Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution represents a publishing event: a new survey devoted solely to the eponymous phenomenon, “from its first manifestations in the seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.” Although treating a much-studied area of art history, this book has no exact parallel. Its more than 300 pages are written in a single voice by a scholar exceptionally well versed in the vast body of relevant literature, to which he himself has previously made frequent, significant contributions. Beautifully produced in a sizable format, the book accommodates nearly160 illustrations of seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings, some eighty in black-and-white, over seventy in color, and eleven large, well chosen color details. Approximately fifty book illustrations, emblems, and captioned prints are reproduced for comparison, along with twenty more images of other kinds. A welcome number of high quality works from private collections, and instances of fresh observations and data, provide treats for the specialist.
Moreover, with a sufficient index and exemplary bibliography, Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting constitutes a packed storehouse of art historical information, presented with an eye toward broad usefulness and appeal. Franits organizes its rich contents according to an intelligently clear scheme, explaining: “the book is divided into three parts, comprising the respective periods, 1609-48, 1648-72, and 1672-1702. Each part begins with a brief overview of Dutch history during the period in question, focusing on a decisive event (or events) and its ramifications for contemporary society and culture.” Under each of the three parts are chapters that begin with a discussion of a particular city, and then of its leading genre painters “because it was these masters who were at the forefront of artistic developments.” (pp. 6-7) Three chapters break from the pattern by focusing on one or more individual painters. Thus, Chapter 7 belongs to Gerard ter Borch and Caspar Netscher, Chapter 14 to Jan Steen, and Chapter 18 to Godfried Schalken, Eglon van der Neer, and Adriaen van der Werff. Franits assigns approximately one-tenth of the text to the straightforward historical material concerning the three periods and the characteristics of the selected cities. This establishes a firm armature for discussing works of art that, as often as not, defy similarly straightforward interpretation.
The Introduction begins: “Dutch seventeenth-century genre paintings, commonly known as scenes of everyday life, encompass a startling variety of subject matter… they are unassuming but nonetheless illustrate with great charm and conviction the life and times of a long-vanished culture.”(p. 1) Here and throughout the book, however, Franits repeatedly undermines the concept of illustration by invoking two related principles: the tenuousness of the links between portrayal and reality, and the power of convention. The deceptiveness of “the most outstanding aspect of these images, namely, their ostensible capacity to proffer unmediated access to the past”(p. 1) – in other words, illustration – will by now strike many informed readers as a straw man in need of more supple substitutes.
The principle of conventionality generally proves more fruitful. Here, genre painting as a category is defined and made recognizable by repetitions “of specific styles and motifs,” and especially by “the restricted number of themes that artists depicted, ones that were used continually, often over several generations.” (p. 1) The chosen images do in fact substantiate this familiar observation. But repeated so often, it tends to obscure that variety and innovation, arguably of equal importance even if immersed in conventions, often cry out for fuller acknowledgement. Conventionality, after all, characterizes nearly every artistic culture, including our own. The author’s assault on “any naïve assumption that seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are simple ‘slices of life,’” sometimes prevents the recognition of new forms of lifelikeness that require more than a dutiful rehash or a mere passing nod. Franits’s Introduction exemplifies the pervasive and often onerous requirement to state one’s theories and methods at the outset, a convention, one might say, which too often results in off-putting first impressions. The introduction’s valuable nine paragraphs about audience and markets deserve a better setting.
Thereafter, the sailing gets much smoother, as Franits employs illustrated examples and case studies that concretely demonstrate theories and methods – a hodgepodge of them – which in fact suit the material and form part and parcel of his laudable attentiveness to topics of current interest. The book occasionally reads like a field report: what we’re saying now about genre paintings. To give just one example: following studies by Einar Petterson and by Laurinda S. Dixon, Franits identifies as furor uterinis (hysteria in its original sense) the condition suffered by the stock young woman in overtly comic “doctor’s visit” scenes by Jan Steen and Frans van Mieris. This makes for truly interesting reading. But perhaps from his great, often infectious enthusiasm for currency, Franits applies Petterson’s and Dixon’s findings to Samuel van Hoogstraten’s far more problematic Doctor’s Visit (Amsterdam, fig. 132). This case, since it made its way into the survey, demands closer examination of the conventionality principle. Van Hoogstraten indeed alludes to the young woman’s “powerful sexual drive” through the motif of a cat trapping a mouse between its paws. But did he conceive of her as beset by hysteria, as Franits confidently claims? Pregnancy – Celeste Brusati’s interpretation – seems more plausible, given the presence of a husband figure instead of a female attendant, and a doctor using the medically discredited yet pictorially standard pregnancy test – a scrutinized flask of the woman’s urine. To complicate matters, Franits also illustrates the presumed pendant, Two Women by a Cradle (Springfield, MA, fig. 131), in which a look-alike woman gazes lovingly at her newborn. As Brusati pointed out in her book on Van Hoogstraten, by 1833 the husband had been overpainted, and remained so until quite recently. Was the alteration effected to bring the image in line with the more usual type of “doctor’s visit,” to make it more conventional? Franits acknowledges that “the placid, restrained imagery in this era of heightened civility” might have shaped Van Hoogstraten’s version of the subject. An apt conclusion, and support for the view that the factors that led a “leading” genre painter to create a certain scenario were bound to convention in a remarkably free manner. Furthermore, if these two scenes by Van Hoogstraten originally formed a sequence, as Franits suggests, their order here should be reversed.
Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting contains a fair number of equally baffling explanations; these result mostly, I believe, from the intrinsically confounding nature of many such works, which merits more pointed acknowledgment. Symptomatically, Franits skirts the difficulty of defining genre painting. One helpful strategy would have been to compare works now accepted as falling under that rubric with others outside it but expressing distinctly similar themes. “Domestic rectitude” does make an occurrence as a common theme in the expected juxtaposition of Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with Angels(St. Petersburg, fig. 134) and one of Nicolaes Maes’s paintings deriving from it, a young mother beside a cradle (Worms, fig. 133). Franits writes about the comparison particularly well, yet confines it within the context of Maes as an artist. Likewise, the wonderfully rendered set table in Maes’s Old Woman Saying Grace (Amsterdam, fig. 135) could have been compared with independent still lifes of similar motifs in order to clarify the essential role of the human figure in genre paintings. And, say, Dirk Hals’s Woman Tearing a Letter (Mainz, fig. 23) might have been paired instructively with a full-length portrait of a sitter inhabiting a prominent, highly descriptive interior. Usually, portraitists bestowed on the sitter a distinct formal emphasis, much as fashion photographers slightly disassociate costumed models from their surroundings. Occasionally, however, we cannot visually distinguish portraits from genre paintings in the absence of clear evidence concerning their original function. Moreover, genre scenes and landscapes with contemporary figures often overlap to an extent that renders mute the idea of different subject categories. In another vein, painter and writer Arnold Houbraken (1721) famously owned a large biblical scene by Jan Steen that he later described in purely secular terms. Possibly, he did this knowingly. But many a compiler of auction catalogues and the like were simply less concerned about generic classification than we are today, a point worth noting. Had Franits placed such caveats out in the open, he might have avoided those occasions of dissonance between his exuberant certainty of tone and the uncertainty sure to nag others about what they perceive.
For the ever-inquiring scholar, any area of study will always be a moving target. Franits, who finished the text in 2002, succeeded in hitting dead center as often as any expert could, resulting in a book that will long outlive individual arguments to which such intriguing paintings give rise.