This book is about Dutch genre painting of love and courtship in the context of the youth culture that flourished during the first half of the seventeenth century. It focuses on outdoor and indoor company scenes along with a few portraits by Hals and two etchings by Rembrandt. Although many of the artists’ names and their works are familiar to specialists, Nevitt probes their content in novel ways. One of the book’s most important contributions is its discu ssion of the literary context for the paintings and prints. Another is Nevitt’s approach to meaning, for he takes both the works’ moralizing and celebratory messages equally seriously. In doing so, he encourages us to understand these works equally as complex and equivocal in their handling of love themes as the better-known paintings by Vermeer and Ter Borch. Nevitt accomplishes all of this with a personal style that matches his subject matter well. Without reading the acknowledgements, one would never guess that the study began as a dissertation. He writes with a light touch that includes humor, witty turns of phrase, and personal insight, as well as intelligence and sophistication.
In his informative and thought-provoking introduction, Nevitt defines what he means by youth culture. He discusses the content of the songbooks, their moral tone, their relatively youthful authors, and their intended readers in light of marriage and courtship customs and practice. Along the way, he raises interesting questions about the response to art from an audience whom he considers engaged, yet often conflicted. In particular, he raises the question whether viewers saw any real contradictions between the demands of morality, on the one hand, and the enticements of pleasure, on the other. He launches the argument that seventeenth-century writers and artists affirmed virtue in their audience rather than sermonized to those in need of instruction. Since he assumes that the texts and painted images depicted the very audience which consumed them, he finds that the texts and images suggest ways for us to understand viewer response to their themes.
Nevitt titles Chapter 1 ‘The New Garden of Love.’ In Vinckboons’s hybrid depictions of outdoor companies the author finds representation of both sin and innocence. In discussing Esaias van Velde’s more focused scenes, Nevitt problematizes the contrast between ‘moral’ and ‘celebratory’ content further. In particular, Esaias’s paintings approached the emotional and moral complexities of love more empathically than did those of Vinckboons. Analyses of Dutch amatory songbooks are integral to his arguments, and his readings of the garden parties often arise from the parallels he finds in these. I found his commentary on silence particularly effective – that is, his discussion of the strategies devised by writers to express shyness, melancholy, and loneliness, and the ways that artists in their turn conveyed the cessation of communication between lovers. Throughout, Nevitt asks us to examine the figural details in these paintings very closely, and he provides illustrations that make our looking both possible and compelling.
In Chapter 2, Nevitt turns to merry companies by Buytewech, Elyas, Molenaer, Hals, and others. The chapter consists of a series of mini-essays – on prostitution, fashion, maps and proto-nationalism, gameboards, and specific paintings. At times the chapter seems sprawling. But he holds it together by returning continuously to his main argument: these paintings engaged viewers in multiple ways, by amusing and dispelling melancholy and at the same time by instructing and judging. By doing so, he reassesses the content of works that for generations have been considered simply moralizing. Nothing is simple for Nevitt. He rejects such binary oppositions as vrijster and prostitute, celebration and admonition, aristocratic conduct and sober, even crude, native behavior. He concludes that the moral issues raised by these pictures are dependent on a Dutch youth culture that sanctioned and kept in suspension both sides of the dialectic.
Chapter 3 focuses on Rembrandt’s The Three Trees and The Omvalwith their couples hidden amid foliage. Arguably this chapter might have been omitted, and indeed more or less the same text was published in the volume of Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek on Nature and Landscape (1997). Yet by including it here, Nevitt shows how these etchings raise similar issues to the company paintings Here again he develops a dialectic of seeing, this time between observation and fantasy, familiarity and strangeness, and the friction between these supposed opposites. He concludes both the chapter and the book by meditating on the thematics of transience. In doing so, he broadens his notion of a readership and viewership to include all ages.
This is a splendid, original, richly rewarding book, the second contribution to Cambridge University Press’s four-part series on Netherlandish Visual Culture.
A final note: I should mention the misleading cover illustration showing Vermeer’s Concert of 1658-60 in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Boston, a picture executed after the period that concerns Nevitt. More appropriate is the back cover illustration, Hals’s Double Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen of 1622 in the Rijksmuseum, a painting he analyzes in some detail. Today, publishers of books on seventeenth-century Dutch art of any subject prefer to grace their covers with Vermeer, it seems, and one can fault them for exploiting the art. But maybe Cambridge’s goal was even cannier than good marketing strategy – displaying the Gardner painting in bookshops as a kind of ‘Wanted’ poster, reminding passersby of the sad fact that this theft still remains unsolved.
Alison M. Kettering