Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered

By Osborne, Toby | The Seventeenth Century, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered


Osborne, Toby, The Seventeenth Century


Wayne Franits (ed.), Looking at Seventeenth-century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. xviii + 274, hb. £45 ($70), ISBN: 0521496098

The eminent art historian Eddy de Jongh bemoaned in a recent paper the gravely mistaken ideas of 'those young art historians who cannot think of anything better to do than to shove Dutch seventeenth-century art in the direction of art for art's sake'. His complaint was not that of a neutral observer. De Jongh was seeking to protect his own academic ground in a lively debate over the interpretation of Dutch art and of how seventeenth-century audiences might have looked at that art, and his criticism provides the basis for this collection of fourteen essays, mostly reprinted from elsewhere and some translated into English for the first time.

One of the most striking characteristics of seventeenth-century Dutch art is its apparent realism. Yet it has been around this very issue that the lines of debate have been drawn - were the works of painters such as Vermeer and Steen, to take but two well-known examples, faithful records of the world in which they lived, and if so what does this statement actually mean? Or were they rich in allegory, laden with hidden meanings and moral lessons for the viewer to decode? If there is one scholar of Dutch art who has promoted the latter approach then it is Eddy de Jongh. Franits, in this volume, has included one of De Jongh's most characteristic pieces on 'Realism and Seeming Realism' to give a flavour of his interpretative approach. For De Jongh, Dutch art, in all its stylistic forms, employed hidden messages embedded in the tradition of the emblem book, where there was a 'marked preference for disguising, veiling, allegory, and ambiguity'. Thus, genre paintings apparently depicting everyday scenes of life were in fact stylised allegories representing all manner of meanings, often with a moralising tone.

However, De Jongh's iconological approach has not stood uncriticised, and as this volume demonstrates, there have been significant revisions from a number of scholars. Svetlana Alpers undoubtedly stands as his diametric opposite. Her highly controversial book, The Art of Describing was accompanied, on its publication in 1984, by pandemonium, and her broad argument is summarised in an extended reprint of an essay 'Picturing Dutch Culture'. In contrast to De Jongh, and as a sharp critique of Simon Schama's use of visual evidence in The Embarrassment of Riches, Alpers argues that Dutch art was not in fact about layers of symbolic meaning, there to be decoded and interpreted. Instead, it was concerned with the very act of painting as a craft, as an epistemological examination of looking at the world and of the technical skill of representing on the canvas the empirical observations of artists. …

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