Kwesties Van Betekenis: Thema En Motief in De Nederlandse Schilderkunst Van De Zeventiende Eeuw / Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine / Dutch Flower Painting 1600-1720 / and Others

Article excerpt

Kwesties van betekenis: Thema en motief in de Nederlandse schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw

Leiden, The Netherlands: Primavera Pers, 1995. 284 pp.; 264 b/w ills. Dfl 69,90 paper


Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine

Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press,

1995. 318 pp.; 8 color ills.,101 b/w.

$60.50; $24.75 paper


Dutch Flower Painting 1600-1720

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

240 pp.; 34 color ills., 99 b/w. $45.00


Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 428 pp.; 16 color ills.,164 b/w. $75.00

Nearly thirty years ago Eddy de Jongh wrote a bold article on the erotic content of 17thcentury Dutch genre paintings. "Erotica in vogelperspectief' (Erotica in bird's-eye view), the first essay in Kwesties van betekenis: The a en motief in de Nederlandse schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Questions of meaning: Theme and motif in Netherlandish painting of the seventeenth century), brought to light the many surprising ways in which seemingly decorous scenes of genteel life are often provocative and titillating. With dry wit de Jongh detailed the rich imagery of erotic euphemism: the bird seller with a cock or the hunter with the gift of a bird that play on the word vogelen (to bird), slang for copulation, the caged and uncaged birds referring to virginity or the lack thereof. To support his readings of these paintings, de Jongh marshaled an array of texts and prints, which in turn help to produce a picture of the broader cultural context for viewing these works. Further, he asked an important question that still puzzles us and him today: Just what is it about this society that led to the demand for so many pictures that stretch the limits of decorum or push at what he calls the schaamtegrens (border of shame)? In exploring this striking tolerance for vulgarity, de Jongh perhaps attended too little to differences in medium and temporal changes and thus minimized the significant shift from bawdy imagery early in the century to a later tendency, evident in the works of Gabriel Metsu, Jan Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, and others, to channel a more sublimated sexuality into fine paintings. Unlike earlier images of prodigality and prostitution, which were outwardly risque, these refined, seemingly decorous pictures of uppermiddle-class subjects confound our expectations by presenting the low in high form.

"Erotica in vogelperspectief" was as tantalizing in its art historical method as in its subject matter, for it challenged with intelligence and substantial evidence the prevailing notion that Dutch genre paintings were essentially naturalistic, that they represented daily life accurately, as it was. At the same time, it proposed a new way of investigating the meaning of Dutch painting. This was one of the articles that positioned de Jongh at the fore in the iconographic study of 17th-century Dutch art: his contribution was to take Erwin Panofsky's method of iconographic and iconological interpretation, which had been applied to Renaissance history subjects, and demonstrate its usefulness as a means for understanding how the new kinds of secular genres mirrored the culture that produced them. Scenes from daily life, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, too, were interpretable through pictorial and literary conventions of moralizing and emblematic meaning. Over the course of the next three decades de Jongh would prove to be one of the most important and influential interpreters of Dutch painting.

Recently, however, de Jongh has been so vilified in the critical debate over the nature of Dutch realism that his contribution and the importance of his approach have been obscured. In this debate, which was reductionist from the start, de Jongh's complex, often profound insights into the cultural embedment of Dutch art have been reduced to a notion of moralizing, and his methodology has come to embody old-fashioned iconography. …