Scenes in a Golden Age

Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting Pennsylvania Press)

catalog of an exhibition organized by Peter C. Sutton
Philadelphia Museum of Art (distributed by the University of, 397 pp., $45.00

In what is called the “art world” of today exhibition catalogs have acquired an almost ritualistic function. Too heavy to carry around, too detailed to be read in their entirety, they serve to reassure the public of the care and thought that have gone into the arrangement of the show. The catalog of the circulating exhibition “Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting,” which went from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Berlin Gemäldegalerie and finally to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, has many of the drawbacks of the genre. Its 400 pages, its 127 full-page color plates, its countless black-and-white illustrations and extensive bibliography inevitably present a contrast with the paintings to which it is devoted, since many of them are lighthearted and unpretentious.

In this particular case, however, it would be wrong to dismiss the enterprise as inflated, for not only the individual entries but more exceptionally the introductory essays carry their justification in themselves. The organizer of the show, Peter C. Sutton of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is responsible for the two preliminary texts, a detailed account of the masters represented and a chapter, “Life and Culture in the Golden Age.” These essays must be warmly recommended to all lovers of Dutch art for their informative content, their aesthetic sensitivity, and their sanity. Strangely enough this last and most precious quality can no longer be taken for granted in art historical writings on the topic concerned. For somehow we seem to have lost our innocence in dealing with these pictures. It used to be accepted as a matter of course that the genre paintings produced in such quantities by major and minor masters in various prosperous cities of Holland were intended to please and amuse. It is only of late that they have appeared to present a puzzle. They remain agreeable enough, but what do they mean?

This preoccupation with meaning is due, of course, to the success and prestige of the branch of art historical studies known as iconology, which concerns itself with the interpretation of allegorical and symbolical images. But the founders of this discipline never wished to imply that any statue that could not be given a title such as “Liberty Enlightening the World” was therefore meaningless. Only in the discussion of language can we distinguish between statements that have a meaning and strings of words that are devoid of meaning. Images are not the equivalent of statements, and to ask in every case what a painting “means” is no more fruitful than to ask the same of a building, a symphony, or a three-course meal. A painting of a moonlit landscape does not “mean” a moonlit landscape, it represents one.

In her book The Art of Describing, Svetlana Alpers had reason to reassert this common-sense view, devoting a special appendix to the “emblematic interpretation” of Dutch art. She there takes issue with the attempt to apply the methods and aims of iconology wholesale to the study of the period in …

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