Volume 61 of the NKJ is devoted to “Art and Science in the Early Modern Netherlands,” focusing upon topics from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the Introduction, the editors stress that the modern divide between art and science is largely a nineteenth-century construction. Especially in the seventeenth-century era of global navigation, during the European mania for collecting exotic fauna and flora, and the phenomenon of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer, plus the resulting proliferation of illustrated collection catalogues and naturalistic treatises, the borders between art and science were flexible. “Ars and scientia were complementary rather than opposites” (9).
Ten articles published here cover several broad categories. The first embraces optics, perspective, color theory, and the materiality of paint. Sven Dupré’s essay emphasizes that the distinction between perspectiva naturalis (the science of optics) and perspectiva artificialis (geometrical drawing techniques for rendering space), promoted by Panofsky in his 1927 study, did not exist in the Renaissance, when Alberti, Piero, Leonardo, and others included all aspects of optical science and its applications as manifestations of perspective. This combination is later evident in Holland in Simon Stevin’s two volumes on optics, published in 1605, and in Van Mander’s 1604 Schilder-boeck, in which the artistic rendering of reflections and surface lighting effects (reflexy-const) is regarded as part of the purview of optics.
The interface of art theory and experimental practice is taken up by Fokko Dijksterhuis in his study of the 1707-13 correspondence of Lambert ten Kate (scholar) and Hendrick van Limborch (painter), who each undertook systematic studies of the mixing of colors and the nature of light and color. Otto van Schrieck, a specialist in painting forest floor scenes, generally featuring poisonous snakes, animals and plants, explored in his art the material properties of paint, as Karin Leonard shows. He was obsessed with painting natural objects using the appropriate nature-derived pigments: earth with earthen materials, rocks with rock-based pigments, and herbs with dyes made from herbs. He went so far as to paste real butterfly wings into the wet paint of his renderings of butterflies.
With the increase in global exploration, the problem of how to depict new, often exotic life forms became more urgent, as discussed by three of the authors. Dánile Margócsy uses Maarten de Vos’s rendering of a camel as a case study. De Vos attached a horse’s head to a humped body, an example of “metonymic composition,” in which the unknown is represented by being grafted onto the known. But how did naturalists respond to these seemingly fantastical images? Not necessarily with skepticism, since this kind of image embodied contemporary theories on how hybrid creatures came into being. Chief among these was the belief that they originated through mating across species. Even scientific treatises followed metonymic mixing in describing non-European animal species.
Jan Brueghel’s Allegory of Air (Louvre; repr. p. 88) reveals an accurate knowledge of exotic birds, as demonstrated by Marrigje Rikken and Paul Smith. Many of Brueghel’s representations were based on studies from life, viewable in menageries of the time, especially the Habsburg collection in Brussels, which he would have known as their court painter. He also relied upon other artists’ knowledge of exotica, disseminated in prints. Brueghel’s resulting ornithological expertise even surpassed that of contemporary scientists, such as Carolus Clusisus.
Johannes Swammerdam, microscopist and draftsman, is studied by Eric Jorink, who shows that his accurate representations, naer het leven, of one of the humblest categories of God’s Creation, insects, were intended to draw attention to the range of divine Creation and to honor God as their Creator. His efforts included the earliest drawings of insects’ internal organs, such as the intestines of beetles.
The impact of René Descartes’s philosophy frames the essays of Gijsbert van der Roemer and Rienk Vermij. The former compares the art theory treatise of Samuel van Hoogstraten (1678) with the less well-known book of Willem Goeree (1670), arguing that Van Hoogstraten, in Cartesian terms, is less modern and more traditional than Goeree, who remains commited to order, rules, and the conviction that nature is a precise mathematical work of art, regulated by a Supreme Artist – beliefs that inform his discussion of art practices and theories. Vermij analyzes the allegorical and symbolic imagery of the frontispieces of publications about the philosophical ideas of Descartes, Robert Boyle, and the anti-Spinozists, arguing that these frontispieces, which concisely summarize the book’s point of view, reveal the essentials of intellectual responses to the new philosophies of the Scientific Revolution.
Thijs Weststeijn discusses Dutch manifestations of the pan-European fascination with pictograms (writing via images rather than an alphabet). Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, and Meso-American glyphs were all studied in the belief that these forms represented more primitive languages, tracing back to Adam, in place of the post-Babel Confusion of Tongues represented by alphabetic languages. This project also sought to identify a universal language of imagery. Several Dutch scholars (most notoriously Johannes Goropius Becanus in the mid-sixteenth century) argued that Dutch was the original language of Adam (!), though the influential Isaac Vossius claimed Chinese as the oldest pictographic language, stopping just short of suggesting that God spoke Chinese to Adam.
Hieroglyphics are addressed obliquely by the prolific Amsterdam printmaker, Romeyn de Hooghe, whose book, Hieroglyphica, as Joke Spaans details, was primarily a critique of traditional Christianity, the Catholic Church, and the Bible, in favor of a more enlightened spirituality along lines then being advocated by Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes. His views were so controversial that his book was not published until three decades after his death in 1708.
The final essay, by Bart Ramakers, substitutes literature for visual art to examine shifts in late eighteenth-century science. The 1788 epistolary novel by Elisabeth Maria Post, which elaborates responses to nature during walks undertaken by two women friends, is analyzed as an index to new attitudes to nature. Part of the emerging romanticism, especially in German literature of the time, was the belief that nature is not a static form of “being” but rather a dynamic entity constantly in the process of “becoming.” Also new were Post’s expressions of Sublime sentiments (for a humble Dutch rather than Germanic Alpine landscape), aroused by vistas of the sea, by sunrises, sunsets, and thunderstorms. These literary ideas correspond to a changing view of science, in which nature is encountered not only by the mind and senses, but also through imagination and the observer’s sensibilities.
This collection of articles, with each essay far more richly developed and nuanced than can be suggested here, is recommended for anyone interested in the relation between art and science and, more generally, intellectual history during Holland’s Golden Age and the following century.