With 25 pages of appendices, 100 pages of notes and 298 illustrations for 160 pages of text, this edition of Sluijter’s dissertation reveals the labor behind a conscientiously developed inquiry into a little explored topic. When published in 1986, the dissertation helped to raise scholarly awareness of the Dutch tradition of history painting during the seventeenth century. This new edition of De ‘heydensche fabulen’maintained the original text and with it the somewhat cumbersome writing common to dissertations but uncharacteristic of Sluijter’s more recent publications. The text, now supported with updated notes as well as good black and white illustrations of the paintings and prints, successfully fulfilled Sluijter’s stated goal of making both his methods and research transparent.
The structure of the first part of the book quickly revealed Sluijter’s confidence in the value of examining pictorial tradition. Sluijter organized the history painters treating themes from Ovid’sMetamorphoses into chronologically ordered groups. This approach introduced the variations in artists’ choices of Ovidian subjects while underscoring the popularity of images based on a select group of scenes. It also emphasized the role of certain seminal images such as Bernard Solomon’s woodcuts illustrating the stories in theMetamorphoses in encouraging Dutch artists to compose similar versions of the same scene.
Sluijter’s sensitivity to the relationship between texts and images also surfaces in the second part of the book. There, Sluijter considers the variations on several subjects that remained popular during the century, again in chronological order. The discussion of each subject begins with a summary of the associated story and contemporary literary commentary about it. Sluijter reveals wariness about using a text as a direct explanation for an image. Instead, he proposes that the texts provided a framework for inquiring about a particular scene’s possible associations and attractions. The similarities between the texts and images leads to the conclusion that whether viewed positively or negatively, eroticism characterized the depictions for artists and viewers.
In the conclusion, Sluijter applies the issue of meaning initially raised for Dutch genre painting to history painting. He refers to the information and discussions presented in the preceding chapters to suggest that the scenes from the Metamorphoses were not overtly moralizing. He also reviews seventeenth-century Dutch art theoretical literature to cast doubt on the idea that artists composed their images in order to convey a set message to the viewer. While the debate over meaning in Dutch paintings lingers, Sluijter’s dissertation attests that establishing a pictorial tradition can generate a flexible framework for understanding a type of image and can suggest the contemporary appeal of images within that tradition when the type is connected with a literary tradition.
Melinda Vander Ploeg Fallon
George Mason University