Over the last five years the depiction of interior scenes has provoked renewed interest among historians of Dutch seventeenth-century art. Willemijn C. Fock, Eric Jan Sluijter and Mariët Westermann have looked at paintings by various artists that represent new ideas of domesticity or have tried to reconstruct the physical reality of the Netherlandish interior from archival sources. Other scholars, such as Martha Hollander and H. Perry Chapman, have investigated these representations as displays of privacy and as vehicles of space and temporality, while Karin Leonard most recently focused on the intersubjective quality of interior paintings by Vermeer.
Fatma Yalçin’s Anwesende Abwesenheit, published 2004 as the printed version of a doctoral dissertation of 1997 at the Free University Berlin, combines the previous research on historical facts and cultural-historical background as well as on iconography and contemporary theories on visualization and space in a detailed and in-depth study. While the painting The Slippers (Paris, Louvre) from the second half of the 1650s by the Dutch painter, poet and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten constitutes the nucleus of the book, the author expands her study to embrace all known paintings of interiors from the Dutch seventeenth century that contain no figures, figures shown from the back or eavesdroppers. At the same time the paradox of the “presence of absence” is proposed as the thread linking all the paintings presented in Yalçin’s book. This concept is visualized through things left behind by the residents, through figures who are oblivious of all around them or through witnesses absent to the figures in the scene.
Proceeding from a careful visual description and outline of the different existing interpretations of the Hoogstraten painting solely as an erotic scene (which the author goes on to refute at the end of the book), the first chapter presents a history of private life in Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries seen on the one hand from a cultural-historical and on the other from an iconographical viewpoint. Based on Philippe Ariés’s and Georges Duby’s History of Private Life, Fatma Yalçin reasonably places the notion of “private” opposite the public sphere to establish the developing meaning of both kinds of spaces as they are visualized, literally and figuratively, in interior painting. In this context she proposes that the seventeenth century represents the highpoint of individualism and intimacy accompanied by the forming of new political structures separating official from private activities. Her subsequent consideration of the forerunners of the three different kinds of Dutch depictions of interiors (the empty room, the room with a figure seen from behind and spaces with eavesdroppers) makes clear that the rendering of the interior of a house only serves to set the stage for a narrative. However, it is notable that not until the seventeenth century can the depiction of interior space be established as a genre of painting on its own, implying a story that is not actually visible and has to be constructed by the beholder.
At this point it would have been appropriate to discuss the topic that comes up only in the last chapter, entitled “The Influence of Art and Commerce on the choice of Motives.” The development of the private sphere in the Northern Netherlands can not be fully understood without the study of the social and religious reality that not only influenced the choice of subject matter and the status of art, but also determined the nature of private life to a major extent.
The second chapter analyzes the reading of the above-mentioned three kinds of depictions in a detailed way with the conclusion that all of them assume a beholder, who thereby gets different assignments: he becomes participant, spectator or witness. In this context Yalçin rightly points to the perspective boxes by Hoogstraten and the descriptions of their function in contemporary sources. The author is able to show that the box works in the same way as the central perspective with the narrow viewing angle – the peephole marks the vanishing point of the perspective construction, and both are unthinkable without the beholder’s eye.
The survey of interiors with a figure seen from the back starts with the discussion of the famous painting by Gerard Terborch that Goethe entitled the Fatherly Admonition (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), but that now is seen as a scene of love or prostitution (unfortunately the author does not take up this line). The figure seen from behind in this painting (which appears in a different composition [not a different version as Yalçin states], as a picture-within–a-picture, in Van Hoogstraten’s interior), like the figures in a large number of other examples illustrated in the book, is mentally unavailable to the viewer. Yalçin concludes that the beholder therefore is excluded and put in the position of the viewer into a peep-box. Conversely, depictions ofinteriors with eavesdroppers contain a narrative structure that includes the viewer: Nicolaes Maes’s painting of a maid on a stair (The Eavesdropper, 1657, Dordrechts Museum) is also interpreted by Yalçin as the painted play between picture and reality. The maid gestures to the assumed beholder who completes the conversation and the scene.
The same painting by Maes is used as an example of the visualization of time – a phenomenon to which the author dedicates the third chapter, beginning with the analysis of secondary literature on this specific topic. While Yalçin disputes Lorenz Dittmann’s establishing of the term “Bildrhytmik” that refers to the actual organization and the manner of the depicted action, she emphasizes the definition of “rhythmical movement” by Heinrich Theissing, Gottfried Boehm and Ernst Gombrich, which creates a “fruitful moment” and makes the narrative structure of a picture ascertainable. Based on these definitions Yalçin investigates the depiction of time in interior painting through composition, movement and narration. The painting by Hoogstraten for example evokes the impression of action, because the eye of the beholder has to follow the rooms that open consecutively. Although there is no acting personage visible, the painting contains a narrative component because of the human traces (the slippers) left behind. In contrast, the interior paintings showing a figure from behind, such as the picture-within–a-picture after Terborch, display a frozen moment and the beholder perceives a continuing aspect of time.
Under the summarizing title “The Pleasure in Painting” (“Bilderlust”) of the fourth chapter the author discusses several issues, such as the influence of theatre on Dutch painting and the structures of narration, as well as the connection between reality and art. Here it is especially revealing to read about Van Hoogstraten’s remarks on the Horatian connection between the “Schwesternkünste” poetry (“speaking pen”) and painting (“silent brush”). The writer-painter also dedicates two chapters of his Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst(1678) to the muses of comedy and tragedy (Thalia and Melpomene). The subsequent analysis of the “Narrative Structure in Pictures” tries to establish a bond with Van Hoogstraten’s remarks, but only repeats the conclusion that already has been made: it is again a detailed explanation of the role the beholder is assumed to play. Here one would expect also a reference to the tradition of rederijkers and its known interaction with Dutch painting. One also should ask if the figures of maids that often function as a bridge between pictorial space and the world of the beholder are influenced by certain types in rederijkertheatre.
The following section is somewhat surprising and one of the most interesting parts of the book. Yalçin takes up the discussion of the two patterns of interpretation of Dutch paintings, as descriptive surfaces, or as emblematic puzzle-pictures. The author looks critically upon these polarizing concepts, and tries to develop a new approach of interpretation. In looking at statements on the imitation of nature and the use of technical aids by contemporary writers on art, such as Constantijn Huygens, Philips Angel and Van Hoogstraten, she develops another approach to Dutch interior painting that is based on the context of the period. The painter, according to Van Hoogstraten for example, should be able to do more than just render the surface. It is the illusion as it is evoked by the artificial construction of perspective in two dimensional painting that Hoogstraten sees as the highest achievement of the artist. Yalçin concludes that in the eyes of theorists it was a priority to communicate content, which counts on the “thinking” eye of the beholder.
The interpretation of Van Hoogstraten’s The Slippers at the end of the book summarizes the approach of the author – it brings the rendering of the invisible to sight, present through its absence. The beholder has to construct the presence of an eavesdropper, who has left her slippers to observe a scene inside the house, much like the harmless scene displayed in the picture-within-the picture after Terborch. Her explanation still does not exclude, however, the possible erotic implication of the removed slippers.
Freie Universität Berlin