Junko Aono’s new book explores the practices of genre painters active from 1680 to 1750, a period that has traditionally attracted limited scholarly attention. It participates in the endeavor in recent decades to reassess the notion of the Dutch Golden Age – and by extension the “Dutchness” of Dutch painting. Studies of individual artists’ careers (such as Barbara Gaehtgen’s monograph on Adriaen van der Werff, Marjorie E. Wieseman’s on Caspar Netscher, and Eddy Schavemaker’s on Eglon van der Neer) and analyses of literature on art from the eighteenth century (for example, Lyckle de Vries’s study of Gerard de Lairesse) have enriched our understanding of the supposed “period of decline.” The specific focus of Aono’s book is the artists’ engagement with the art of the first three quarters of the seventeenth century, which, she argues, was already by the 1680s regarded as an unparalleled period of artistic achievement. As Aono points out, genre paintings from the period in question are often seen as pale and corrupted imitations of earlier seventeenth-century models. Aono seeks to demonstrate that the artists’ turn to artistic precedents was not the sign of diminished skill or creativity, but instead a sophisticated strategy in a particular set of socio-economic circumstances.
After discussing the historiography of late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch genre painting, Aono presents the socio-economic conditions faced by the painters. She argues that the characteristics of the art of this period which has attracted criticism – the reliance on the themes and motifs developed in the seventeenth century, as well as evidence of foreign influence – should be understood as responses to historical circumstances. Drawing on the research of John Michael Montias, Marten Jan Bok, and Koenraad Jonckheere, Aono concludes that (1) artists from 1680 to 1750 faced a contracted art market and consequently needed to rely on a small circle of wealthy collectors for support; and (2) these same collectors avidly sought genre paintings produced by such seventeenth-century artists as Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris, and Gabriel Metsu. The author argues that the notion of the “Golden Age” already had currency at the turn of the eighteenth century, and that collectors’ admiration for the so-called Old Masters had profound implications for the production practices of contemporary artists.
Aono goes on to present case studies that examine the varying “degrees of dependence” (15) on seventeenth-century precedents. After noting that copying was a standard practice in the training of apprentices, she considers the various commercial functions of copies made by established masters. Although her overarching conclusion, that painters chose to copy artistic predecessors and pictorial themes popular with collectors, is hardly surprising, Aono makes interesting discoveries along the way. She provides new information about the function of copies as substitutes for originals and potential problems arising from treating them as such. For example, using an inventory made in 1749 by Allard de la Court, Aono explains that the writer’s father, Pieter de la Court van der Voort, commissioned Willem van Mieris to make copies after famous Golden Age paintings. Several of these copies were later sold as seventeenth-century originals at high prices (51-53). Another intriguing observation has to do with how the making of copies related to a painter’s overall production. Aono shows that Louis de Moni’s style changes between his copies of Golden Age fijnschilders and his own creations. An examination of his practice sheds light on the artists’ process of making commercial and creative decisions.
Later in the book, Aono examines the creative and transformative forms of imitation seen in genre paintings from the period. She finds that although writers such as Van Mander, Philips Angel, and Gerard de Lairesse advised artists to assimilate borrowings into their own inventions seamlessly, sources of individual motifs in the new paintings are easily identified. Aono offers two explanations for this seeming contradiction between theory and practice: artists were catering to the demands of wealthy connoisseurs, and/or paying homage to their illustrious predecessors. These are reasonable inferences to draw from the textual evidence, yet I wonder if there was a more ambitious agenda at work on the part of the artists. The most advanced form of imitation discussed in humanist theories is eristic imitation or emulation, in which the artist draws attention to his/her act of appropriation and asks the viewer to compare the new work to its model. Although one of the sections in this chapter bears the heading “Competing with the Golden Age,” I think it would have been interesting to expound further upon the competitive element of imitation. Situating the imitative practices discussed in this part of the book within the broader context of early modern Europe would also have further enriched Aono’s arguments.
The book concludes by exploring the “trend toward refinement” across a range of genre subjects from 1680 to 1750. Using De Lairesse as a window into contemporary ideas about painting, Aono argues that the painter was expected to ennoble popular subjects inherited from the Golden Age, even scenes staged in more modest surroundings. She uses the female figure as an example to demonstrate that even shopkeepers and kitchen maids were now rendered in a classicizing fashion. Indeed, through formal comparisons she convincingly shows that Willem van Mieris models the women in genre scenes after the goddesses in his mythological paintings; in the Leiden artist’s paintings, ordinary mortals and female deities share the same idealized profile, pale unblemished skin, graceful gestures, and slightly elongated proportions. Aono sees in Van Mieris’s approach an echo of De Lairesse’s call to elevate “modern” painting (i.e., scenes inspired by contemporary life) to the level of the “antique” (scenes set in the classical past). The result was an ennobling of themes developed in the seventeenth century, creating an elegant style that was distinctive to the eighteenth century.
Overall, Confronting the Golden Age offers not only analysis of a body of work that has heretofore received limited attention, but also an examination of the artists’ response to a recent past that was already lauded by collectors as the Golden Age. The catalogue of painters, many of whom may be unfamiliar to non-specialists, is a welcome resource. The book is lavishly illustrated, presenting many paintings that are in private collections or museum storage in full color, which would certainly aid further research in the art of this period.
George Mason University