The tension between semblance and reality lies at the heart of Mariët Westermann’s concerns with this intriguing catalogue for the recent exhibition she guest-curated at the Denver and Newark Art Museums – semblance and reality not only for the seventeenth century, but also far more immediately, today. Hence her provocative invocation of twenty-first century mail-order catalogues, juxtaposed with the genre scenes and material objects of the seventeenth-century domestic milieu, to thrust this same issue into the present day and pose points of analogy between the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ and our own.
John Berger proposed a similar analogy between oil painting (including a Pieter Claesz still life) and modern commercial advertisement in the BBC broadcast Ways of Seeing, published in book form in 1972 (p. 141). In the recent volume of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboekon domesticity, assembled by Westermann as a creative and scholarly prelude to this exhibition, I too proposed such a comparison, between a sumptuous Van Beyeren still life and an equally seductive advertising photo from a 1990s promotional brochure for United Airlines ‘Connoisseur Class,’ arguing for the sheer power of the inherently mute visual image in each instance (even regardless of purported intent) to figure forth an unfettered dream of luxurious consumption. WestermannÕs comparisons with the mass marketing of domesticity in our own time introduce another nuance: now the dream is one of domestic tranquility and leisure, which likewise seems to have been as delusive a mirage in the seventeenth century as it is in the harried twenty-first.
Perry Chapman’s related comparison between Dutch genre painting and American TV sit-coms of the mid-twentieth century intelligently references a surprisingly established scholarly discourse analyzing the societal commentary enveloped within television programming, just as Westermann might have cited the increasing focus of scholarly attention on the true role of Martha Stewart in articulating a wistfully favored ideal of American domesticity. Bringing the contemporary crises of domestic management among our own lately ‘liberated’ female workforce authoritatively to bear, Chapman muses whether Dutch women ever challenged the gendered division of labor that consigned them to the time-consuming role as guardians of the sanctified Dutch reputation for cleanliness.
American academics are sometimes chastised by our Netherlandish colleagues for the kind of speculative broad-brush theorizing here advanced by Westermann (notwithstanding her own Dutch origins) and Chapman. So one is struck by the fortuitous way these contributions are balanced by the comparative positivism and resultant factuality of the Dutch scholarship of Willemijn Fock and Eric Jan Sluijter, both drawing on the decades-long study of homes along Leiden’s Rapenburg canal. The result is greater than the sum of its parts, confirming the value of such collaborations. Fock’s essay enumerates discrepancies between real Dutch domestic interiors and those depicted in genre painting. Her evidence yields revealing correctives, informing us that enfilade room arrangements simply did not exist in private homes in the seventeenth century in the way that Emanuel de Witte depicted them; that floors were far more commonly wood rather than the colorful marble tiles common in the interiors of De Hooch, Vermeer and company; that the brass chandeliers we admire in these pictures of Dutch homes actually hung rather in churches and public buildings, en so voort.
Sluijter too draws on the ongoing Leiden inventory work in his case studies of the homes of two wealthy Leiden burghers, the professor of medicine Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius and the prosperous Catholic Hendrick Bugge van Ring whose family, as well as his wife’s, had made their money in beer brewery. Sluijter’s title specifying wealthy interiors clearly articulates the parameters within which the scope of this exhibition and catalog truly hovers, in a prosperous upper echelon which indeed largely frames the audience today as well for these pictures, these exhibitions, these catalogs, and even their scholarly reviews. That ours remains a rarified atmosphere requires such emphasis as well.
The various sections of the exhibition, reflected also in the catalog, open onto a variety of themes: ‘Home in the City,’ ‘Cornerstones of Home: Marriage and Family,’ ‘Domestic Roles,’ and ‘Refinement: Private Pursuits and Social Rituals.’ If, as prior commentators have alleged, the relationships between art, home and society suggested by these topics were not addressed as squarely as one might have hoped in the exhibition (see CAA.reviews), still we can all (especially those of us who did not see the show) be grateful for the rich illustrations and the considerable documentation provided in the catalog, offering a useful compendium of information on Dutch material culture and its representations in paint. As one satiates at the game of matching real objects with those rendered by the skills of Dutch painters, one does wonder how this exercise might be made to press beyond those superficial delights, but the raw material supplied here invites just such further work.
When all is said and done, one is still left to puzzle, as ever, over the conundrums of related meaning in Dutch genre, still life, and portraiture, as of art, home, and society. But so much ink has been spilled over certain famously ambiguous questions of morality in Dutch art that perhaps that is for the best. The quotients of vision and desire, possession and fantasy, courted so consciously by Pottery Barncatalogues, remain less quantifiable in the painting of the Dutch Golden Age. In all cases the coercive agenda of twenty-first-century advertising must (pace Berger) be distinguished from the quite different discourse of paint. But what is to be learned, about then and about now, from the haunting similarities? In the end I am far less inclined to fault this project, exhibition and catalog alike, for the questions it has not answered, than to appreciate it for bringing them – at all, and in ways that invite further thoughtful consideration – before a wider audience.
Julie Berger Hochstrasser
The University of Iowa
(With acknowledgements to Doyle Buhler)