In tackling the discourse on melancholia and its impact on the visual arts of the early modern era, Dixon is returning to a theme explored in such seminal studies as Kris and Kurz’s Die Legende vom Künstler (Vienna 1934), Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl’s Saturn and Melancholy(London 1964) and Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s Born under Saturn(New York 1964). Dixon came to this important topic from her earlier book, a study of love-sickness in Dutch art, Perilous Chastity (1995). Yet despite the obvious relevance of this idea for early modern art and intellectual discourse, the prevailing socio-historic methods of more recent decades have discouraged this avenue of research, most likely because of its implied importance of the artist as an individual, rather than a socially constructed persona. This shift has been particularly true in the study of Northern European art, with notable exceptions, such as Perry Chapman and Joseph Koerner, who have made artistic self-fashioning central to their research.
While Dixon’s study is broad in scope, here too artistic self-fashioning looms large. Both the title of her book and Rembrandt’s dimly-lit self-portrait on the jacket announce the importance of the artist in any investigation of the “melancholic persona.” This first impression, however, proves misleading. Chapter Five is the only segment of this volume dedicated to the artist per se (115-143), though Chapter Six (remedies for melancholy) and the summary epilogue are also relevant. The first half of Dixon’s book essentially offers a historicized survey of discourse on melancholia and its main character-types: the hermit, the lover, and the scholar (1-115). While she posits that all these personae are subsumed, to some extent, within the artist’s self-portrayal as a melancholic genius (6), none of them fits within the historical construct of the genius.
Dixon’s overview of the history of this malady (Introduction and Chapter One) provides a solid background and demonstrates her interdisciplinary bent. She persuasively discusses the growing relevance of the discourse on melancholia in early modern Europe and its culmination in the seventeenth century. What she does not sufficiently address is why the theme of melancholia assumed such importance during this period, especially in the visual culture of the Northern Netherlands. She provides little analysis beyond a cursory mention of well-rehearsed ideas, such as disenchantment resulting from the Thirty Years’ War, the persistent threat of death due to diseases, overall political instability, and severe climate change (the so-called “little ice age”).
Her marked reliance on English literary and visual sources, particularly Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and the tradition of love miniatures is explained as an aspect of close cultural ties between the two countries (5). While this may well be the case, it still does not sufficiently probe the reasons for the ubiquity of melancholia in the visual arts of the Northern Netherlands. One is left to wonder why Dixon does not investigate the precarious political position of the country, the religious controversies within Protestant creeds, and the epistemological and moral uncertainties arising from competing claims concerning the human capacity for knowledge and free will. A more sustained thinking about those and other factors would arguably shed additional light on the importance of scholar iconography in seventeenth-century Dutch art. Instead, one reads about the “general anti-intellectualism of the age” (83), which sounds positively perplexing in view of the intellectual giants in seventeenth-century Holland, from Grotius and Huygens to Descartes and Spinoza.
Given the interdisciplinary aims of this study, one should expect greater specificity in her references to key ideas of the period. Van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (fig. 10) is included to epitomize “cool detachment” and “sang-froid,” and related to Renaissance revival of Stoicism (22), though that revival really did not happen before Lipsius. Dixon notes that Burton’s self-identification as Democritus Junior reflects a long-standing association of the ancient philosopher of Abdera with anatomy, but she does not mention the preference for the “laughing” philosopher over his “crying” counterpart as an alter-ego among numerous early modern thinkers, especially Erasmus. She emphasizes Burton’s complaint about the difficulties of scholars and philosophers to earn a living in society – but how do these complaints differ from earlier thinkers, beginning with Socrates and the Cynics? How is the status of the seventeenth-century scholar any worse?
The real value of Dixon’s study comes from the remarkable collection of visual images that she has assembled. Her comments, especially those based on close visual analysis, often lead to new insights or enhance existing interpretations. Examples include Morelsee’s Portrait of a Scholar (Toledo; 103-106) or Willem Drost’s Self-Portrait (Uffizi). She suggests that statuettes of Hercules in representations of artists’ studios allude to the “psychic and physical hardships” of the profession, which could lead to depression (Hercules thus becomes a paragon of melancholia instead of merely a figurefor artistic virtú).
Some analyses defy more scrupulous looking, however. The landscape painting on the easel in Frans van Mieris’s The Artist in the Studio(Dresden; fig. 109) is seen as “an allusion to the realm of nature, the carefree shepherd’s life, and perhaps the idyllic golden age of Saturn;” however, its despondent figure is seated against a backdrop of ancient ruins. In Elsheimer’s Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences(Fitzwilliam Museum; fig. 86) Dixon proposes that the goddess of arts looks “dejectedly” over her domain, “her downturned torch” symbolizing “the spent fires of creativity” (117). Though one can barely make this out in the small, dark painting itself, Hollar’s etching (1646; her fig. 87) clearly shows that the “downturned torch” is actually a spear.
Reflections of melancholia in Vermeer’s oeuvre remain insufficiently examined. While works such as the Astronomer or the Music Lesson go unmentioned, the Berlin Glass of Wine (fig. 105) gains a surprisingly central place in Dixon’s discussion of remedies against this malady. The young man becomes a melancholic lover who finds solace in the seated lady who drinks the wine he has offered. She goes on to suggest that the very sight of this “rosy beauty” would have provided a “powerful talismanic force against melancholia,” without acknowledging any moral ambiguities in the scene.
Admittedly, disagreements over interpretations of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are perennial, especially over the sophisticated inventions of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. The bigger debate this book should provoke concerns the reasons for the remarkable currency of melancholia as a topos throughout the seventeenth century, especially in the Northern Netherlands.
In her epilogue, Dixon argues that the suffering melancholic type (artist, hermit, scholar or lover) lost favor with the advent of the Enlightenment. In support, she offers a self-portrait by Maurice-Quentin de la Tour as the epitome of the honnêteté associated with salon culture. This may be another generalization, but she is correct in noting that the melancholic genius only resurfaced significantly with the Romantics. Though this very fact carries important implications concerning the centrality of the melancholic genius in the early modern period – especially the seventeenth century – the wider cultural analysis will have to be addressed in future studies.
Final words of praise are due to Penn State University Press for its lovely production, especially the color illustrations supported by a Millard Meiss grant from CAA. This beautiful book is all the more precious as a bulwark against the onslaught of digital humanities. Yet another reason for melancholia.
University of Maryland