In this book Lyckle de Vries aims to restore Gerard de Lairesse’s Groot Schilderboek (1707) to its ostensive original function as “a guide for art lovers and critics.”(7) According to De Vries, the core focus of De Lairesse’s book lies on studio practice. Thus, the author concentrates on De Lairesse’s chapters on painting and composition, parts of the Groot Schilderboek that hitherto have received little attention. De Vries also seeks to stimulate new discussions and, potentially, to change established ideas regarding the relationship between seventeenth-century practice and theory of art. The text includes a CD-ROM containing an English rendering of many portions of the original Dutch text. Built on the translation by John Frederick Fritsch published in London in 1738, the revised version sheds new light on the Groot Schilderboek and hence on the value that De Lairesse placed on practice and theory.
The book is divided into two main parts, an “Introduction” and a “Summary.” The Introduction contains a general overview of De Lairesse’s ideas, placing the Groot Schilderboek in the context of the author’s earlier writings and contemporary discourse on art. It also provides a biography of De Lairesse and a description of the book’s structure. The focus on studio practice is always visible in De Vries’s overview. For example, the author connects the 1707 text with De Lairesse’s earlier guide to drawing, the Grondlegginge ter Teekenkonst (1701). De Vries also aptly highlights De Lairesse’s interest in stage design and theater, demonstrating just how deeply other forms of art informed De Lairesse’s understanding of art and theory. Although the Groot Schilderboek lacks rigid structure, De Vries’s Introduction gives a coherent impression of the book’s overarching themes and issues. By discussing each matter in a logical manner, clarifying thereby De Lairesse’s sometimes confusing ideas, De Vries prepares the reader both for the Summary to follow and for independent assessment of the seventeenth-century text.
The Summary offers short introductions to each of the thirteen books of the first volume of the Groot Schilderboek, as well as résumés of each segment. De Vries provides fine overviews and analyses of the first five, including those “On Beauty” and “On Light and Lighting.” Unfotunately, he chose to translate only one book from the second half of De Lairesse’s text, the portion entitled “On Landscape,” justifying this by pointing out that landscape, De Lairesse’s favourite genre, reflects the Dutch theorist’s approach to the other “lower” categories. It would have been valuable to see the treatise translated in its entirety, however.
The CD contains De Vries’s translation of the particular chapters of the Groot Schilderboek discussed in the text. This feature is great for immediate reference. On a few occasions, however, where textual references are scrutinized thoroughly, it would have been helpful to see them printed in the book. In his translation De Vries footnotes the deviations he made from the Fritsch translation, which helps the reader to understand his conclusions and allows for an open reading of the text. Once understood, the referencing system, between the book and the translation on CD-ROM is straightforward enough. Amusingly, the complexity of the system is reminiscent of the obsession with systematisation that, as De Vries points out, characterizes De Lairesse’s instructions on the method of the working artist. The addition of a CD-ROM is useful as it enables simultaneous reading of De Vries’s analysis and translation. Manual scrolling and searching the electronic file makes this process tedious, however. The table of contents, hidden at the end, would have been better placed at the beginning of the document. A function allowing the user to click on chapters (and move automatically to the matching part in the translation) would have made for easier navigation.
De Vries concludes his book by encouraging further study of the issues raised by his analysis. In particular, the author advocates additional investigation of the place of iconography and style in writings on seventeenth-century art and theory, and more inquiry into De Lairesse’s explanation of the decline of the arts. He also calls for more research into the development of specialized genres, and the connection between artists, patrons, and the art market. Although we know from other publications that De Vries is an active participant in this discourse, the author leaves the last thought to the reader, motivating further inquiry rather than dictating a single point of view.
Overall How to Create Beauty is an informative and stimulating read. I would recommend it to anyone who seeks a better understanding of seventeenth-century art theory or today’s discourse on Dutch Golden Age art. The book will surely stimulate fruitful discussion, and hopefully inspire much more research into the Groot Schilderboek and other contemporary sources.
Radboud University, Nijmegen