Seventeenth- Century Dutch Painting and Modern Literature

by Magdalena Śniedziewska (Author)
©2024 Monographs 328 Pages


The book is an attempt at a monographic approach to the problem of the reception of 17th-century Dutch painting in modern literature. However, the author deals not only with contemporary works but also with the texts of 19th-century writers and critics, most often French, who shaped the so-called myth of the Dutch Golden Age. Readers learn the historically conditioned models of perception of 17th-century Dutch painting. The original achievement is the genre key, which is a consequence of the thesis on the mediation of the 20th-century reception of Dutch Golden Age painting in 19th-century European literature and art criticism. Contemporary writers are revising the concept of realism; they cannot talk about Vermeer’s View of Delft without referring to Proust’s petit pan de mur jaune. They read still lifes through Chardin and Cézanne or revive the myth of Rembrandt – a self-portraitist who analyzed himself. Also noteworthy is the section devoted to the little Dutch masters – Willem Dyster, Pieter de Hooch, Hendrick Avercamp, Hercules Seghers and Pieter Saenredam.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • Autorenangaben
  • Über das Buch
  • Zitierfähigkeit des eBooks
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Part I: Writer as an Art Historian
  • Introduction
  • Mediated Reception
  • The Status of People Writing about Art
  • Landscape
  • “Landscapes in Frames:” Pankiewicz, Makowski, Cybis, and Herbert Following Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Artists (and Fromentin)
  • First Polish Readers of The Masters of Past Time
  • A Polemic with Fromentin
  • Petit Pan de Mur Jaune: Czapski, Herling-Grudziński, and Herbert in the Face of Proust’s Vision of View of Delft
  • Czapski on Bergotte’s Premortem Illumination
  • Contre Proust: Herling-Grudziński in Search of the “Little Patch of Yellow Wall”
  • “That Wall with Warm Light”
  • Three Lessons of Rapture
  • Genre Painting
  • “Wide-open Door Invites Us:” Writers Peek into Dutch Homes
  • Doorsien
  • The Rules of Love Letters
  • “Silent Witnesses of Eluding Meaning”
  • “In Painted Silence and Concentration:” Literary Attempts to Individualize the Female Protagonists of Vermeer’s Genre Scenes
  • Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
  • The Milkmaid
  • The Lacemaker
  • “Cloister Aura”
  • Still Life
  • Between Painterly and Literary Perception of Objects: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life in Czapski and Herbert
  • “The Joy of Looking at Objects:” Ennoblement of Still Life
  • “Killed Nature”
  • “Dead” for Czapski: Toward “Purely Painterly Values”
  • Herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle or a Lesson in Reading Paintings
  • Metaphysical Realism: Miłosz and “the Dutch, Who Liked to Paint Still Life”
  • “Realistic” Genres
  • Realism against Classicism: “Longing for Perfect Mimesis”
  • Epiphany of a Watering Can
  • Pan Tadeusz, the Szetejnie Manor, and Dutch Still Lifes
  • Portrait
  • Trouble with Subjectivity in Poetic Reflections on Seventeenth-century Dutch Portraits
  • Painter of the Gaze: Różewicz’s Hals
  • Rembrandt under Grochowiak’s Scalpel
  • Status of the Portrayed
  • The Painter’s Human Face: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits in the Mirror of Literature
  • Rembrandt’s “Painted Autobiography” by Guze
  • Rembrandt in Różewicz’s Mirror
  • Rembrandt Covering a Mirror: Herling-Grudziński Argues with Alpers
  • Conclusion
  • Part II Zbigniew Herbert’s Little Masters: A Reconstruction
  • Introduction
  • “An Extremely Subjective History of Art”
  • Origins of the Notion Petits Maîtres
  • History of Art from an Amateur’s Perspective
  • Willem Duyster: “The Painter of Great Proustian Melancholy”
  • “The Rehabilitation Process”
  • Dolce Far Niente
  • “A Mature Melancholy”
  • Pieter de Hooch as “A Home Poet”
  • A Painter of Bourgeois Interiors
  • “Home as the Moral Cosmos”
  • Hendrick Avercamp as “The Painter of the Fourth Season”
  • Avercamp–Brueghel and the Flemish Landscape Tradition
  • Contribution to Avercamp’s Biography
  • Winter Landscape with Skaters: Exercises in Ekphrasis
  • “A Little Excursion into the Field of Dutch Hibernation Customs”
  • Naivety or “Respect for Reality”
  • Hercules Segers as “The Last Mountain Visionary in the Netherlands”
  • “The Discovery” of Segers
  • History of Influence
  • Writer’s Sensitivity
  • Pieter Saenredam as “a Portraitist of Architecture”
  • Saenredam’s “Perspectives”
  • Workshop Secrets
  • Against Abstraction
  • Et Exaltavit Humiles
  • Conclusion


Seventeenth-century Dutch painting is best known for its landscapes, its interiors filled with ordinary people focused on their daily chores, its still life with flowers and fruits, with simple or precious objects. It is widely known that artists of this era also depicted religious and mythological scenes, but these still evoke less interest, especially in museum exhibitions. It seems natural that emphasis is placed on what distinguishes Dutch painting from the art of other countries.1

In the summarizing considerations from the first volume of Musées de la Hollande, Théophile Thoré-Bürger underlines that the seventeenth-century Dutch school was “original and entirely distinct from all others, including the Flemish school.”2 According to Thoré-Bürger, this uniqueness is reflected in the depiction of the Dutch people’s life in its everyday aspects, which results in ignoring the great themes:

Ah! It is no longer mystical art, shrouded in old superstitions, mythological art, resurrecting old symbols, princely or aristocratic art, and – as a consequence – extraordinary art, devoted exclusively to glorifying the rulers of the human species. It is no longer the art of pontiffs and kings, gods and heroes. Raphael worked for Julius II and Leo X, Titian for Charles V and Francis I; Rubens also worked for Archduke Albrecht and the kings of Spain, the French Medici, and Charles I of England. Although Rembrandt and Duches worked exceptionally for the Netherlands and humanity.3

In the introduction to the catalog Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt, Albert Blankert indicates we have a nineteenth-century realistic vision of Dutch Golden Age painting as a faithful reflection of reality depicting, houses, inns, landscapes, objects, images of burghers. According to Blankert, those responsible for shaping such a stereotypical approach to Dutch school were French critics, namely Thoré-Bürger, Eugène Fromentin, and Dutch historian Johan Huizing, whose views were very much embedded in the nineteenth-century paradigm of thinking about this art.4 Blankert emphasizes that the modern viewpoint, according to which Rembrandt’s historical paintings were an exception in the seventeenth-century Dutch painting, would have surprised contemporary artists.5 Blankert tries to prove that this position contradicts seventeenth-century aesthetic theories, in which history painting was regarded as the highest form of art.6

Jan Białostocki is of a similar opinion,7 stressing that in the second half of the twentieth century, art historians began a consistent process of re-evaluating the very one-sided, nineteenth-century interpretation of Dutch painting of the seventeenth century, to which the exhibition Gods, Saints and Heroes contributed. However, such an approach is mainly visible in the specialized approaches of scholars. A de-heroized vision of the Dutch Golden Age created by the French and later developed and strengthened by Huizinga permanently dominated general consciousness. He argues that

Our national culture is bourgeois in every sense you can legitimately attach to that word. The bourgeois conception of life is shared by all classes or groups of our people – urban and rural, property-owning or not. It was from a bourgeois dislike of interference with their affairs that our forefathers rose up against Spain.. … It was a bourgeois atmosphere that was responsible for our unmartial spirit and our commercial propensities. Bourgeois life explains the lack of revolutionary passion in our people and why the even tenor of our national life remained almost unruffled by the high wind of great ideas.8

Clearly inspired by Huizinga’s theses, in his essay “The Nonheroic Subject,” Zbigniew Herbert emphasizes that the Dutch are distinguished by a “peculiar predilection for scenes from everyday life.” As Herbert writes, seventeenth-century painters avoid “war subject that exalt patriotic feelings” (SLB 108). As Herbert suggests, the reason behind it is the inherent love of freedom, which does not need to be fought for, only cherished:

Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept. But for the Dutch it was some- thing as simple as breathing, looking, and touching objects. It did not need to be defined or beautified. This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and what is small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary. They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shop- keepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison (SLB 117–118).

Arent van Nieukerken disagrees with this interpretation and claims that the reasons behind the Dutch freedom uprisings in the seventeenth century were religious, thus strongly ideological. To answer the question of what prompted Herbert to this interpretation, we need to search in his “Polishness.” Herbert assumes that “the supposed lack of an ideology motivating a long-lasting defensive war was the main attraction for an observer from a thoroughly ideologized society, one seeking the basis for its existence in historical events.”9 Nieukerken writes that instead of elevating history, Herbert proposes a “heroization of the everyday.”10 Therefore, Herbert’s vision of the Dutch Golden Age is incomplete and “nineteenth-century” in its character. Van Nieukerken explains why this interpretation is one-sided:

When evaluating … the aesthetic value of the works of seventeenth-century painters, we apply completely “anachronistic” criteria: we are most impressed by Ruysdael, Seghers, the late Frans Hals, and Rembrandt – alleged realism, together with fantastic landscapes and unconventional biblical and historical scenes. What is seemingly common and unambiguous is juxtaposed with brave attempts to break the decorum dictated by the high style. It may seem that the representative classicism of the time cannot be compatible with the “true” spirit of the Dutch artists and poets.11

Antoni Ziemba is of a similar opinion. In his book Nowe dzieci Izraela. Stary Testament w kulturze holenderskiej XVII wieku (New Children of Israel: The Old Testament in the Dutch Culture of the Seventeenth Century), Ziemba tries to re-evaluate Herbert’s thesis on the “non-heroism” of contemporary art:

Fascinated with the culture of the seventeenth-century Netherlands, Herbert writes astonished: “Dutch painting speaks many languages, talks about the affairs of earth and sky, and lacks only one thing: the apotheosis of its own history, the immortalization of moments of defeat and glory.”12 I would like to believe that this book will show that it was different, that Dutch culture clearly expressed the aspirations of the Dutch people.13

Neither Dutch literary scholars nor Polish art historians will find in Polish twentieth-century writers allies in the battle for the necessary revision of the image of Dutch Golden Age painting. Interpretations of historical works appear in Polish literature much less frequently than descriptions of works that are the apotheosis of everyday life. The works most often mentioned in this context are Rembrandt’s paintings; and so, the nineteenth-century stereotype repeats.

Mediated Reception

Polish writers are clearly influenced by the coherent and attractive vision of the most famous Northern School, simultaneously subordinated to the myth of mimesis, and thus one-sided and non-heroic. Probably, the interesting consistency of such an interpretation has various origins. The most important one undoubtedly results from similar reading experience of the artists in which I am interested; some of them were first and foremost painters, which is not without significance. The aesthetic consciousness of Tadeusz Makowski, Jan Cybis, Józef Czapski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Zbigniew Herbert – to mention but a few protagonists of my book – was shaped under the influence of Eugène Delacroix’s Journal, the works of Honoré de Balzac, Thoré-Bürger’s Musées de la Hollande and his numerous treatises and essays on art, Eugène Fromentin’s Old Masters, Hippolyte Taine’s Philosophy of Art, and Marcel Proust’s twentieth-century novel In Search of Lost Time. The nineteenth-century myth of Dutch Golden Age painting was born thanks to these texts.

Czapski indicates the “formative” role of nineteenth-century French literature and art criticism. In his journal, Czapski emphasizes:

There is probably no one among us who has not drawn on the French nineteenth century, from Delacroix’s Journal through Fromentin, Odilon Redon, and Pissarr to van Gogh’s letters, Gaugin’s writings; every word of every letter and utterance of Cézanne to the boutades of Picasso and his contemporaries.14

As a result of these readings, in many essays and poems by Polish writers we find traces of a particular style of reception, which I call mediated reception. The Polish writers under study use anachronistic, nineteenth-century categories such as realism or genre, to convey the phenomenon of Northern Dutch painting.15 The Dutch Golden Age painting appears in their texts as a secularized art that praises everyday life.

In their references to painting, Polish poets and essayists employ basic genological knowledge about discussed paintings. This knowledge is typological, because it allows us to reinforce and expose this nineteenth-century interpretation of the Dutch master’s art. Thus, Herbert, Czapski, Cybis, and Makowski most frequently describe landscapes that they perceive through the eyes of Fromentin or Proust; a genre painting in which – following Balzac or Thoré-Bürger – they perceive the apotheosis of bourgeois life; still life that leads them to contemplate the ontological status of depicted objects; individual and group portraits that allow asking about the subjectivity of the painted figures, and in the case of a self-portrait – about the personality and secrets of an artist’s psyche. In the nineteenth century, these genres were considered typically Dutch. As Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes:

When a nineteenth-century writer pronounced the term “Dutch painting,” he meant primarily genre painting, landscape, still life, and the portrait – genres for which northern painters were considered outstanding – rather than historical and mythological works, also produced in the studios of seventeenth-century Dutch artists.16

An example of a work that perfectly reproduces the stereotype of the representation of Dutch Golden Age painting is Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Dutch Painters” from the 1994 volume Ziemia ognista (Land of the Fire). When speaking of this art, Zagajewski invokes four “Dutch genres:” still life, landscape, genre painting, and portrait. Rather than pointing to specific canvases, Zagajewski refers to the poetics of these genres and enumerates what the eponymous painters of the Netherlands represented in their paintings. When reading “Dutch Painters,” we may think of works by Willem Heda, Pieter Claesz, Floris van Schooten, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen, Meindert Hobbema, Johannes Vermeer, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and – here Zagajewski refers to a specific artist – self-portraits by Rembrandt:

Pewter bowls heavy and swelling with metal.

Plump windows bulging from the light.

The palpability of leaden clouds.

Gowns like quilts. Moist oysters.

These things are immortal, but don’t serve us.

The clogs walk by themselves.

The floor tiles are never bored,

and sometimes play chess with the moon.

An ugly girl studies a letter

written in invisible ink.

Is it about love or money?

The tablecloths smell of starch and morals.

The surface and depths don’t connect.

Mystery? There’s no mystery here, just blue sky,

restless and hispitable like a seagull’s cry.

A woman neatly peeling a red apple.

Children dream of old age.

Someone reads a book (a book is read),

someone sleeps, becoming a warm object

that breathes like an accordion.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (March)
17th-Century Dutch Painting Comparative Literature Ekphrasis Modern Literature Art Correspondence Rembrandt Vermeer Proust Still Life Landscape Genre Painting Portrait Self-Portrait
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2024. 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Magdalena Śniedziewska (Author)

Magdalena S´niedziewska, assistant professor at the Department of Theory of Literature, Institute of Polish Philology, University of Wrocław, is the author of books and articles exploring literature and painting, the reception of Italian literature in Poland, and bird motifs in literature.


Title: Seventeenth- Century Dutch Painting and Modern Literature