Illusion and Realism – The Game with the Spectator in Dutch Art 1580–1660

by Antoni Ziemba (Author)
©2017 Monographs 746 Pages


The book is a study on Dutch painting, drawing and printmaking of the 17th century, focused on interlocking its descriptive realism with the visual strategy of illusion. The author analyzes this relationship as a conjunction rather than an opposition. Illusionistic compositional devices were current not only in mythological, biblical and allegorical images but also in proper realistic representations of the world. At the same time, many visual inventions, which included illusionistic concepts, were presented with persuasive realism of the forms. Thus, different seventeenth-century Dutch artists – such as Hendrick Goltzius, Hendrick Vroom, Rembrandt, Vermeer – attempted to produce «open images» and to conduct a visual game with their beholders.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Between Description and Illusion of Reality. An Introduction to Dutch Art
  • I.1. The New Society of the Republic of the United Netherlands and Its Art
  • I.2. The Categories of Illusion in Dutch Art
  • I.3. Old and New Interpretations of 17th-Century Dutch Art
  • I.4. Illusion as a Principle of Art
  • I.5. Optics, Perspective, and the Pictural Illusion
  • I.6. The ‘Culture of Curiosity’ in the Netherlands: Art Collectors and Connoisseurs
  • Constantijn Huygens and the Court of Orange
  • Foreign Courts
  • The Bourgeois Connoisseurs and Collectors: Patriciate, Humanists, Scholars, Artists
  • II. Wonders of the Art and Wonders of Nature: Reality and Illusion
  • II.1. Hercules and the Frog: Between the Sublime ‘History’ and Scientific Illustration: Mannerist Artists Ca. 1600–1620
  • Karel van Mander
  • Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem
  • Hendrick Goltzius
  • The Farnese Hercules
  • Artistic Curiosities: Technical Experiments of Goltzius and Segers
  • Goltzius’s Penschilderijen
  • Penschilderijen: Tradition and Continuity
  • The Hand of Goltzius
  • Hercules Segers – the Experimenter
  • The Bizarre and the Simple Nature: Segers, Savery, Goltzius, De Gheyn
  • Sophisticated Realism: Mountain Landscapes of Segers and Savery
  • Naturalia and Mirabilia. Fishes, Frogs and Shells: Goltzius, De Gheyn and Others
  • Whales
  • II.2. Images of Death
  • Portraits of the Deceased
  • The Gallows
  • The First Anatomy Lessons
  • The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp as a ‘Speaking Painting’
  • II.3. Breaking the Picture Barrier
  • 15th and 16th Century Traditions: Alberti’s ‘Box’ and ‘Breaking the Surface Barrier’ in Dutch and Venetian Painting
  • The Picture Behind the Curtain: Revealing the View
  • A Thing for Voyeurs: Peepshows
  • Rembrandt: Stepping Outside the Picture Frame. Images in Frames, Niches, Windows, Doors or Behind a Ledge
  • Self-Portrait as an Optical Game with the Spectator: The Truth and the Falsehood of the Mirror
  • Self-Portrait in a Mirror and with a Mirror: The Tradition of the Conversation between the Picture and the Mirror
  • Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: Realism or Fantasy? On Dresses and Costumes
  • Aemulatio
  • Trompe-l’Oeil
  • Illusion of Household Equipment: Wall Niches, Cabinets, Dressers, Cupboards by Gerrit Dou and Other Masters
  • Quodlibet
  • Fabritius’s Goldfinch and Other Avian Trompe-l’Oeils
  • A Picture of a Picture or Something Out of Nothing
  • III. New Topography. Realism and Fantasy. A Game of Conventions
  • III.1. The Sea
  • Hendrick Vroom and the Dutch Seascape Painting
  • Vroom’s Naval Battles
  • Ship Parades, Ship ‘Group Portraits’, and Profile Views of Ports
  • Beyond the Marine Storia: a Genre Marine Painting – Dunes, Beaches and the Coast
  • Snelle Techniek – ‘Rapid Manner’: Artistic Invention and the Result of a New Trend, a Means of Expanding the Art Market, or the Outcome of an Economic Crisis?
  • Porcellis, De Vlieger, Van Goyen, Van de Cappelle
  • The Marine Penschilderijen
  • III.2. The City
  • Vermeer’s View of Delft
  • City ‘Profiles’
  • Maps and Atlases
  • Maps and City Views by Claes Jansz. Visscher
  • Inside the City
  • Fortifications
  • City as Public Interior
  • Urban Nooks and Backstreets. Little Streets and Courtyards
  • Kerkinterieurs: from Imagination to Document
  • III. 3. Het Land – The Country Between the City and the Sea
  • Patriotic Geography
  • Small Landscapes
  • Schilderachtig: The ‘Picturesqueness’ of the Native Landscape
  • Plaisante Plaetsen by Claes J. Visscher: Topographical Document, Tourist Guide, and Patriotic Manifesto
  • Plaisante Plaetsen: In Dialogue with the Spectator
  • Dutch ‘Caprices’ of Jan van Goyen, Salomon van Ruysdael and Herman Saftleven
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index of the Historical Persons
  • List of Illustrations
  • Photo Credits

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Between Description and Illusion of Reality. An Introduction to Dutch Art

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I.1. The New Society of the Republic of the United Netherlands and Its Art

This is a book about painting and related art disciplines in the Golden Age of the Republic. But is it indeed really possible to write a comprehensive book on the subject from the present perspective? One that would encompass the whole spectrum of its trends and phenomena: notable artists and artworks, a complete chronology, an examination of its iconography and stylistic changes, an in-depth discussion of painting and printmaking techniques, along with their technical intricacies, as well as of the theory of art, shedding light on addressing the social functions and the status of the artist? No, such an endeavour is all but impossible. The sum total of our present knowledge of the Dutch painting of the period is beyond the scope of any single volume. Thus, we are compelled to select. We need to find a key that opens a narrow door through which the reader could glimpse into this vast and stupendous universe. But this glimpse would essentially be limited and fragmentary. Therefore it is all the more important to focus on one of the most characteristic and defining features of the Netherlandish art of the Early Modern period: the relation between the concept-based notion of the picture as a conversation with the viewer – an effectively mannerist formula of Italian origins – and the matter-of-fact notion of realism with a descriptive approach to the world – a formula regarded as indigenous to the art of the Netherlands. In other words, let us ask how two opposing modes of image-making co-existed and influenced each other: the theoretically sophisticated dialogue with the viewer as the co-author of the work’s message and the straightforward ‘representation’ which casts the viewer as a passive ‘consumer’.

Consider the following example – a fusion of an ordinary imitation of the everyday world and a sophisticated conversation ‘between the painting and the viewer’. The Haarlem painter Joseph de Bray, a member of an artistic family, is known to us only from his few still lifes and some Italianate landscapes. Painted in 1650, 1656 and 1657 all three still lifes explore the same, somewhat unusual subject: In Praise of the Pickled Herring (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden – fig. 1; Suermondt Museum, Aachen).1 The Dresden painting (1656) depicts a table, covered with a spotless white cloth, with a simple dish: a clay platter of cut herring, alongside slices of bread with butter, a lump of cheese on a Delft plate, quarters of onion in a bowl, glasses of beer and a clay pitcher. But behind this plainly set table, however, we can notice something out of the ordinary – a stone slab inside a cartouche, with a painstakingly carved inscription, decorated with ← 11 | 12 → a garland, yet not of flowers and fruit, but of chunks of herring and a string of onions, woven into a wreath of ivy. The inscription in the lower section presents the viewer to a lengthy poem entitled ’t Lof van den Pekelharing, or ‘In Praise of the Pickled Herring’, by Jacob Westerbaen (1599–1670), a notable theologian, popular preacher and doctor based in Haarlem (incidentally, the artist’s uncle). Westerbaen, as should be noted, had a flair for ‘gourmet’ and ‘farmer’ poetry that extolled the virtues of the local agricultural produce and cuisine, including the benefits of farming and animal husbandry (see his poem about living and working on a farm Arctoa Tempe: Ockenburgh from 1654).2 Works of poetry featuring herring as their protagonist were not uncommon in the Netherlands at that time; one such poem was written in Latin and in Netherlandish by the erudite historian and poet Marcus van Boxhorn (Latin version 1632, Netherlandish 1634).3 As far as the painting in question is concerned, the verses praise the herring for its appearance, offer simple advice on how to eat it (as a beer snack), and applaud its beneficial qualities. The conclusion, featured in the cartouche below, states that simple and homely food is healthier and superior to even the most elaborate dishes. The text, as well as the painting itself, constitutes a – subversive, if not provocative – opposite to the culture of the banquet, the culture of a luxurious courtly feast transferred into the Dutch patrician mind-set and manifested in the iconography of its painting: in the scenes of biblical or mythological feasts, images of banquets held by the city guilds and militiamen and, notably, the still lifes in the genre of pronkstilleven, known as banketjes, such as those painted in Antwerp by Jan Davidsz. de Heem in 1642–1653/54.4 The painting is also a defiant analogy à rebours of the Flemish floral and fruit garlands that framed the representations of the Virgin and Child, Christ, saints, or the chalice of the Eucharist in the works of Jan Brueghel the Elder, Daniel Seghers or Jan Davidsz. de Heem who combined the trompe-l’oeil illusion with floral and fruit imagery used as symbols of religious figures and concepts (fig. 2).5 By means of a reference to – and a contradiction of – the Flemish formula of the picture, also held in high esteem in the Netherlands, De Bray staged a dramatic clash of the banal with the conventions of a formal-celebratory representation. The common herring was portrayed like a worthy and sublime Flemish garland. The simplest of Dutch dishes was made object of worship, similar to the images of saints or the Eucharistic liturgy in the Catholic South. The views of Westerbaen – an ardent supporter of Protestant values and firebrand preacher – played a significant role in this antithetical confrontation of the ethos of the Calvinist North (an ethos of modesty and moderation) with the ceremonial-ritualistic ‘pageantry’ characteristic of Catholic Spanish Netherlands. The juxtaposition of a modest meal ← 12 | 13 → and with the lavish courtly and pseudo-courtly (patrician) banquets, as well as the paradoxical reference to the Flemish model of floral and fruit garlands, was meant to appeal to the imagination of a certain type of viewer – a typical member of the bourgeoisie and, potentially, of Westerbaen’s audience. De Bray’s work sought to address the pride of one’s ethical and religious traditions, reinforcing the sense of social and national identity – a sense of belonging to a brave and sensible nation. In order to succeed, the painting had to be convincing, rhetorically persuasive and attention-grabbing: it was designed to shock, or at least surprise the viewer – not only by contrasting the commonplace herring with the sophisticated references to the Flemish convention of devotional images, but also the illusionistic rendering of form, texture and matter. The arrangement of the items on the table suggests that the meal is served to the viewer; its illusive materiality, the purity of colour, crispness of the white tablecloth, become an invitation to dine – appealing not only to the sense of sight, but also taste.

A similar seamless and inherently consistent combination of the different modes of representation could be found in works displayed in public places, such as Abraham van Beyeren’s Visserij-bord, or Fishery Board, from 1649, in the Groote Kerk in Maassluis (fig. 3).6 It represents the type of panels commissioned by guilds and corporations for display in churches and municipal buildings whose message highlighted the role of the commissioners as an important institution of social life. The Maassluis board, made for a group of four captains of the fishermen’s guild, was meant to instruct the local residents and visitors on the benefits of sea and inland fishing, praising it as a pious practice of drawing from God’s gifts, from the wealth of the seas and the various waters that make up the boundless riches of Creation. The work was also designed to underline the role of the captains and their ships in the development of the city and the country’s well-being and prosperity. As its message was intended for as wide an audience as possible – from the local poor to the affluent patricians, from the half-literate simpletons to the erudite litterati – the painter and the anonymous wood-carvers responsible for the work were compelled to rely on an equally wide spectrum of means of expression. The Fishery Board thus combines painting, calligraphy, architecture and sculpture. At the same time, it is a work of illusion – pretending to be something different than what it is. It imitates a monument – an epitaph made to commemorate and glorify. It deceives and creates an illusion – a painterly illusion of an architectural structure fitted with pictures. But only the central section with columns is an architectural element, the rest is an imitation. Still, even that part was designed to deceive the unsuspecting viewer: it is made of wood but styled to resemble valuable stone (black veined marble), gilded bronze (in the ← 13 | 14 → cartouche below) and carved golden lettering (in the central panel). Drawn into this game of multiple deceptions both the undiscerning as well as the educated viewer is unable to tell reality from illusion. The side panels feature marine scenes in oval frames (yet another illusion), surrounded by no less convincing trompe-l’oeil still lifes: clusters fresh-caught fish hanging by their mouths as votive offerings or fishermen’s ‘panoplies’. Down below the cartouche, the eye is lured to a collection of ‘lifelike’ shells; this perplexing visual experience is made complete with two boats in the top section – genuine models that blend with the figures of fishermen painted in the background. In this way, mundane reality was rendered within the conventions of a sophisticated concept-based game.

In the period of 1580–1660, the Republic of the United Netherlands witnessed the rise of a new society, along with a new topography, history and morals that developed in confrontation with the tradition of the neighbouring countries. For this reason, its art and culture were a field of experiment – an interplay between the need to draw on a number of different traditions and the need to create an own set of conventions seen as national or local. This opened up new areas of representation in which the individual was woven into the fabric of collective life. The emerging imagery of the sea and sailing straddled the historical formula of the nautical ‘tempest of human fate’ (tempestas fortunae) and the new ambition to subdue the element (see chapter III.1). The cityscapes highlighted the zones between the densely built centre, with the city hall and the churches, and the periphery – ‘free’ but no longer ‘wild’, claimed for farming in fields and polders; this imagery spoke of construction and development, the growth of living space and the new public buildings (see chapter III.2). The new imagery of the lands beyond the city drew on the traditional topos of the ‘pleasant place’ (locus amoenus), absorbing it deliberately in a non-classical manner, and combining with the tradition of pastoral literature (see chapter III.3). Alongside, there emerged a new concept of the homely, of ‘being at home’ (thuis), oscillating between xenophobia and xenia, between isolation and hospitality. The idea of the state as an ‘enclosed garden’ (hortus conclusus) and a garden of fertility and prosperity (de Hollandse tuin) – known from patriotic and heraldic allegories in prints and paintings – was linked to the fascination with botanic gardens, horticulture, along with the thrill of experiencing the lush beauty of flowers but also its fleeting nature (as seen in many still lifes). Last but not least, there were images of participation in the workings of admirable public institutions: nursing homes, almshouses and hospitals, guilds and municipal militias, medical colleges, and surgeons’ corporations – in which the instability of human existence, chaos, misery and crime, would all eventually be overcome by the ← 14 | 15 → idea of a public governance shaped by the social authority (see, among others, chapter II.2 and Conclusions).

This search for a new imagery went hand by hand with new technical developments made by artists, experiments involving media and artistic conventions. At their heart was an essentially mannerist idea of a play with the different modes of representation in which they were often creatively combined, juxtaposed, or daringly substituted. A seascape becomes a map, a map becomes a landscape (figs. 213–214, 216, 252, 255); a documentary record of an event or a view takes on the features of a fictitious story (figs. 220–223); a realistic observation of an amusing daily life scene reveals itself to be a little deception (bedriegertje) perpetrated on the viewer who is tricked into thinking that the painting belongs to a fine collection – as is the case with the works employing the motif of an illusionistic curtain or an elaborate illusory frame (see chapter II.3). There emerge paintings that pass themselves off as large-scale prints or drawings (penschilderijen), as well as prints that imitate paintings (Hercules Segers). And so, for instance – contrary to the arbitrarily defined categories of the art history – three artists from seemingly different worlds of style emerge as participants to this ‘mannerist game’: the seascape painter Hendrick Vroom, the master of ‘stories’ Hendrick Goltzius, and the painter of the land Hercules Segers – all of them, most likely, inspired by the great theorist Karel van Mander (chapter II.1). At the same time, however, there were the Anatomy Lessons – realistic and dramatic documents of an essentially experimental science. Shocking and fascinating the viewer with both the gruesome sight of an open body as well as the compositional devices used – the gesture of a hand, the stooping figure, the foreshortening of the dissected corpse, as in the case of Rembrandt – these images encroach on the space of the spectator along with their moralistic messages (chapter II.2).

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I.2. The Categories of Illusion in Dutch Art

The game of ‘envisioning’ the virtual viewer in Dutch art unfolded on different levels and within different orders, often intertwined and overlapped with each in a single work, as was seen, for example, in De Bray’s In Praise of the Pickled Herring. These include the epistemological order of the subject, and the ontological order of the object.

The point of departure for the former is the spectator (hence the subject) whose cognitive (hence epistemological) abilities it seeks to activate. It focuses on the viewer, manipulating him and his sense of perception. The picture stimulates the spectator by means of skilfully manipulating the space – the one represented as well as the one implied. The spatial dialogue between the viewer and the picture unfolds by highlighting the existence of the ‘pane of glass’ that constitutes the picture surface as well as breaking this barrier. This formula includes: 1. A whole spectrum of visual illusions, distortions of space (e.g. Samuel van Hoogstraten – figs. 10, 136); 2. Games involving an illusory frame, curtain or mirror (chapter II.3); 3. A dialogue with the viewer established by evoking a ‘speaking painting’ (peinture parlante) in which the characters address the spectator using postures or gestures, while their open mouth indicates the act of speaking (e.g. Rembrandt’s portraits – figs. 98, 150–151, 154, 160); 4. An ambiguity in which the virtual viewer who ‘sees’ that which is implicit, not represented, makes the scene complete (e.g. fig. 125.

The second order, the ontological order of the object, refers to the picture itself – it lures the viewer while seeming not to notice him. Here, the painting merely introduces itself to the spectator. Nonetheless, it presents itself as something different than what it actually is. The picture imitates some other object, pretending not to be an imitation or a representation, but that very thing. It thus abolishes itself, its role of an intermediary, of an imitator of reality. It pretends to be that reality. This category consists of: 1. Some instances of trompe-l’oeil, e.g. the verso of a painting by Gijsbrechts (fig. 209); 2. Pictures imitating other genres, works in different material and technique (painted imitations of sculpture, drawing or prints) including: technical experiments conducted by mannerists ca. 1600 – paintings that imitated engravings (the so-called Federkunststücke or penschilderijen) by Cornelis Ketel and Hendrick Goltzius, etchings that imitated paintings, by Hercules Segers, as well as the later graeuwtjes and bruneilles by marine painters such as Simon de Vlieger and Jan van de Cappelle, and, last but not least, the seascapes in ink by Willem van de Velde the Elder and other ← 17 | 18 → artists working in the second half of the century (figs. 54–56, 65–69, 228–232, 233); 3. Pictures made to resemble maps, and maps resembling pictures (Claes Jansz. Visscher and others – figs. 252, 254, 255); 4. Pictures in perspective boxes, or peepshows – since they only become images when the viewer activates their function of representation, putting his eye to the hole in the device (fig. 7, 24, 136, 137). 5. Pictures that suggest the impossible, e.g. a view of a city from above the cloud level, a peculiar ‘aerial photography’, like in the painted panorama of Amsterdam by Jan Christiaensz. Micker (fig. 252).

Nonetheless, there is also another order that is an arena of a confrontation between the viewer and the painting – the purely iconographic order of the content. Here, the dialogue consists in intriguing the spectator by an extraordinary theme, surprising, teasing or exciting him with the message of the work. But above all in creating the effect of ‘alienation’ – a clash of the ‘hyperrealistic’ method of representation with the uncanny of the represented, a confrontation of an ‘ordinary’ realism with an ‘unusual’ theme. Such combinations can cause terror, fear, but just as likely a thrill of excitement or laughter. This happens when the viewer examines the ‘lifelike’ whales, sea monsters, odd fish, shells and other natural curiosities (as in the prints by Goltzius and others – fig. 75, 77–81, 83–84), or comes upon the imagery of death (gallows, scenes of people in agony, a body on its deathbed or displays of human anatomy – as in Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings; figs. 94, 98–99), where the idea of the ‘lifelike’ is in conflict with the very nature of the depicted death. Yet another form of iconographic dialogue between the image and the viewer consists in compelling the latter to discover the messages and contexts hidden ‘behind the picture’ (to use the words of Martin Kemp), having the spectator make the work complete by adding the missing or the latent part of the message (anatomy lessons, the idea aemulatio in Rembrandt’s self-portraits – see chapter II.3). Finally, the category of surprising the viewer includes the convention of setting a ‘hyperrealistic’ representation inside a fanciful frame typical of the ‘high’ genre of history painting (storia), e.g. a whale framed by a sequence of allegorical motifs in a print by Jan Saenredam (fig. 84).

This category of playing with the viewer also includes the broad and distinct field of emblem books. Originally an Italian mannerist invention (Andrea Alciati’s Emblematum liber, Augsburg 1531), the emblems quickly gained popularity in Northern Europe, including the 16th and 17th century Netherlands. At the heart of an emblem is a combination of word (lemma, sententia, motto) and image (pictura, icon, imago) forming a rebus – teased by the difficult, obscure, ‘cryptic’ association between these components (an association made clear by the epigram) the viewer/reader is compelled to clarify the obscurity. An emblem ← 18 | 19 → is thus an intellectual, concept-based game with the spectator – a sophisticated erudite, a model mannerist virtuoso. Due to its wide popularity in Europe – from Italy to the Netherlands, England and Scandinavia, from Spain to Poland, and even Russia – the emblem became a fundamental vehicle of mannerist and baroque concettismo as well as played a crucial role in the dissemination of the conceptual approach to art in the 17th-century Netherlands. At the same time, it is significant that the Netherlands saw the development of a new type of emblems that abandoned the original sophistication and intellectual refinement for the sake of a popular, at times even folk, formula based on simple moralistic and didactic messages (e.g. the sinne-poppen genre). One might go so far as to argue that this was a shift from the concept of a rebus combining literary texts with images, to one based on realistic descriptions of manners. These phenomena are widely known and well documented, and I will not explore them further. It is important to note, however, that emblems and emblem books played an instrumental role in the shaping of the perception of art of the Early Modern period.

In this book I make no distinction between the different categories of playing with the viewer, they also do not serve as criteria for the division of the material presented. Historically, these categories have been often mixed together, exited alongside or overlapped with each other. Nonetheless, the awareness of the existence of the different orders of this game is essential to the understanding of the Early Modern concept of the picture – one that no longer served the function of pure ‘representation’ (reflection, mirror), the function of a passive instrument of mediation between reality and the viewer, but became an active subject of this mediation, an agent, a co-author – a partner in a dialogue on a par with the viewer.

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I.3. Old and New Interpretations of 17th-Century Dutch Art

All interpretations of Dutch art written throughout the 19th and the 20th centuries, both classical and more recent, are worthy of respect and attention. Each of them is valid within its own frame of reference, provided it does not lay claim to being universal, dogmatic, and the only possible. Indeed, there are many doors one can open for a new and different perspective on the historical art of the Netherlands. There is a number of interpretative keys – be it the key of the lifelike mirror of reality, the key of the symbolic-emblematic moral messages or ethical-religious didacticism, the key of the social function of art in a world of free trade and a flourishing collectors’ market, or the key of the aesthetics of reception.7

The early interpreters of the art of the Netherlands, writing in the 18th and the 19th centuries, from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Georg Wilhelm Hegel, to Eugène Fromentin agreed as to one thing: they saw art as a portrait of the Dutch people in their own country.8 This view, according to which Dutch art is seen as a direct imitation of nature, the world of men and objects, the everyday life, became a common perception and largely remains so to this day. In his autobiography Truth and Poetry Goethe offered an account of an experience that sheds light on the way Dutch art was perceived in his era: ‘When [having visited the Dresden Gallery – A.Z.] I again entered my shoemaker’s house [where Goethe slept and dined – A.Z.] to dinner, I scarcely believed my eyes; for I fancied I saw before me a picture by Ostade, so perfect that one could only hang it up in the gallery. The position of the objects, the light, the shadow, the brownish tint of the whole, the magical keeping, everything that one admires in those pictures, I here saw in reality.’9 There was a variety of nuanced positions within this interpretation. Hegel, for instance, emphasised the Protestant character of this art as a sign of the victory of the spiritual freedom, religious harmony, direct and immediate contact with the world, inner peace and serenity – based on the Protestant sense of order of the world and the cosmos. He saw Dutch painting as an expression of the ‘national spirit’, a spirit that – freed from the Spanish yoke and the rigid Catholic ritual – built a world filled with order, peace, patient labour and cheerful rest. Thus, what Hegel praised in the paintings of the Dutch masters was ‘the Sunday of life’ – an idealisation and sublimation of the ordinary and the everyday. In the mid-19th century Théophile Thoré (William Bürger), too, regarded the works of the Dutch artists as a simple and straightforward reflection of reality – yet he thought of it as a ‘mirror of the society’, reflecting the ← 21 | 22 → republican life along with the democratic freedoms and the values of the independent Republic of the United Netherlands. Writing in the early 20th century, Alois Riegl expressed a similar view in his writings on Van Ruisdael and the Dutch group portrait (1902).

A pioneer of systematic scientific research on the art of the past, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, praised Dutch painting in his Handbuch der deutschen und niederländischen Malschulen (1862). According to his assertion, culture of mankind developed along two distinct tracks, the Greek and the German. In Waagen’s book the realistic Dutch are pitted against the idealistic Greeks throughout the ages. This dualistic model was later adopted by the eminent cultural philosopher Hippolyte Taine and expounded in his Philosophie de l’art (1882). Taine was the one to popularise Dutch painting as a ‘mirror of life and nature’ – reflecting people’s life within nature that fit well with his theory of culture conditioned by climatic and geographic factors (the concept of milieu).

In the 19th century, the category of simple mimesis used by the positivists Taine, Thoré-Bürger and Waagen, was employed by Eugène Fromentin, a proponent of Naturalism and Impressionism in art and the author of Les Maîtres d’autrefois (1876). Fromentin, however, had his own specific perspective. He argued that a 17th-century master had the right to paint the everyday as the subject, be it noble or base, is irrelevant as opposed to painting itself and the painterly effect. ‘What motive’ – asked Fromentin – ‘had a Dutch painter in painting a picture? None. And notice that he is never asked for one […] if it is well painted it has its value.’ While this approach is strongly reminiscent of that of the pre-Impressionists (e.g. Henri Fantin-Latour) and the Impressionists, it is not yet related to Baudelaire’s idea of art for art’s sake (l’art pour l’art).

In 1976, precisely one hundred years after the publication of Fromentin’s Masters Of Past Time a group of Dutch art historians organised an exhibition in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the title of which might be seen as an alternative answer to Fromentin’s question ‘What motive had a Dutch painter in painting a picture?’ Tot lering en vermaak, ‘for instruction and entertainment’, answered the title.10 Along with Die Sprache der Bilder (‘the language of images’), held in 1978 at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig,11 the Amsterdam exhibition was an overview of the extensive research on the ‘disguised symbols’ in Netherlandish painting initiated by Erwin Panofsky (1933), Herbert Rudolph (1938) and Hans Kauffmann (1943), and pursued later by the likes of William S. Heckscher, Hans van de Waal, Wolfgang Stechow, Ingvar Bergström and Jan Gerrit van Gelder and his Dutch students and successors: Jan Ameling Emmens, Daniel Snoep, Jan Baptist Bedeaux, Josua Bruyn, Jochen Becker and, notably, ← 22 | 23 → Eddy de Jongh, and a whole number of scholars who followed later, among them Konrad Renger, Jan Białostocki, Justus Müller Hofstede, Hans-Joachim Raupp and many others.12 Mimesis as the key to the interpretation of Dutch paintings was replaced by the key of symbolism that was to unlock the layers of meaning hidden beneath the costume of a realistic representation of the world. This new key was found in a number of literary and visual sources including Dutch drama, popular prints combining image and text, and, above all, emblem books.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Art history Dutch painting and printmaking of the 17th century Methodology of the history of art Rembrandt Vermeer Hendrick Goltzius
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 746 pp., 292 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Antoni Ziemba (Author)

Antoni Ziemba is Professor at the Institute of History of Art, University of Warsaw. He is the Chief-Curator of the National Museum in Warsaw and author of several books and articles on Early Netherlandish and Dutch art of 15th-17th centuries.


Title: Illusion and Realism – The Game with the Spectator in Dutch Art 1580–1660
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