to knowledge, must seem less than adequate. Indeed, since it was her purpose “to bring into focus the heterogeneous nature of art” that important enterprise might have profited from a further move. Clearly the art of describing can again serve various heterogeneous purposes. Think of a description of London’s river in a guidebook as fitting her dominant category and then remember Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” which, famous as it is, still deserves to be quoted and pondered in the present context:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Disregarding the difference in the time of day and in the mood evoked, I would argue that Vermeer’s View of Delft can be more effortlessly grouped with Wordsworth’s poem than with any guidebook. So much is obvious, but where could we look for an explanation of its poetic rather than prosaic character?

If there is any aspect of art that “does not offer us an easy verbal access” it is surely this transformation of a topographic view into pure poetry. But we need not quite give up all the same. It might be helpful here to recall Constantijn Huygens’s wish that Jacques de Gheyn could have recorded the view through a microscope. Helpful, for we might “compare and contrast” this appeal to the prosaic function of the image with another text, written a century earlier. I am thinking of Pietro Aretino’s beautiful letter rapturously describing his view of the Grand Canal in Venice during a sunset, which makes him cry out: “Oh Titian, where are you?”

Alas, the marvel Aretino admired has vanished and all we have is his, not Titian’s, poetic description.

Today, perhaps a photographer might have preserved the scene for us—as Visconti did in some of his beautiful shots in his film Death in Venice. But though photography, the perfect recorder of factual information, is certainly capable also of entering the service of poetic description, its very achievements also make us see why the painting by Titian which Aretino dreamed of could never have been a similar transcript of the scene. De Gheyn might have made a patient drawing of any of the little creatures he saw through the microscope, but for Titian the magic moment would have gone before he even had put his brush to the canvas. He would have had to compose it from memory with the help of his knowledge of light effects. He would have had to resort to poetic fiction.

Trivial as this observation may sound, I believe it has far-reaching consequences for the “art of describing,” because it applies not only to the faithful rendering of a fine sunset but to the representation of any motif under natural conditions.

When we say that a wax model of a lemon is a perfect facsimile of the fruit, all we can mean is that the two may be visually indistinguishable when seen exactly in the same light. The lemon Kalf painted in the still life discussed by the author shows us of course the fruit in a particular illumination; without complicated artifice this illumination could not persist. Even the still-life painter cannot describe what he sees, for what he sees must change every moment. It is the simple fact of what Gibson called “ecological optics” which makes it almost irrelevant to ask whether and when Vermeer used a camera obscura, for the instrument could only have shown him the evanescent aspects of the motif which even the most rapid brushstroke could not have fixed on the canvas. However much he might have been aided in the rendering of outlines, he had no choice but to invent the uniform illumination which pervades his pictures. It must always be a creation rather than a record. But it may also be a fact of ecological optics that we bring to the task of perception an immensely fine tuning to the nuances of ambient light. Without ever knowing why, we will not respond to an arbitrarily contrived illumination as we do to a harmony such as nature might present us.

When Huygens, as quoted by Alpers, says of Dutch artists that they can even represent the warmth of the sun, he hinted at an important truth, but he should really have said that they can create the warmth of the sun, as Cuyp mysteriously did. Our sensual and emotional response to light is indeed as mysterious and varied as is our reaction to sounds. We have all known moments in life when light appeared to transfigure a familiar scene and to make us feel what Wordsworth felt on Westminster Bridge. But the great artist cannot and must not wait for such a rare and fugitive spectacle. He has it in his power to transfigure the most commonplace view by the way he imagines and handles the light. Maybe this is the secret of Vermeer, and also, to a lesser extent, of the best paintings by Pieter de Hooch.

In her thought-provoking book the author carves out a niche for Rembrandt, whose art she sees as standing in dialectical opposition to the Dutch vernacular style. Here, as elsewhere, she breaks new ground. Even so, the traditional evaluation of Rembrandt as the master of chiaroscuro might still help to integrate his towering achievement with that of his lesser contemporaries. It is to be hoped that having so ably completed her defense of one mode of the “art of describing,” the author will now turn to the other. She herself has the verve, the knowledge, and the sensitivity to make us see familiar sights in a new light.

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