The first novel about the former Dutch colony Surinam was written by an Englishwoman: dramatist and spy Aphra Behn. Her book Oroonoko (1688) stands out for its heroic protagonist of ‘perfect ebony’ skin. Seeing the black body as aesthetic object reflected the attitude of some Dutch collectors. This, at least, is Rebecca Parker-Brienen’s conclusion in regard to Dirk Valkenburg’s art.
Calling attention to Surinam’s racial history typifies the fifty-eighth issue of the Netherlands Yearbook for the History of Art. Devoted to ‘body and embodiment,’ it addresses matters of colonialism, gender, masculinity, and the so-called ‘phenomenology’ of early modern art and its viewers. The journal thus briskly pushes its approach forward into the third millennium. Its last twenty volumes were devoted to individual artists, genres, techniques, the market and even the Rijksmuseum. The issues about the artist’s self-image (vol. 46) and virtuosity (54) had, until now, the most innovative vantage points.
This volume’s focus is on “articulations of embodiment” or on “how contemporary beholders engaged both corporeally and emotionally with … pictures” (7). Apparently, the editors embrace Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of embodiment. The French philosopher features in the introduction: the authors are interested more in ‘the body as felt’ than ‘the body as object.’ Much in this book is therefore about the ‘internalizing’ of images: the viewer’s physical reaction.
Not only do spectators project their own assumptions into an image: Aristotle held that they also adopt the object’s qualities. Perry Chapman’s chapter illustrates this early modern belief. In a painting by Simon Kick, an artist in front of his easel copies his wooden model’s contrapposto stance. The work thus reveals “the process of painting the human figure to be a bodily experience” (210). Rubens’s art likewise demonstrates that viewers were expected to mimic painted figures. His efforts at creating live, pulsating flesh in Suzanna and the Elders are highlighted by the lechers’ outstretched hands. Karolien De Clippel suggests that he thus confirmed an epigrammatic commonplace: the desire to touch depicted bodies. She notes that Rubens’s women “take up no more room than Titian’s” (131); his handling of skin color makes them so fleshy. We also learn that he compared the female body with horses’ anatomy and that, as Chapman recounts, he used three live models at once. One of P.C. Hooft’s poems on Rubens’s nudes crossing the Tiber sums up the artist’s intentions. The exposed skin turned the river steamy with excitement; the spectator was to be stimulated in the same manner.
Rubens’s wish to transform ancient sculpture into ‘glowing’ flesh thus depended on an appeal to viewers to become physically present at the scene. This focus on the public’s engagement permeates the Netherlandish tradition. From the invention of oil onwards, a medium that, to Vasari, “breathes life” into painted skin (100), the work of art was expected to fade away; viewers were to react as if confronting a living being. The shifting emphasis from ‘body as object’ towards ‘body as felt’ returns in artistic theory, which often followed practice in prescriptions for flesh color, as Ann-Sophie Lehmann argues. For one, she traces the notion of gloed, usually associated with Goltzius, back to Jan van Eyck’s methods. Even technical terminology reveals this emphasis on stimulating the senses: the Dutch word for incarnadine, lijfverf, had a parallel in lebenfarb (92). Literally meaning ‘life color’ or ‘life paint’, this term did not indicate which pigments to use, but what reaction to expect of the spectator.
Lehmann shows that flesh color required specific brushes; often, it contained more pigments than other painted areas. Discussing skin, texts from the Low Countries were surprisingly detailed. Even the learned Italophile, Dominicus Lampsonius, observed that “the exact representation of flesh colours is possible only if one uses pigments with a certain degree of graininess that corresponds to the pores of the body depicted” (97). This striking statement was adopted later by Samuel van Hoogstraten (as Ernst van de Wetering memorably elucidated, discussing kenlijkheid in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, through a photograph of Winston Churchill). But sometimes gender rather than technique informed discussions of flesh: painterly illusionism was associated with women’s guileful make-up colors.
In relation to corporeality, another gendered issue was touch. As Barbara Baert shows, the Noli me tangere motif expressed woman’s failing capacity to believe on the basis of sight alone. Literally forbidding to lay hands on the scene’s main body, depictions of this theme called attention to visual illusionism operating on the borderline of seeing and touching. Paradoxically, north of the Alps, the veneration of the Magdalen depended on a relic of forehead skin. This inspired an iconography in which the risen Christ touches the saint’s brow.
As the confrontation with bodies stimulated touch and movement, images could fulfill a prescriptive function. Herman Roodenburg points out that a treatise on artist’s anatomy also taught how to move and pose according to the rules of art. Play-actors therefore studied paintings; one of them, Johannes Jelgerhuis, stated that “de Lairesse and van Mander enabled me to be what I am” (8). This notion held true for courtiers in general. Suzanne Walker’s chapter on Jacques de Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinge argues that images of soldiers were geared towards the viewer’s corporeal and mental restraint. Since the passions were partly physical processes, replicating the images’ nonchalant poses prepared for stoic constancy. De Gheyn’s pikemen, handling eighteen-foot arms with delicate fingertips, reveal how the depicted body was the model for the real one; the term welstand characterized figure composition as well as a soldier’s correct pose. The book’s first readers were learned officers who recognized the writings of Aelianus and Vegetius in these images: their ideal probably inspired civic guards to pose as gentlemen-soldiers.
A similar notion of civility informed anatomical imagery, as Catrien Santing’s and Gijsbert van de Roemer’s chapters clarify. The anatomist Andreas Vesalius made his flayed figures gesticulate gracefully or meditate human transience. They reflect the practice of performing dissections before the civic elite, as “theatrical expression of the self-fashioning of a fairly new professional group,” the medical doctors (59). Such a performative context persisted in the eighteenth century: Frederik Ruysch presented his anatomical preparations in an aesthetic fashion. He compared samples of human tissue to embroidery, thus expressing admiration for the Creator’s masterpiece.
Artworks inspired viewers to feel and contemplate their bodies. Furthermore, according to Aristotle’s notion of sight as a two-way transfer, the spectator also projected his own physical qualities into the image. This held true for Gossaert’s Neptune and Amphritite, as Stephanie Schrader contends. The painting, similar to a life-size portrait historié, “provided the patron [Philip of Burgundy] with a mirror of his own virility” (47), a deliberate interplay between real and painted bodies. This attractive admiral filled his Souburg castle with uncompromisingly priapic art. The Neptune aggrandized his physical stature. Contrary to the Roman emperors’ identifications with the gods, his paintings were not for public display but sometimes kept behind curtains: Philip thus knew his sexuality privately confirmed in a virtual interaction between painting and patron.
As expressions of the passions, gestures and movements enabled painters to represent narrative. However, a non-Western culture provided a different influx. Zirka Filipczak’s contribution offers a welcome new perspective in Rembrandt scholarship. She explains the master’s restraint in some late history pieces from his studies of Moghul drawings, culminating in the Feast of Esther’s frozen postures. What a splendid instance of intercultural cross-pollination this work provides – it contrasts with the book’s last chapter. Here, Dutch paintings appear as expressions of ‘imperial mastery,’ portraying black men as commodities, as Parker Brienen states (258).
In conclusion, this Yearbook’s issue is certainly a thought-provoking one. It offers fresh considerations of Netherlandish art ranging from ars nova to the ‘new philosophy’ and engages head-on with its main artists. There is also, however, an elephant in the room. Sculpture is all but absent in the discussion of bodies, touch, and gender. Artists’ and viewers’ notions of sculptural lifelikeness and materiality make an excellent topic for one of the journal’s future volumes.
University of Amsterdam